More and more of us are taking work home with us, and I’m not talking about checking work email at the dinner table. I'm referring to the stowaway work thoughts that we can’t turn off and keep us on the job, even if we’re at home.
Not being able to shut off work in our heads is a huge problem that drives chronic stress, robs us of recovery time and life balance, and hops in bed at night with us to throttle and blow up our sleep. And if all that weren’t bad enough, new research has found that stress doesn’t just make it harder to sleep, but that the sleep loss it causes itself makes us even more anxious, providing a tag team of stress that operates in a vicious cycle.
INSULT TO SLEEP INJURY
It turns out that poor sleep can cause anxiety all by itself. U. C. Berkeley researchers Eti Ben Simon and Matthew Walker found that sleep deprivation caused a 30% increase in anxiety levels, an amount similar to that in people with anxiety disorders. Brain scans showed that the rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, had less activity, while the emotional regions had more.
With the analytical part of the brain subordinated to emotional focus, one of the purposes of sleep—to counter the activation of strain during the day and provide rest and resetting through the body’s own balancing operation—was undermined.
When we take stress home with us and don’t have work recovery and stress management strategies to get the stress down, we set ourselves up for a pattern of cumulative and chronic stress that piles on and becomes an unwelcome bedtime companion.
Insomnia is one of the most common side effects of stress, causing some 75% of cases. The stress response keeps the survival equipment activated even when we are sleeping, including the hormone of cortisol, which is an arousal agent. It’s a stimulant, like drinking a couple cups of coffee before bedtime.
Guzzling caffeine is not a prescription for sweet dreams, and neither is a flood of cortisol, which is designed to heighten alertness and battle-stations mode for life-and-death moments. The normal pattern of cortisol in the body is that we get sleepy when our cortisol levels are at their lowest, just before shuteye, and we wake up when they are at their highest, in the morning.
Stowaway work stress or any kind of stress blows that up, resulting in fitful nights that, as the new research shows, create additional anxiety. The reason for this is that insomnia and chronic sleep problems set off pretty much the same cascade of sleep-disruption changes in the body as the stress response. The heart rate increases, body temperature goes up (which also wakes us up), and, of course, cortisol jumps too, creating what is known as an “over-alertness obstacle” to getting to sleep and staying asleep.
DETACHING FROM WORK THOUGHTS
The answer to this one-two punch to the sleeping gut is to turn off the events of the workday when we leave the office. The key to do doing that, say work recovery researchers, are strategies that allow us to detach ourselves from work thoughts.
This is hard for many of us to do, since our culture has trained us to believe that self-worth comes from only one part of our identity, work. As a result, we fixate on all the events of work with nothing else to take their place.
So the first place to start to get separation from the job is to understand that the performance identity of our professional side is not the sum total of our self-worth. It’s just part of who we are, a persona, that provides an easy social handle for others. If we find worth nowhere but on the job, we default to that and the thoughts it generates even when we are not at the desk.
Our real identity lies in a realm that is the whole point of the work, life. This is the hiding-in-plain-sight counterbalance to the demands of the job and the tensions that come from it, and it's the goal of all work-life balance—to get more of it on the table.
Studies show that engaged leisure activities reduce stress (Coleman, Iso-Ahola), restore energy, boost positive mood through control and social support (Chalip, Thomas), and increase mastery and core needs, such as autonomy and competence.
Work recovery strategies that interrupt, crowd out stressful thoughts, and shift mood can turn off the cycle of stowaway work stress. Yet they don’t happen by themselves. We have to make them happen and be the entrepreneur of our life through proactive decisions to engage with recovery activities—relaxation processes, recreation, and mastery activities, the latter of which is the most effective at cutting stress, since it builds esteem and competence, which crowd out intrusive negative thoughts.
We have to see life activation, participation in recreation, and, yes, recess as valuable as the work. There’s no success like recess. Stepping back resets the brain, restores energy, recharges and refuels. The two keys to sustainable happiness, Sonia Lyubomirsky and Kennon Sheldon found in their research, is initiating intentional activities and sustaining intentional activities.
So let’s start flipping the switch on stress. Here are some key steps:
8 WAYS TO LEAVE WORK THOUGHTS AT WORK
1. Mark the end of the workday with a lights-out finishing ritual. Turn your coffee mug over, turn off the light in the office, unplug from work email. Create an action that lets you know the swarm of work thoughts is over for the day.
2. Set stop times. You can set your phone to trigger an alarm to go off an hour before the end of the workday to give you an early-warning that it's time to start winding down and to go off again when it’s time to go. There’s more work and email than anyone can do in a day. We have to cultivate a regular schedule of stopping the work part of the day and starting the life part, or it doesn’t happen.
3. Create a buffer zone after work. I call it a “pressure drop,” the first 30 minutes when you get home. You are like a deep-sea diver coming up from the depths of high pressure and now you have to adjust to another zone. This is a good time for relaxation strategies—walking, listening to music you like (which is super-effective at shifting mood and negative emotions with it), meditation, yoga.
4. Dispute rumination. If you are thinking about some work event over and over, stop and dispute it. The stress alarm driving the rumination is false. You are not going to die from the catastrophic or extreme thought in your head. Identify the false story behind the stress, the most likely story (just the facts), and create a new story going forward. You will handle it. You always do.
5. Counterpunch thoughts of fatigue that prevent you from getting out and engaging in fun activities that reduce stress. It's more of a mood than a state of physical paralysis. You can do this by making a plan, putting it on your calendar and having an alarm go off to remind you to get off the couch. Don't fall for the first mood. As soon as you are out at your intentional activity, you will be glad you are participating in your life.
6.Treat recreation like brushing your teeth or watching your cholesterol. It’s your key to health and emotional hygiene. Get out rain or shine to the gym, to run, ride a bike, see a movie. Intentional activities make up the 40% of our potential happiness that we actually have control over.
7. Start life-tasting. Get online and research potential classes you can take—pottery, painting, volleyball, dancing. Sign up and start learning, something your brain craves. Find a learning experience you can do on a regular basis, at least once a week but hopefully a couple times. Once you are out in the activity, focus on the rules of the activity or game disrupts and destroys stress and work thoughts—what are they? Long gone.
8. Stick with it. Don’t be an adult and bail if the new activity gets hard and you may feel foolish because you don’t know how to do something perfectly as soon as you start it. Worrying about what other people think keeps you from growing and having fun as you develop skills and gratify core needs. You, not them, are the audience. Only you can make yourself happy by satisfying your inner need equipment.
Switching off stowaway stress requires getting off autopilot thought-factory action and going into planning mode. We have to put life on the calendar, get off the ad hoc “when I have time” default, and take it as seriously as our work.
When we have an active world outside the job, we build an identity apart from what’s on the business card. This strengthens, not just our resilience to stress, but our identity as a person as well as a professional producer.
The more we have a part of ourselves that boosts us up and makes us feel good no matter what happened that day at work, the more we can close our eyes at night, sleep soundly, and wake up without feeling we have been in a 15-round boxing match. The result: We always wake up on the right side of the bed.
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