Working Smarter

The Most Dangerous Thing About Stress: How Long We Hang on to It

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Too many margaritas can make you a traffic accident statistic. Too much sugar and fat, both of which are crucial to providing energetic resources for the body, can lead to obesity and a serious side effect, diabetes. Even too much water can kill you. If you notice a trend here, it’s that things that may be harmless in moderation can boomerang on us in excess. Add stress to the list.

The stress response was designed for short bursts, providing a sudden rush of power to our limbs to help us fight or run from life-or-death danger. It was intended to last a limited time, until we were out of harm’s way and imminent demise. When the saber-tooth tiger left the neighborhood, so did the stress.

KILL STRESS FAST

That was a good thing, since the longer stress lasts, the more damage it does to your body. Stress in small doses doesn’t wreak large-scale havoc on your body and can even be considered an asset that propels you through a challenge or makes something feel exciting as you put your skills to a test.

On the other hand, stress that lasts days, weeks, and months, if not years, causes wide-scale harm to any number of systems and organs in the body and can lead to sudden trips to the ER and burnout. All stress management efforts should be focused on cutting off the most dangerous threat of stress, how long it lasts, and killing it before it can take you out.

It’s the duration of stress that makes it so dangerous, since the stress response rejiggers many parts of your body in harmful ways to prepare your system for battle stations. Some functions of the body aren’t needed in a life-and-death struggle, such as the immune system, digestion and tissue repair systems, so these are turned off or suppressed to focus on the mission of providing more strength and speed and quicker blood flow to the arms and legs to achieve that. Driving the rush of blood is jacked-up blood pressure and a rapid heart rate.

These are all major adjustments to how our bodies operate and the equilibrium they need to function properly. With chronic stress, these and other realignments become the staging grounds for long-term damage. The effects of the increased heart rate and blood pressure can lead to the nation’s number one killer, cardiovascular disease.

The heart, arteries, and blood vessels have to work much harder under the command of the stress response, which they can manage for a while, but after a continuous period of excess emergency mode, things start breaking down.

The intense velocity of blood gushing through blood vessels like water through a fire hose starts wearing down the lining inside the vessel, causing little tears and pockets that attract a crowd—immune cells, foam cells of fatty nutrients, circulating platelets that promote clotting, fat, glucose, bad cholesterol, and plaque.

It’s standing room only inside your blood vessels and a heightened risk for clogs that restrict the flow of blood raging through veins in the form of atherosclerosis.

HEART ATTACK RISK

And that’s not the only way chronic stress alters the critical work of your circulatory system. The force of the blood flowing through veins is so great that it causes muscles to grow around them to contain the load. Those muscles, in turn, can clamp down on the vessels, making them more rigid, restricting blood flow and increasing blood pressure further.

Chronically increased blood pressure leads to hypertension and a host of issues that come from it, including heart attacks. Forcing the heart to pump faster and harder than it’s supposed to beefs up the muscle on the left side of the heart wall, leading to left ventricular hypertrophy, which is the top tipoff of cardiac risk.

Meanwhile, over in the abdomen department, chronic stress is mucking up your body’s digestion equipment by putting the system on idle. It forces the stomach to cut down on acid secretion, and bicarbonate and mucous production, which help protect the stomach. These and other changes left to fester from ongoing stress can lead to gastritis, acid rebound, ulcers when combined with the Helicobacter pylori microbe, and irritable bowel disease.

SUPPRESSED IMMUNE SYSTEM

The need to keep the immune system functioning well is a pretty simple concept to grasp. Without our built-in defenses keeping at bay a world buzzing with bacteria, microbes, parasites, and viruses, we are more apt to come down with any number of health problems. Long-term interruption of the immune system from stress causes a 40% to 70% reduction in the various metrics of the immune system function.

Stress releases a flood of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol and other steroid hormones into the bloodstream. They have been shown to interfere with the body’s immune agents, such as lymphocyte cells, sidelining some, disappearing others inside immune cells, and even killing lymphocytes.

As University of California at Berkeley’s Robert Sapolsky detailed in his fabulous book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “Give someone massive amounts of glucocorticoids, or a huge stressor that has gone on for many hours, and the hormones will be killing lymphocytes indiscriminately, just mowing them down. Have a subtle rise in glucocorticoid levels for a short time…and the hormones kill only a particular subset of lymphocytes—older ones, ones that don’t work as well.”

Clearly, then, the smart thing to do is to stop ignoring stress, or sucking it up, as we are told we have to do. When we don’t challenge stress and turn off its false danger signal, we think about it. It’s this rumination, the circular cogitating over the exaggerated belief kicked up by an ancient brain that doesn’t get the modern world that drives stress—and chronic ailments and diseases that come from it. It’s the story we tell ourselves about the stressful event that causes stress, not the external event.

CATCH YOURSELF IN THE REACTION ACT

This is something we can change by cutting off the stress spiral as soon as possible after the stress response is triggered. The longer the irrational emotions from our primitive limbic system are allowed to fan the false belief of stress (always false unless it’s a real life-or-death event for you), the more the bogus belief is entrenched as real. And off we go for who knows how long with the cumulative damage to our cardiovascular system, digestion, and immune systems, among many other impacts.

We have to become adept at catching ourselves when we go off on emotional reactions. When someone or something pushes your buttons, use the wave of white-hot emotion—rage, anger, embarrassment—set off by the demand or pressure as the clue to not grab those emotions and the catastrophic thought/belief fanning it in your brain.

Notice it, take a series of deep breaths, and analyze the category of stress that has been set off—ego hit, unfairness, overload, or any other impetus. Having to categorize it starts the process of waking up your analytical, modern brain, which can then retake command of faculties from the ancient hijacker.

Next, identify the false story behind the stressor. What is the extreme belief behind it? How useful is this thought? What’s behind this stressor that is setting off the emotions? What’s behind that? What’s behind that? Keep going until you find that the bottom-line cause is not a life-or-death emergency.

Tell yourself you can handle it, because you always do handle it. You may not know how at this moment, but you will, just like every other time you rose to the occasion. With that, you have cut off the destructive wrecking ball of chronic stress before it can spiral into a multi-day/week/month/year destruction derby of life-changing medical conditions.

If you would like to learn more about how to beat stress in your organization or individually, click the button below for details on my employee stress management trainings and keynotes or here for stress management coaching for individuals.

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The Science of Work Recovery: How to Leave Work Stress at Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

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IN THE BEST stress management advice ever delivered in a pop song, Paul McCartney gave it a good try. Though tens of millions heard his plea, few “let it be.”

McCartney had it exactly right. So much angst in life has to do with the inability of the brain to let go of things, like, say, work.

THE POWER OF DETACHING

Stress is a byproduct of exaggerated fears and thoughts we give life to by ruminating about them incessantly. Rumination entrenches the false beliefs of stress and makes them appear real through repeated rehash of the concern in question. 

One of the keys to managing a major source of circular worries, job stress, as well as creating better work-life balance, is leaving work at work. That shuts off the day's stressors and allows the body to repair itself from the effects of strain and tension. That goes for remote workers as well. Even more so, since it's so easy for them to just keep going without self-boundaries at home.

It’s called work recovery by researchers, a process of detaching from work thoughts and engaging in experiences that help restore the body to pre-stressor levels. It's a reset button that flips the switch on stowaway stress with proactive recovery strategies.

Initiating leisure and recuperative strategies is something few of us are equipped for after the age of 20. As a result, most of us go home without a plan for how to let go of the day’s events and shift over to another mindset. And managers would never imagine that they can play a major role in the process simply by encouraging staff to recharge after work in whichever way they enjoy—exercise to music and hobbies.

The science shows that psychological detachment from work through relaxation and recreation isn’t something to feel guilty about—it’s essential for attention, engagement, and wellness at work and at home. Without recovery from the strain that results from unmanaged demands, any number of medical issues, from cardiovascular disease to irritable bowel to burnout can occur, as well as poor performance, cynicism, presenteeism and absenteeism.

RECOVERY IS A TWO-WAY STREET

Research by Sabine Sonnentag and Charlotte Fritz and others has documented that a break from the work state of mind allows recovery from strain and ends the pattern of negative affect that drives pessimism and chronic stress. Studies show that people who are able to detach from the day's work tensions are more likely to report positive mood in the morning and a reduction in stress. No doubt, these folks are also having a lot more fun, since stress suppresses the play equipment in the brain.

New research shows that turning off the stress replay machine after work is as critical for employees and leaders as it is during work hours, and that managers can play a key role in helping employees restore well-being at home. A study that looked at the intersection of supervisor signals and norms around recovery (Bennett, Gabriel, Calderwood, Dahling, Trougakos) found that when employees are encouraged by managers to unwind after work, they are more likely to do just that, leading to a healthier staff and workplace.

“If supervisors adopt norms supporting employees leaving work at work, employees will seek to meet these expectations,” the authors wrote. 

Supervisors who are supportive of exercise, recreation, and pastimes have a big influence on the employee’s ability to shift out of the work mind and get the relaxation, social interaction, or detachment they need for recovery.

Job strain and time pressure over the course of the day tax mental resources, requiring extra effort to get anything done. If energetic and self-regulation resources burned up over the course of the day aren’t replaced, it comes out of our performance hide the next day and the next in the form of fatigue, researchers have found. The toll has to be countered on a daily basis. 

READING THE SIGNALS

When managers don’t signal that it’s okay to step back after work, the Bennett, Gabriel study found that employees are more prone to take work home with them and to ponder work issues. 

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It starts with something as basic as asking what a staffer is doing to recharge and refuel. Inquire about hobbies. What do they do for exercise? Let them know that performance is the sum total of the whole person—energy, health, optimism, and mood. People who go home with negative affect and stress that is not alleviated come back to work the next day with negative affect.

Let employees know you want them to leave the workday at the office and live a healthy life outside it, since a fresh and energized mind is the key to productivity in the knowedge economy.

So what can we do to restore resources at the end of the day and shut off the stress loop? Let’s look at the four main routes to work recovery: psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery, and control. Studies show that these recovery processes can reduce fatigue, increase work engagement (Brummelhuis, Bakker) and improve health and well-being (Sonnentag, Binnewies, Mojza).

 FOUR RECOVERY KEYS

1. Psychological detachment. This is a fancy description of something pretty logical. Stop thinking about work and the worries that flow from it. It's easier said than done, though, when the adrenaline is high after a tough day, and the rumination parade of projected anxieties is under way.

Continuing to think and talk about work issues keeps you mentally at work, so find ways to change the subject. Another option is to create physical and electronic barriers to prevent the default to a desk or work emails and help separate work and home. Imagine yourself flipping a light switch off as you leave work. You’ve switched over to another job now, your life.

2. Relaxation. There is a false belief in our work culture that you have to be near collapse before you are entitled to relax. Taking care of yourself needs no justification. Relaxation is built in to the human physiology. Activation periods of stress are meant to be followed by the reparative parasympathetic system of rest and maintenance. Relaxing is essential to recover and restore the body and the brain's equilibrium to pre-stressor levels. 

Create a buffer zone when you get home from work of 30 minutes or more, if you can, to do what you like to do to relax—go for a run, meditate, hit the gym, listen to music (one of the best stress shifters since stress is dependent on dire mood). Make it a routine. 

3. Mastery. Research shows that mastery experiences are one of the best ways to promote recovery and knock out stress. These are activities done outside of work that allow for personal growth, skill-building, and learning. We all have three core needs--autonomy, competence, and conection with others. Mastery experiences put us in touch with these needs and get us aligned with who we are. 

Whether it’s cycling, salsa dancing, learning a musical instrument or a language—studies show that the mastery process can shut off stress activation even in the middle of work, at lunchtime, as well as at home. Identify things you want to learn, potential passions, and you crowd out negative affect with the positive vibe that comes from autonomy and competence. A passion can add eight hours of joy to your week, the ultimate antidote to stress.

4. Control. The activating ingredient in stress is control, or rather, the lack of it. The more control, or latitude, we feel we have over a stressor, the less perceived stress. There are two sides of the control issue, control at work, i.e., having the ability to make some decisions about work processes, not the work itself, and leisure control, deciding how to spend your off-hours. Find ways during the day to experience more choice over how you work, or get a shot of it on a break. One study found that playing a computer game on a break increases recovery (Reinecke). 

Increased leisure control reduces strain by helping you feel more in charge of your life and able to put aside a bad day with something that lifts you up and is autonomous. The idea here is to identify what you, not others, like to do for fun and recreation and indulge it regularly. You have to be entrepreneurial about your leisure activities. No one can choose them or make them happen but you. Most of what we do outside of work is ad hoc, minus thought or planning. Put leisure ideas and activities on the calendar, or they don’t happen. Take your life as seriously as your work.

The strain-stress cycle is pretty simple in its insidiousness. It goes off automatically and we react on reflex, fanning the false alarms with rumination and helplessness. The solution is getting off autopilot,  contesting stress, and engaging in recovery processes that help us get back to the pre-stress state. Work recovery science shows us the way forward, that managing stress is both a proactive work AND life process in which we learn how to put McCartney’s advice to work. And let it be.

If you would like to learn more about our stress management programs for your team and organization, click the button below for more details.

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Stress Management: How to Switch Off Job Stress at Home

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Most of us have a hard time switching off work, or at least the tension and thoughts of work, at the end of the workday. The mind seems determined not to let go of the day's events and worries. We just can't stop thinking about work.

What keeps the tension going is a side-effect of stress. The stress response is triggered when demands overload your ability to cope with them, switching on a part of the ancient brain that believes there is a threat to your life and limb. As a result, it constricts your brain to the perceived emergency of the moment, causing that loop of worry to spin round and round in one of the telltale byproducts of stress, rumination. 

DAILY DETACHMENT

The key to relaxing evenings, less stress, and better focus and positive mood when you go back to work the next day, say researchers, is what's known as psychological detachment. We need to leave work at work and flip the off-switch on work concerns.

That means identifying and disputing the false beliefs that come from stress triggers, reframing thoughts and reactions, and countering the activation of the stress response with recovery and refueling, processes I teach in my stress management training and coaching for individuals

It turns out that what we do away from work is critical for well-being, health and even the quality of what we do at work. Researchers at the University of Konstanz and Bowling Green University found that work-related thoughts combined with a lack of recovery strategies after work aggravate emotional exhaustion and prevent the resupply of energetic resources.

As they put it, “High workload, emotional dissonance, and low spatial work-home boundaries are related to poor psychological detachment from work during non-work time.”

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Studies show that leisure experiences off the job play a major role in buffering stressors and creating a positive mood state—active and strong— that allows for recovery and keeping negative mood at bay. Research by Williams and Alliger found that mood state, called affect, at home was related to affect state at work. 

RECOUPING RESOURCES

Job stressors drive psychological attachment to the events of the day that make it harder for brains and bodies to let go and recover the resources they expended. This sets up a pattern of cumulative fatigue, in which we don’t recoup our resources at night and return to work the next day already behind the energy 8-ball.  The more fatigued we get, the more recovery we need.

Just as we need sleep to function the next day, we also need strategies to replace the mental and emotional resources burned up at the office. If they’re not replenished, we go down the track to chronic stress and exhaustion. 

One of the things that makes it hard to unwind from the pressures of the day is that the stress response suppresses the play equipment in our brains. It's hard to think about having fun when a part of your brain thinks your life is on the line.

When demands are at their highest and you need relaxation the most, your ancient defense mechanism is working against you, suppressing the play equipment in your brain. You’re not in the mood to do anything non-serious. The way out of the loop is blocked by what’s known as negative affect. Gloom, anger, and pessimism restrict options to stewing and rumination. 

Rumination is one of the leading drivers of stress, pessimism, and depression. It’s the constant replay of a stressful event, or rather the story we tell ourselves about that event, that entrenches a false belief and makes us think the danger is real. Rumination thrives on self-talk that stress sets off--a disorted false belief that by repeated obsessing about it appears real. The counter to that is physical action and relaxation experiences that shut off the broken record and the demands of the workday. 

MOOD-SHIFTING

A wide variety of relaxation techniques can take thoughts off the stressful events of the day. Researchers have found that techniques from progressive relaxation, to experiences in nature, to aerobic exercise, yoga, meditation, and listening to music can shift the focus of attention.

The evocative power of music is particularly effective in changing the emotional dynamic. The negative mood that locks us in our bunkers is ephemeral. Subject it to some empowering or beautiful music, and you change the emotional temperature.

One of the most effective ways to squelch self-talk and make the break from the workday is through active leisure experiences, the fun track to work-life balance. As a study led by Princeton’s Alan Krueger found, we are at our happiest when we are involved in engaging leisure experiences.

Absorbing experiences off the career track allow you to demonstrate competence in a world of your own making, no matter what happens at the office. Everything isn’t riding on every approval and perfect outcome in the workday.

MASTERY EXPERIENCES

Research by Sonnentag and Ernst shows that “people who experience mastery in their off-hours generally report better well-being and life satisfaction.” Sports and hobbies are the places to look for mastery experiences. 

Experiences make us happier than material things, and they usually connect us with others, which satisfies a core psychological need, connection with others. Having a fun activity to do every week or a couple of times a week is a powerful counter to negative affect.

So when you get home from work, do something different. Don’t fall for the usual mood. Too exhausted, too upset, etc. Rally and jump in to a new leisure activity or relaxation process. It puts you in charge of your mood, not the workday—and doing the living you are making for yourself.

If you would like to learn more about our stress management training for teams, organizations, and individuals, please click the button below for more details.

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Tags: avoiding burnout, leisure and stress, life coaching programs, switching off stress, turning off work stress, stress relief, stress management speakers, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management programs, stress management virtual keynotes

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