Working Smarter

You Are What You Say: Words That Create Stress and the Best Phrase to Shut It Down

Posted by Joe Robinson

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HOW MANY TIMES have you worried about a future event, only to have nothing dire happen? The answer, I’m guessing, is more than a few. We’ve all been down this path so many times—sweating up a dump truck of angst, only to have zero dreaded results take place. It’s almost disappointing that the bad event didn’t happen, you put in so much hard-fought consternation over it. 

Why do we worry when there’s so little chance of any of it occurring? We’re designed to be worrywarts. It’s part of the defense equipment that has allowed the species to survive this far by erring on the side of the negative—and, as a result, to stories as imaginative as anything penned by Melville or Kipling.

FEAR'S FICTIONAL TALES

Fear makes us all expert storytellers—and not-so-expert predictors. It specializes in creative worst-case scenarios and a stream of fiction that drives stress, "awfulizing," and the chronic anxiety process.

Stress comes, not from anyone else, but from the story we tell ourselves about a stressful event—in other words, from our own thoughts. That story is supplied by an ancient part of the brain that is out of its depth in a world of social stressors and sees everything through the lens it was created for, threats to life and limb. Any threat that overloads coping ability sets off this one-track alarm in the emotional limbic system and its hub, the amygdala.

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Since it believes you are about to be deceased, the brain yells fire in your mental movie theater, concocting stories way out of proportion to the event and awfulizing bordering on the hysterical. But you are not about to expire, you are simply caught in a reflex false belief that can only exist if you take it seriously.

Crucial to the illusion is the language of stress. It produces a vocabulary that reinforces extreme, black-and-white thinking and its stories, which must be true, since they are in your own words. Except they are not.

The first thought that goes off in the brain after a setback is a catastrophic one. The self-talk tells us that it’s the end of ego, job, relationship, life as we know it. This all-or-nothing thinking is made convincing by the language that comes with it, such as, “I’ll never get that client,” or “This always happens.” "It's over." Terms like always and never exaggerate the setback, ratcheting up anger, fear, or humiliation into the life-and-death event they are not.

INFLAMMATORY LANGUAGE

The words we speak under the influence of the stress response make the false stories appear real and set up a cycle of rumination, or obsessive thinking, i.e., worrying about the stressful event. The most destructive words are those that explain things that happen to us as permanent and pervasive, such as “never” and “always,” “completely,” “can’t,” “forever,” “finished,” “impossible.” They are a trap, leaving no way out, and they are utterly false.

This kind of language can lead to what's known as a pessimistic explanatory style, describing why events happen to us in a negative way, which has been shown to be very bad for health and performance and success on the job. People with negative explanatory style get major illnesses much earlier in life than those who have an optimistic explanatory style, they are less productive and have less rapport with colleagues.

We are what we say we are. The language of stress inflames the irrational emotions that drive chronic stress and pessimism. Or the words we use can open the door to a response that fosters resilience in the face of challenge.

One of the keys to exiting exaggerated, negative framing is avoiding the phraseology of permanence. Stressful events are not permanent. They are temporary, because the state of life is change.

This is the road out of all-or-nothing catastrophic thoughts—not taking things permanently but merely as a passing storm, after which there will be clear skies again. Words direct the role we play. They have the power to make us either helpless cynics or persistent in reframing stress and making adjustments to stress triggers.

Terms that emphasize the momentary nature of the setback or anxiety, such as “recently” or “lately,” restore the 21st=century brain and rational thinking. It’s the belief that a situation is permanent that fuels the panic that keeps the fight-or-flight response going. We can turn that false belief off by choosing to describe setbacks as momentary and learning how to manage reactions through stress management training something I teach in my stress management training for groups or individuals.

THE POWER OF MAYBE

One of the best terms for doing that is a word that doesn’t get a lot of respect—“maybe” or “may be.” We associate the term with indecisiveness, but in the right context, strategic "may be’s" have the power to defang the false belief of permanence and signal that you’re not out of options. It’s also very useful at keeping expectations in line—another driver of stress—and holding out hope when none is in the picture.

“May be” acknowledges reality as it suggests the potential for better circumstances. It’s a term that recognizes that the indisputable fact of life and mortality is not that situations and people stay the same; it’s nonstop impermanence. It’s our failure to accept the true nature of things, change, that is a key source of human suffering. 

A classic Taoist tale about a farmer’s misfortunes speaks eloquently to how the right phrasing can prevent a rush to the cycle of worry and woe-is-me. In Tao: The Watercourse Way Alan Watts tells the story of a farmer whose horse ran away. “That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck. He said, ‘may be,’ The next day the horse returned, but brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune. He said, ‘May be.’ And then, the following day, his son tried to saddle and ride one of the wild horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy for the misfortune. He said, “May be.” The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. When the neighbors came in to say how fortunately everything had turned out, he said, ‘May be.’”

All things pass, especially emotions, which are extremely ephemeral. The goal, then, should be to have words and phrases that counter permanence ready to deploy when setbacks send us down Forever Road. What terms could you practice and have on hand on a Post-It for the next time stress pops up? What about: “It’s momentary.” “It’s temporary.” “It’s not life-and-death.” “I can cope with it.” “I can handle it.” “Stay neutral.” “Recently, these things have been happening.”

These phrases bring back the 21st century brain hijacked by the primitive limbic system. The experience of spoken words can trump unreal thoughts by shutting off the spiral of pessimistic and panicked thinking. The earlier in the stressful event you can fight back with positive terms the better, since extreme, pessimistic thoughts take root the longer they go unchallenged. 

Worrying is a self-infliction. So we have the power to manage the language that give the false beliefs of stress credence. Counter your inner hysteric with terms of resilience, and you take back the script of your life.

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Tags: awfulizing, catastrophic thoughts, stress management training, stress, job stress, stress management programs, managing stress

Why a Sleep Problem Is Often a Stress Problem

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Cats can nod off upside down with their paws in the air. Dogs can be out cold in five seconds. The realm of sleep is a little more complicated for humans. There are those racing thoughts to contend with, the hyper state that won’t shut down when you want it to. Trying to do what for any pet is a snap costs Americans $41 billion a year in sleep aids. 

It’s kind of disconcerting that Rover and Fluffy can get the job done and we can’t, but there is hope for better nights ahead and spending a lot less money on sleep meds. The culprit in a bad night’s sleep for many is something we can fix, if we know how: stress. We can shut off the stress alarm just as we can the alarm clock in the morning. When we do, the stress response stops in four minutes.

BAD BRAIN ARCHITECTURE BEHIND INSOMNIA

Stress is part of our built-in survival equipment. It’s an alarm set off in the oldest part of the brain, the limbic system, which triggers a host of physiological reactions to allow the body to find the strength and speed to fight or run from danger. While it has kept us alive through the millennia, it’s a mechanism that was built for another time and place—African savannas 100,000 years ago—not for the social stressors of the modern world.

The stress response and its headquarters, the amygdala, don’t know how to compute the 21st century. They are out of their depth, out of whack with the nature of the threat they are reacting to, and so are we when they are allowed to run us. An impending deadline, 200 emails, or a conflict with a friend or family member may create tension, but they are not threats to life and limb. They are false alarms that come from bad brain architecture.

When something overloads our ability to cope with it, the modern brain is instantly hijacked by the ancient brain, as if the higher brain and the cerebral cortex that evolved on top of the limbic system didn’t exist.

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This can happen before you even consciously feel you can’t handle someone or something. It’s very quick on the draw, and if we’re not just as quick to shut down the false alarm, we can fall prey to the host of physical maladies and conditions stress can set off. Because stress suppresses the immune, digestion, and tissue repair systems, it can lead to cardiovascular problems, irritable bowel, stroke, back pain, chronic fatigue, and, yes, insomnia, among many others.

INCREASE STRESS, DECREASE SLEEP

Research shows that stress lessens the length of sleep—not just how many hours we sleep, but how often we awaken during sleep. A whopping 78% of participants in one study (Bastiem, Vallieres, Morin 2004) reported a link between stress and insomnia.

At the most basic level, stress is at odds with the concept of sleep, which is the act of closing up shop for the day and shutting down. The stress response is an activation agent. It drives arousal. It's a stimulant. It doesn’t want to close down for the night, because you are going to die, or at least that is the message being sent by outmoded brain neurons.

One of the hormones that the stress response floods your body with to help you survive a threat is cortisol. It's not a sleep aid. Sleep starts when cortisol is at its lowest point, and you are ready to wake up when it is at its highest level. Too much cortisol interferes with sleep regulators such as the Hypothalamo-Pituitary Adrenal axis (HPA) (Kato, Montplaisir, Lavigne, 2004), activates the autonomic nervous system, and increases attention and alertness.

Acute and chronic stress have been found in studies of rats to decrease slow wave "delta" sleep, the deepest sleep, when the brain is less responsive to external stimuli, as well as REM, critical to our circadian sleep/wakefulness rhythm (Meerlo, Pragt, Daan).

When stress shuts down the immune system, that also impacts sleep. The immune system is critical to the work of cytokines, which signal immune system molecules such as interleukin-1 beta, tumor necrosis factor, and interferon, which regulate sleep. Without these elements, sleep is interrupted (Han, Kim, Shim, 2012).

THE OVER-ALERTNESS OBSTACLE

Stress-related insomnia itself aggravates these and many other physiological barriers to sleep in a vicious cycle that doubles down on the strimulant effect of stress. Insomnia causes many of the same problems that the stress that created it does—increased cortisol, heart rate, body temperature (which can also cause wakefulness), and oxygen consumption. If you have insomnia, you are in a higher state of alertness, even though you are fatigued from lack of quality shuteye. Insomnia has been dubbed an “over-alertness obstacle” to sleep.

Let’s take a cue from Fido and Ginger, and drop the stress. Just get rid of it. Animals don’t hang on to it. After a trespassing dog pads a few yards past your house, it's like the event never happened for your rabidly barking dog, now docile and ready for a snooze. We can do the same, by switching off the stress when it erupts. That means dropping the rumination and awfulizing that perpetuate stressful thoughts, and challenging the false beliefs behind negative events that keep our brain in the stress vise grip.

Stress is a broken car alarm that shuts off only when we grab the keys and switch it off—by convincing our brain that the danger is not real, just like thoughts aren't real. Only experience is. You are not going to die. You are going to handle it, whatever it is. You always do. 

The process starts by understanding the mechanisms of the stress response, that the first thoughts that go off when negative things happen are false beliefs, all-or-nothing, black-and-white distortions and exaggerations. We have to catch ourselves when stress sets the worries and dreads off and submit them to a vetting process—disputing, challenging,  contesting. False beliefs and fear projections can't hold up to scrutiny when we dig in and unmask them.

Proven processes I teach in my stress management trainings and coaching help you defang triggers that set off stress and bring back your 21st century brain to resume command of the ship. You are no longer back in your hunter-gatherer mind, but present, and well-rested, in the 21st century.

If you are having trouble sleeping, have stress in your life, and would like to get back to restful nights again, click here or give us call at Optimal Performance Strategies at 310-570-6987. We turn off the stress. 

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Tags: life balance, stress response, managing stress, insomnia, burnout and sleep, stress and sleep

The Cure for Zombie Phone Staring and Email Checking: Impulse Control

Posted by Joe Robinson

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There’s a reason it’s hard to stop checking your email and why everyone around you is staring at screens like zombies. The more you check email, the more you have to check it. 

It turns out that constant interruptions erode impulse control. We lose the ability to regulate our impulsivity, which is to say, we lose self-discipline, essential to getting things done and warding off addictive behavior—which includes technology. Your devices have been shown to be as addicting as any substance.

People who have gone off the rails of digital interruption and distraction are more inclined to interrupt you, suffer from a bad case of crisis mentality, call you to see if you got the email they sent two minutes ago, and have difficulty focusing on tasks to completion or concentrating, the latter leading to a condition known as Attention Deficit Trait. The lack of control also drives stress and aggravation.

THE ENGINE OF SELF-CONTROL

It all makes a crazy-busy world even crazier. What every office could use is the return of something that used to be a crucial element of functioning adults: willpower. Willpower is the engine of self-control, the ability to manage thoughts, emotions and harmful habits and override momentary desires. Not much gets done without it.

In a world of instant gratification, delaying payoff isn’t a popular choice—not surprisingly, because self-regulation is hard. It’s hard for brain neurons to resist an easier path. Since early humans didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, the species developed a habit for going for the bird in the hand.

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The use of willpower also burns up resources. To stay on task, resist an impulsive action, or remain disciplined expends mental energy. That has to be replaced. Self-regulation expert Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has documented that after long hours of staying disciplined, the self-regulation equipment tends to flag at night.

Luckily, researchers say willpower is something we can all build like a muscle. We can improve our ability to hold off temptations at hand and persevere for a later reward. 

A 2000 Florida State University study found that mental resources are depleted by self-regulating processes such as resisting temptation, restraining aggression and coping with fear. The research suggested that self-control is a limited resource that must be resupplied regularly; each act of self-regulation makes it harder to perform another, because it eats up precious mental resources needed for discipline.

PERSEVERING IS BELIEVING

But more recent data indicates that willpower is not so limited after all. You have enough to meet any challenge—if you believe you do. It’s all about mindset. 

“We don’t say it’s unlimited. At some point you do need to replenish,” says Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor and a leading motivation researcher. But willpower, she says, “is a much larger resource than previously thought. You can get tired, but it doesn’t mean you’re out of gas.”

Dweck and her colleagues have found that people who believe their willpower is limited feel tapped out after a strenuous mental task, while those who believe they have abundant willpower are able to push on. “Those with an abundant view aren’t monitoring themselves. They’re just kind of carrying on,” she says.

And once you resist temptation, it’s easier to resist it in the future. You can build willpower over time, in other words, by using it—something you can do by deploying the right motivation and belief systems, priming persistence and sidelining the quick-fix ego.

EFFORTFUL CONTROL

Achievement takes effort, and effort requires command of a brain function known as “effortful control.” Part of the executive attention function system, a disciplined effortful control mechanism is essential to self-control and the ability to resist temptation. It regulates impulse control, which prevents you from checking email when you’re trying to complete a task. 

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation. Similarly, people who are “cognitively busy” are more likely to make selfish choices. (He points out that a few drinks have the same effect, as does a sleepless night—the self-control of “morning people” is impaired at night, and vice versa.)

Other researchers have found that self-regulation depletes energy in the brain in the form of blood glucose. Subjects given sugary drinks were able to replenish resources to take on hard tasks that demanded self-control. Yet as Dweck discovered, there is another energy source: one’s own belief system and the motivation that drives it. Priming yourself with a realistic expectation of a rough road and the belief that you are up to it can get you through.

When motivation is driven by intrinsic goals that align with one’s inner goals—learning, challenge or the thought of making a difference—one has more staying power. When motivation is external—money, fame, praise, status—it’s harder to stick with it. 

In one study, Dweck found that college students who were concerned about grades and self-validation (external performance goals) weren’t as interested in tackling difficult goals with the possibility of failure, showing “substantial decreases in intrinsic motivation” after a significant setback. On the other hand, students who were in it for the learning—who want to work harder to increase their understanding—persevered.  

Researchers have found that rehearsing in one’s head the reaction to setbacks can help subjects resist temptation and overcome anxiety. Instead of reacting with autopilot panic and stress when the going gets tough, you can teach the brain to have a different reaction.

People “who persist have the idea that they can improve their abilities,” Dweck says. It comes down to “recognizing that you have more willpower than you think and finding strategies to put that into practice.”

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Best Stress Management and Life Tool: Non-Reaction

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If there are two words that sum up the central challenge of work and life, they are these: “Don’t panic!” That is because resisting the urge to react in a way that sets off the stress response and renders our brain’s decision-making faculties stupid goes against our design as emotional creatures.

We are programmed to react before we think. A couple hundred thousand years ago early humans couldn’t be relied on to think their way out of a jam—we didn’t have the higher brain organs yet, so we had to rely on primitive mechanisms that allowed the emotional part of our brain, the amygdala, part of the  limbic system, to call the shots any time we were threatened. The same is true today, even though we have vastly souped-up cognitive equipment. When demands overload coping capacity, the amygdala takes charge again—and rationality goes AWOL.

THE REACTION REFLEX

It’s just one of the many reasons why every individual and organization has to know how to manage reactions, and by doing so manage stress in the process. It's an essential work-life balance tool. The reaction reflex sets off rash, hare-brained, panicked decisions, crisis mentality, vengeful behavior (fight), and, of course, flight in the form of people quitting their jobs. Forty percent of job turnover is due to stress. Along the way, the emotional reaction of stress drives insomnia, cardiovascular issues, depression, and a host of other costly conditions, not to mention the fact that it’s contagious—spreading stupidity around the office.

Ignoring the problem makes it worse, since stress thrives on being unchallenged as the false belief it is. Stress management training gives employees tools to contest stress and the faulty ancient brain mechanism that keeps us reacting emotionally. The reality is we have 21st century brains and a cerebral cortex to think through a setback and do something that completely flummoxes the caveman/woman brain that wants us to go nuts several times a day: not react.

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If we don’t react when pressure builds, and we consistently let off steam from that pressure cooker in the form of stress reduction practices and recreation, we are in charge, not an artifact from early homo sapiens. The art of nonreaction is the key to managing setbacks, expectations, and just about all the other flashpoints and struggles of life. It’s an amazing ability that can transform our lives from fear and loathing to the confidence that we can deal with whatever comes our way.

BLIND EMOTIONS

When something happens that overloads the coping equipment, the goal is to not react blindly to it and buy the emotions that are coming from a bogus life-and-death story in our caveman/woman brain. Instead, you actively don’t engage with the reaction. You know the situation is temporary. You’ll get through it.

Yes, you might have 200 emails, but you can handle it. You’re not going to die from them. Yes, you are caught in a major traffic jam, but freaking out and racing down the median in flight mode to escape the herd is not a smart decision.

I watched a huge collision that happened when two drivers panicked and listened to their ancient flight buttons. A compact car two vehicles up from me on a gridlocked avenue swerved into the median to escape the traffic and go in the opposite direction, where there was no traffic. At that same instant an SUV came barreling up the median, and—crunch—two cars totaled, with who knows how much physical damage to the drivers. All because they reacted before they thought.

Stress management training teaches participants how to override the ancient machinery that desperately wants us to go crazy when something happens that we don’t like. It shows how without the reaction there is no stress. It’s not the deadline or what somebody says that drives stress—it’s our reaction to those events that causes stress. It’s the thoughts that arise from the emotional reaction, the story we tell ourselves about the stress, that creates the stress. 

DON’T TAKE THE BAIT

How do we change such an ingrained behavior? Instead of letting a story fanned by irrational emotions run you, the trick is to shut down the storyteller. There is no story, just the frame you put on it. You are not going to die from the stress trigger, and you don't have to be manipulated by it. You can catch yourself as the emotions go off and bring back your 21st-century faculties.

This neutral approach allows you to not take the event personally, since the emotions of that default are a mega-driver of stress. The task is to simply observe the situation, the thoughts, and not engage with them. Let them slosh into your brain and slosh out again. You aren’t going to fall for it. 

Nonreaction is a superb weapon against ourselves, against all the ways that we set ourselves up for failure because our expectations aren’t met, or we aren’t perfect, or things don’t work out. The art of nonreaction prevents us from getting too high or too low. You cut off the pattern as soon as it starts. No, I’m staying neutral. I’m not taking the bait. You resist judgments about the event. You’re not going to get tangled up in its effect on your ego, a trigger of so many of these emotional wildfires. You aren’t taking sides.

It’s a great feeling to know you can’t get pushed around by yourself, that you are in charge of your own mind. It’s a state of being jaded to the manipulation that has happened so many times before. We are on to it, to ourselves, to the buttons others push.

You and the people in your organization or team can be on to this toxic saboteur too, leaving dramas, unmanaged demands, frenzy, conflict, and poor performance behind. Being able to control this reflex with nonreaction is one of the most useful things in the life arsenal, and the earlier we learn it, the quicker we can get it out of our own way.

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Tags: stress tips, work-life balance training, stress and self-talk, work overload, stress management training, stress management speaker, stress, stress management, job stress, work stress, managing stress

Work Stress: 7 Stress Tests That Can Save Your Life & Team

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Humans made it through the survival gauntlet of evolution because of our legendary adaptability. Cold, heat, bad food—we adjusted and kept on ticking. Yet adaptability is a habit that can threaten your survival—and the productivity, decision-making, and bottom line of your organization when it comes to stress.

At first, you might feel the churning stomach or the headaches of a stressor overloading coping ability. Then the body gets used to it. The adrenaline set off by the stress response to help you fight or run from danger masks the fact that your body is going down in any number of ways—heart disease, diabetes, irritable bowel. Your team or department also gets used to the stress and adapts to it.

The adrenaline set off by the stress response makes you think you are handling it, but it’s an illusion. Stress is eating away at your health, suppressing your immune system, increasing the bad cholesterol, decreasing the good cholesterol and providing a false sense of energy and transcendence. Chronic stress can lead to stroke, depression, and burnout, the last stage of stress and a three-way shutdown of mind, body, and emotions.  

STRESS KILLS

Stress is nothing to mess around with. It’s a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death and some estimates have it as an element in more than 75% of doctor visits.

Stress is a killer. At one workshop I led for a large consulting firm, I learned that one of their top consultants, in his forties, had a heart attack on a bathroom floor while on assignment. He was known as someone who would go to the wall on every job. At a federal agency, managers told me about hospitalizations and nervous breakdowns because of stress. One entrepreneur I spoke with had a heart attack at the age of 29 from out-of-control stress.

Of course, all this has a massive impact on productivity, health costs, errors, and absenteeism for organizations. Stress costs U. S. companies $407 billion a year in health bills, absenteeism, lost productivity, and recruiting and training, according to U. C. Irvine stress researcher Peter Schnall.

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The havoc doesn’t have to happen. We can manage stress with one simple new habit: regular stress testing. We do eye checkups, mammograms, blood panels, but we are never taught to identify and manage stress. We need to measure stress levels on a regular basis, say experts like Schnall, or we wind up at the mercy of a runaway medical train.

How do you know if you are in the danger zone? There are a number of tests you can do to monitor your stress levels, from saliva to blood and treadmill tests. If you are under a lot of strain, and even if you think you are managing the pressure, you need to make the time to take a stress test. Tom Row, a Tennessee scientist I spoke with, didn’t even know he was stressed when he had a heart attack at his office and was carried out on a stretcher. He’d been doing 12-hour workdays for years. 

ASSESS YOUR STRESS

Let’s take a look at some of the main types of stress tests, beginning with cortisol testing. Stress sets off a flood of hormones from your adrenal glands, including adrenaline and cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, to help your body prepare for action to confront danger.

Elevated cortisol levels from stress, though, cause a host of problems, from high blood pressure to heart disease, and can increase the risk of depression. Interestingly, researchers have found that cortisol levels drop in people who have burnout—another reason to do the test. Burnout depletes your adrenal glands of the hormones and energetic resources you need to function. Chronic fatigue and Addison’s disease are marked by low cortisol levels. So cortisol testing can determine both if you have abnormally high levels of the hormone or very low.

  • Saliva Test. This may be the simplest stress test, one which checks cortisol levels at various times throughout the day. The process involves leaving your saliva in a test tube-like device and sending it off to a lab for analysis. You can buy saliva test kits over the counter and online. Most experts, though, feel that the saliva test is less accurate than a blood serum test.
  • Cortisol Blood Test.  We all know the drill here. Needle time. Have your doctor draw blood and submit it to a cortisol analysis. The test will determine whether you have abnormal cortisol levels, high or low. Certain medications can interfere with test results, such as steroid drugs, estrogen, androgens, and anti-seizure drugs. According to the National Institute of Health, the normal values for a test at 8 a.m. are 6 to 23 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL).
  • Cortisol Urine Test. You can also measure your cortisol levels with a standard urine test.  The National Institute of Health reports that the normal range is 10 to 100 micrograms per 24 hours (mcg/24h).
  • Cognitive Stress Test. This non-invasive approach can be very helpful in identifying stress and various physical byproducts of strain and high demands. The questionnaire can be used in conjunction with other tests, such as a blood test or blood pressure test to map out the larger picture of demands outstripping coping ability and the effects that is having on your body and thinking. 
  • Blood Pressure Test. Keeping an eye on blood pressure is an important tool to track the effect of stress on your cardiovascular system. U. C. Irvine’s Schnall says that it’s crucial you get your blood pressure measured, not just at the doctor’s office, but also at work. The true state of elevated blood pressure may not appear in the calm of the doctor’s room. He strongly recommends that you test BP at work to measure how your body is faring in the heat of the workday. According to the American Heart Assoc., Stage 1 Hypertension begins at a systolic number (the top number on your BP reading) of 140-159 or a diastolic number (the lower figure) of 90-99. Hypertension Stage 2 is a systolic of 160 or higher and a diastolic of 100 or higher, while a Hypertension Crisis is higher than 180 for systolic and 110 for diastolic.
  • Electrocardiogram Test (EKG). This test can find underlying issues of heart disease and hypertension. Electrodes measure electrical signals in the heart that can find patterns of rhythms and heartbeats that may be a tipoff to problems. The devices have gotten very streamlined and much easier to use, and can spit out results on the spot, so you can get a very quick analysis of your heart health.
  • Exercise Stress Test.  An EKG, though, may not always be enough. Brian Curin, co-founder of the Flip Flop Shops, can thank the exercise stress test for saving his life. An EKG didn’t catch the massive jam in his arteries. Sometimes known as a treadmill test, the exercise test measures the way your heart responds to physical effort, and the extra demands can ferret out issues other tests can’t. This test pinpointed an array of problems so serious that Curin was advised to go directly into surgery, where he had to have a quadruple bypass at the age of 39. Do yourself a favor, and take the time for your health and get this test done.

Beyond monitoring and testing, if your office or department has a stress problem, don't ignore it. Fix it. Reach out and contact us, and we can show you how a stress management program can give your team tools to control demands, instead of the other way around. Stress is optional. 

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Tags: productivity and stress, stress management training, stress, job stress, burnout, cost of stress, heart attacks, job burnout, stress management programs, chronic stress, burnout prevention, stress testing, managing stress

How to Stop Job Stress Before the ER

Posted by Joe Robinson

To the outside world, Catherine Thompson England seemed to be handling the pressure of her job as a caseworker for abuse victims well. Though she had told her boss that stress was mounting, it didn't appear to be a problem, since she was getting the job done. But the Pennsylvania social worker was staying late and working at home to do it, a growing trend in a world of tight budgets and understaffing.

Things weren't going well at all. One day the pressure exploded and Thompson England had a breakdown. She was hospitalized for 10 days.

"People don't want to hear about stress, because everybody has it," says Thompson England, who has a five-year-old son. "You will deal with a lot of stress before you reach out, because it's not taken seriously."

Stress has become such a normal part of the day-to-day that it has become a kind of adrenalized wallpaper. Bringing up the subject is to point out the obvious—or that you are a wimp, unable to take it in a bravado world that feigns invincibility. Fear of being wimpy, though, leads to real weakness—physically, since stress plays a role in five out of the six leading causes of death, and financially, since stress costs the nation a boggling $1 trillion a year.

Chronic stress triggers conditions that kill more people every year than cancer and nicotine combined, but it's treated as if it's no more serious than excess gas or bloating. Take a pill and deal with it. Americans certainly do, consuming $16 billion worth of antipsychotics each year and $11 billion in anti-depressants.

There's a disconnect between stress and the conditions it sets off—hypertension, stroke, coronary artery disease, diabetes, insomnia. Many of us watch our cholesterol, get exercise, keep sugar under control, and yet don't do anything to manage the switch linked with the diseases we're otherwise trying to prevent: stress. That's because we've never been taught to take stress seriously—until a heart attack or burnout.

I come across this every day in my work as a stress management educator. There was the manager at a government security agency who had a stroke in his 40s. The real estate agent with panic attacks. The CEO leveled by a heart attack. 

Unlike more exotic bugs and conditions, there is a cure for stress: knowledge. Science knows how to prevent and manage it. The stress response is activated when a perceived threat overloads ability to cope with the danger. It's an early warning system that worked well in hunter-gatherer days when threats to life and limb were frequent, but it doesn't know how to compute the social stressors of the modern world. A number of proven stress management processes can turn off the false alarm of stress. Once the danger signal has been shut off, the stress stops in four minutes.

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Job stress is serious business for business leaders who want to cut medical costs and absenteeism, increase performance, and maybe save lives, including their own. Brian Curin, president of Flip Flop Shops, which sells sandals and a casual lifestyle at 80 stores around the country, discovered that he took too casual of an approach to his own health. Though he exercised and ate well, years of stressful business-building had taken a hidden toll. Curin failed a treadmill stress test, and a follow-up angiogram revealed that his heart was starving for oxygen. He had four major blockages, one of them 100 percent—at the age of 38.

"It was years of running as fast as I could go at the speed of business," said Curin. "It really shows the effect that stress can have on you. They said if I had had a heart attack, they wouldn't have been able to help me."

He had to have a quadruple bypass to repair the damage. Curin was so shaken by the experience he decided to do something about it. His company started an initiative with the American Heart Association, My Heart, My Life, to advocate for stress tests at companies and educate customers on stress prevention.

Stress testing, whether by exercise test, ECG, blood pressure testing at work (one out of five people have elevated readings at work but not at home) or other modalities, has to become as routine as dental or cholesterol checks to identify people like Curin, who are unaware of the problem, or England Thompson, who fear reaching out might mark them as a wimp or burden to others.

England Thompson learned she has to speak up more, set boundaries, and share the load with others. "We need to normalize the fact that stress is a very real thing and you don't have to deal with it on your own," she said.

Stress testing, coverable mental health counseling, and social pressure to change macho attitudes can make it acceptable to get help and overcome the shame, bravado, and willful ignorance that feed the chronic disease mill of stress.

Tags: smash stress, stress reduction, stress and health care costs, stress management, job stress, burnout, stress and heart attacks, work stress, chronic stress, burnout prevention, managing stress, Joe Robinson

5 Reasons Stress-Denial Trumps Stress Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

Woman with job stress

Some companies won’t even use the word “stress,” hoping that avoiding the term will make a very toxic problem go away. Meanwhile, many imploding professionals are equally in denial about their stress. “It’s part of the territory.” “Got to suck it up.” Meanwhile, their purses or desk drawers look like pharmacies.

It’s no wonder that unmanaged stress costs American business $344 billion a year in medical bills, absenteeism, and recruiting and retention bills, according to a study at Middle Tennessee State. And no surprise, either, that more than three-quarters of all doctor visits are stress-related. Ostrich-mode is making us sick and unproductive.

Why do so many companies, big and small, ignore the time bomb of stress, the crisis mentality, frenzy, dysfunctional teams, anger, resentment, and panicked thinking that comes with it?  Habit. That habit is to look the other way, because stress is 1) the employee’s problem, a personal issue; 2) not that big of a deal; 3) something that only happens in tyrannical companies; 4) an admission that something’s not working; and last and most importantly, 5) lack of information on what stress is and how it spreads through a company to make everything more difficult and costly.

The reality is that in a time of hyper speed-up and lean staffing, stress—triggered by a perception of not being able to cope with demands—is at epidemic levels, and it’s a threat to every organization. If stress was an infectious disease, it would be the Center for Disease Control’s public enemy number one.

Yet too many believe stress isn’t all that serious, or something only wimps succumb to. Talk to Tom Row, a hard-charging scientist with a 70-hour a week schedule, who one day found himself leaving his office on a stretcher after a massive heart attack. He didn’t even know he was stressed, because the adrenaline flowing through his body made him feel transcendent.

Or hear it from an entrepreneur I spoke to recently who had a heart attack in her twenties. Or from the host of folks whose marriages have disintegrated because of the hair-trigger emotions, fear, and exhaustion set off by stress and burnout. Stress can turn you into someone you’d normally run from.

Contrary to the denial reflex, chronic stress has real health and business consequences. Ignore it, and it won’t go away. It will only get worse. When the stress response is activated, the immune system is suppressed, digestion processes are upended, blood pressure rises. The longer that goes on, the more physical problems erupt. Ignoring stress is like working with one hand behind your back, and one foot at the doctor’s doorstep. The longer we buy the false emergency, the more our thoughts come to believe the distortion of events is real.

If companies knew how damaging stress is to anything the organization is trying to accomplish, they wouldn’t put up with it for a nanosecond, because that would be like burning money. They would make stress management and work-life balance programs as much of a priority as the next quarter’s earnings, because those earnings depend on healthy, engaged minds and bodies.

Stress guts the chief productivity tool, attention, which is hijacked by an ancient part of the brain that can’t see beyond false crises—not good for planning, conversation, innovation, anything that requires concentration and openness. Stress is plenty good, though, for mistakes, rash emails, and disengagement.

The failure to nip stress in the bud means that this toxic cell spreads through the organization. Stress is highly contagious and is transmitted easily through pass-along strain and the mirror neurons that make our bodies echo the emotions of those around us.

Unlike a lot of diseases for which there is no solution, there is a cure for stress. The stress response is set off by a false story that can be shut off, and when it is, the stress stops in four minutes. How valuable would that be, to be able turn off the source fueling anxiety, conflict, and disengagement? More than 40% of employee turnover is due to stress. The cost to recruit and train top talent can range upwards of $100,000.

How much better could work and life be without the vise-grip of fear and anxiety caused by stress? Without the churning stomach, headaches, high blood pressure, and insomnia?

I can tell you, "a lot," because I see it regularly after our work-life or stress management trainings or in my coaching work. Teams go from wits end and overwhelm to a workday they can manage. Individuals move from fear and frenzy to a calm firmness amid chaos. It's day and night when you have the tools to keep stress at bay.

There’s nothing to deny or feel embarrassed about with stress. It’s part of the funky brain architecture we’re stuck with. It’s part of organizations, even the best ones. It’s part of a volatile world. But when it persists, it’s also a very clear signal that something is wrong with the picture.

If your organization or you would like to change that picture, click below for a free consultation and learn how fast you can transform your team and life.

Get a Free Coaching Consultation    

Tags: work life balance programs, stress management, job stress, work stress, chronic stress, managing stress

Born to Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stress strikes with a false emergency

It’s hard enough trying to manage the noise of one mind, but we're all stuck with a two-headed monster. We are of two minds, and that is especially true in situations that feel threatening or stressful. No wonder we get headaches.

In one corner, there’s the ancient brain, the emotional hub known as the limbic system, with the fear center of the amygdala at its core. It doesn’t have the talent of the brain in the other corner, the 21st-century model, but it is lightning fast, quicker on the draw than conscious thought.

It can pick up a sign of fear on someone’s face in two-hundredths of a millisecond, reports Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence. As a result, the amygdala is in charge a lot of the time, as is the job stress, and life stress too, that comes with it—unless we find a way for the smart brain to get the upper hand with a little stress management.

The amygdala is used to being the boss. It ran the cerebral show before the higher organs of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, evolved to weigh pro and con. Prior to that, decisions were based on whatever raw emotion dictated, as they still are today when the amygdala takes over. It hijacks your brain whenever a perceived threat is detected.

With its keen detection of danger, the so-called “lizard” brain can keep you out of harm’s way, or it can get you into trouble in a world it was never built for with its knee-jerk responses to negative comments, work deadlines, or projections that turn out to be nothing but wild anxiety.

The ancient brain wants to deck the person who took your parking spot. The modern brain intercedes, sometimes. The ancient brain wants the chocolate cake now. The modern brain tries to keep you healthy. The ancient brain freaks out over a new assignment or an overloaded in-box. The modern brain does the analysis and decides that, yes, there’s work here, but certainly no emergency.

In a work life balance webinar I conducted for a client this week, one of the participants talked about how she was starting to get a handle on the pesky ancient brain. She began stopping herself every time something felt stressful or overwhelming. When a sudden project came in that would normally push her button, she paused, and asked, “Why? Why is this making me stressed? Is there a real emergency that should require the stress response?

The mere act of asking questions brings the modern brain back into the picture for reflection and analysis, shoving the reflex fear of the ancient brain out of the way. The higher brain computed in every case that there was no emergency, no threat to this woman's life or limb. She “reframed” the ancient brain’s stress signals from fantasy to reality, shutting off the stress cycle.

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How many times a day does your amygdala set off stress alarms? Reframing these false alarms on the spot can save a lot of needless angst.

To reframe, though, you have to stop, actually shut down output for a moment of input and insight. Stress feeds off fantasy anxiety that is switched on and left to spiral unchallenged. Stepping back from the situation to reflect cuts off the stress cycle, which gets more entrenched the longer it spins its fiction uncontested.

Stop, and you can go again, informed by your modern brain, not the pre-humanoid model.

 

Tags: work life balance programs, work life balance, job stress, reducing stress, work stress, managing stress

Job Stress Doubles Heart Attack Risk in Women

Posted by Joe Robinson

Job stress impacts women's hearts

Most of the research on job stress has looked at men, but a new study of women finds the stress process very democratic in its toll on the old ticker and its supporting systems. The study, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, found that women who report high job demands and stress levels are 67% more likely to have a heart attack and 38% more likely to have a heart problem—stroke, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease—than women with low stress.

It’s another sign that work stress is not a trifling case of nerves, but a health hazard, one that requires stress management skills few of us are taught. The belief is that we can live with stress, that it’s just part of the professional territory—and that we can’t discuss it or try to resolve it or we'll be a wimp.

We do live with a lot of stress. Life is chock full of it, but not all of it is a threat. When demands are low, or high but you have some measure of control over them, events can be perceived as challenging or exciting. But when demands are high and you don’t have control over them, it’s another story—which is why more than two dozen studies show the connection between work stress and heart problems. That’s the kind of stress that is risky to live with.

Chronic high strain triggers the stress response. It creates a sense of not being able to cope, which is misinterpreted by the ancient hub of our emotions, the amygdala, to be a life-and-death threat. Off goes the stress response and a flood of hormones that suppress the immune system, increase blood pressure, and can lead to cardiovascular problems and a host of medical issues, from insomnia to irritable bowel disease.

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The study followed 22,000 women in the healthcare field for 10 years and found the high-strain group (including managers, who were high risk) with an elevated risk for heart problems. Lifestyle issues—smoking, weight, etc.—accounted for only one-quarter of the increased risk. The research supports data found in a Finnish study of 48,000 women, which found that job stress can double the risk of cardiovascular disease.

If you or your organization fall into the chronic, elevated strain category, stress management strategies are crucial to prevent the toll on health, decision-making, productivity, and pocketbooks. Since the stress beast runs on knee-jerk reactions and “explanatory style”—what we tell ourselves about stressful events—changing the response to stress can change everything and lead to vastly improved work-life balance.

The stress process is so ingrained it takes a concerted effort to retrain the brain to react differently than autopilot fight-or-flight. Our stress management programs reframe stress so it can be cut off before it spins out of control into chronic activation that takes bodies and businesses down with it.

A two-pronged approach is needed, tools that we can use to put out the fires as stress pops up—both mental and physical techniques—and then stress management strategies outside the job to counter amygdala activation and release the tension. It's part of the body's natural work-life balance system, the parasympathetic system of recovery restoring the body to rest and maintenance.

Study co-author Michelle Albert singled out the importance of having ways to unwind after work. Regular recreational and exercise outlets are essential to relieve work stress, or it continues to fuel anxiety, muscle tension, and cortisol release. That requires planning, a different skill-set than the work mindset, and the right motivational strategy—all of which are part of our training program.

One of the hallmarks of stress is obsessive thinking about the perceived crisis of the moment. Pastimes and aerobic exercise buffer stress as well as increase positive mood and confidence, which helps switch off the false emergency signals in the brain and create the vitality to perform better on the job.

It's all about coping with demands. If they push us beyond our ability to cope and nothing is done to increase coping resources, non-android bodies and performance pay the price. The good news is that coping strategies can become the best parts of the day, from relaxation techniques to recreation after work—if we can override the "I'm too busy" mental block fueled by stress to take care of ourselves, that is.  

Tags: women and stress, work life balance programs, stress management, job stress, stress at work, stress and heart attacks, stress management programs, work stress, chronic stress, managing stress

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