The S-word. Stress. We all have it, we all are trying to get rid of it, we all see it as bad. Truth is, stress is very functional for us humans. Stress is one of our most basic responses and is also known as the fight-or-flight response. When we sense danger, a distress signal is sent to our hypothalamus, a sort of command center of our brain, and we begin having all sorts of physical reactions to the situation that help us prepare (health.harvard.edu). Our blood pressure rises, palms sweat, heart races, all in preparation to fight or flee. Without this response, we would not have lasted long as a species.
Today, we have very few large predators after us, so why is stress such a big problem? Most of the threats people in Western civilizations encounter are emotional, social, or intellectual. In fact, even the mere memory of a distressing situation can create a stress response in us, as if the distressing situation is happening in the present (contextualscience.org). That leads many of us to be stressed nearly all the time. Because the body is on such high alert when stressed, long-term stress can cause some seriously nasty problems medically and psychologically.
Stress still has some important purpose in our modern world. It can arise as a function of living and can be adaptive for survival. Being stressed about the outcome of an important presentation motivates a person to come to it well prepared. This kind of stress tends to dissipate quickly afterwards and so has less of a long-term impact on physical or mental health (cdc.gov/niosh). The stress that comes from perceived threats or things that are not happening in the present but still cause a stress response in a person is less functional and often harmful. Unfortunately, the latter is the kind of the stress that is found more commonly in the modern workplace. It’s the kind of stress that makes you completely exhausted at the end of your day. It’s the kind of stress that keeps you from falling asleep at night despite aforementioned exhaustion. It’s the kind of stress that causes knots and tightness in your shoulders, neck, and back. Sounding familiar?
Work stress can be some of the worst stress for our bodies. We are in a constant state of fight-or-flight, causing fatigue and preventing our bodies from being able to rest and heal. It has been linked to headaches, digestive issues, sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, back and upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders, depression, and relationship issues. If that’s not bad enough, work stress can severely decrease productivity and effectiveness at work, which can often perpetuate the whole situation!
So what can be done to decrease work stress?
I know, I know. I keep going on about this mindfulness stuff. It really helps! Check out my article here about some mindfulness activities you can try at your desk or during your commute.
Focus on Your Goals and Values
Wondering why you still even do this job since it causes you so much stress? Get a piece of paper and pen. Write down a list of your personal values and goals. After you have a few, try to see if there are any ways your job is helping you live in accordance with those goals and values. For example, if you value being a good partner, you may realize that your job helps you contribute financially to you and your partner’s stability and future. If you value helping others, consider how you are able to help others through your job. Once you have thiis written down, put it somewhere you’ll see often to remind yourself that this job isn’t pointless. It serves an important purpose. This may help soften your attitude about your stressful position.
When you’re at work, work. Be present, do what you need to focus on getting things done. But then when you’re at home, be at home. Refrain as much as possible from bringing your work home with you. Believe it or not, working 9am to 5pm will result in more things getting done than working 7am to 9pm. When your workday is excessively long, your brain and body will look for little breaks all the time, leading to “spacing” and excessive trips to the water cooler. You’ll finally be able to disconnect from work when you’re at home and your body can begin to heal and relax. Best thing about this strategy, you'll find that your work performance and productivity will actually improve. Don’t believe me? Try it for a week and keep track of your productivity. Let the results speak for themselves!
Movement and Exercise
During the workday it is easy to forget the importance of movement. You sit down to ride the bus or drive to work. You sit down at your desk. You sit down for lunch. You sit down to commute home. You sit down on the couch to relax. Notice a pattern? Go for a short walk on your lunch break. Use the bathroom farthest away from you. Bottom line, get that blood moving. Exercise is closely linked to decreasing stress. Movement throughout your day can help prevent injury down the line (cdc.gov/niosh).
Any more, some offices allow you to bring your dog to work. This is wonderful news! Not only does the presence of animals decrease stress but Rover needs to go outside a couple times a day meaning you have to go for a little, refreshing jaunt!
This goes hand-in-hand with the mindfulness exercises mentioned earlier but it deserves to be mentioned on its own. Some breathing exercises can help combat the physical manifestations of the fight-or-flight response. For instance, a simple “equal breathing” exercise consisting of inhaling through the nose for 4 counts and exhaling through the nose for 4 counts can slow your heart rate down a little and help you feel more calm.
Prioritize and Delegate
Tell the perfectionist in you to take a break. The truth is, when we become “perfectionistic” about certain things, especially at work, it is less likely to be about getting things done right and more about trying to maintain control over a situation of which you’re afraid you have no control. An effective and efficient worker can distinguish things that absolutely need to get done from things that can wait. If you realize you can’t get everything done that needs to get done, see what you might be able to delegate to someone else (kindly, of course).
It's Not Just You
Finally, I want to make sure to point out you are not the only person at your job to feel stressed. Over 40% of workers report their job as "very or extremely stressful". This is not because none of these people have the right coping skills. As much as it pains me to admit it, practicing these strategies, even diligently, won't entirely eradicate your work-related stress. It has to do with the way the workplace is operated and managed, the amount of control you have in your position, coworkers, and our culture, among many other things. Those big things you have very little control over, though. Recognize it, acknowledge it, commiserate with colleagues and friends occasionally, then focus on the things you can control!