HOW TO ACTIVELY REDUCE STRESS IN OUR LIVES AND AT WORK
April is Stress Awareness month. Health care professionals across the country join forces to increase public awareness about the causes and cures for the epidemic of modern stress.
As a workspace, we know how life can get a bit overwhelming. Bea Herbert, founder of States of Mind, and former Enterprise Bootcamp participant, has shared with us some invaluable information on how to cope with stress in our lives and at work. Read Bea's text below:
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF STRESS
To get geeky about stress and how to deal with it in the most effective way, you have to understand emotional regulation. Our emotional regulation system is composed of 3 separate but integrated networks: the Drive System, the Threat System and the Soothing System. Each system is related to a different function, with distinct areas of the brain and hormonal responses involved in each. The stress response is a direct response to our most primal system, the ‘threat system’ becoming active, causing immediate psychological and physical effects.
In Western society, the amount of time that we spend in this mode is way above a healthy threshold and we become sensitised to operating from this mode so much that we actually forget what it is like to relieve ourselves of stress and to feel truly relaxed. Some of the repercussions of this are a constant change to our perception of our ourselves and the world around us. We start to focus on
threats or ‘things that could go wrong’, causing us to think about worst case scenarios andanticipating events that are unlikely to happen, all because we are geared up to respond to danger.
It’s not that this is how the world actually is. It’s only our body and mind telling us that it is how the world is - just in case we might be wrong. Our digestive system goes haywire when this system is active, as well as our immune response, causing us to be much more susceptible to illness and not eating as well as we should.
The main problem with our response to stress in the modern world is that we confuse switching to the ‘Drive System’ as a genuine form of relaxation, which can only really be achieved when the Soothing system is operating. Here’s an example: you get home from a long day at work, you have had your lunch at your desk, ploughing through emails and feeling on the back foot all day (as soon as you feel unable to cope you activate the stress response). Your mind is racing yet you are exhausted at the same time ( stress causes muscle fatigue). You feel shut off from other people as it’s too much to have a conversation right now, so you head to your room for some refuge. You turn on Netflix and go back to that series you started last night. ‘Finally, I can relax’, you tell yourself. After a couple of episodes you start to feel drowsy and ready for sleep but theres an underlying anxiety still flowing through you. You feel restless and still tense. ‘Why am I still not relaxed? It’s been two hours of switching off from the outside world.’. This is because, you did not switch off, you distracted yourself by consuming something that took your mind off the stress.
Stress impairs our executive function, which dampens our ability to resist impulses. Chronic stress can increase the reward responsiveness of our brains. So if we are at all prone to addiction, it's going to make us crave palatable food, drugs or anything pleasurable, but harmful in excess even more. The drive system is all about wanting, seeking, motivation for MORE. It satisfies a need but only temporarily. If you are stressed, after you’ve got your quick fix, your system knows you haven’t really fixed the problem and so does your mind. So you move onto the next fix, your instagram page, a drink with friends, buying yourself something out of impulse, whatever the next distraction might be and we end up in a perpetual loop of low contentment.
To activate the soothing system, you have to consciously make an effort to change your normal response to stress and bring your awareness to the present moment - WITHOUT DISTRACTION. This is a lot easier said than done if we don’t practice it regularly. Our instinct is to distract ourselves from the discomfort and not confront it. But this perpetuates a cycle of avoiding uncomfortable emotions and leads to the development of chronic stress levels. Stress is not a problem, it is our responses to stress that allow it to develop into an issue in our lives.
Scientists have discovered that chronic stress levels not only affect most major organs of our body but also alter our DNA. Telomeres are a protective casing at the end of a strand of DNA. Each time a cell divides, it loses a bit of its telomeres. An enzyme called telomerase can replenish it, but chronic stress and cortisol exposure decrease your supply. When the telomere is too diminished, the cell often dies or becomes pro-inflammatory. This sets the aging process in motion, along with associated health risks. Basically, there is a direct link with stress levels and reduced life span. You can’t get much worse than that.
So here’s how you can make changes to your lifestyle which will very quickly reduce your stress levels at work.
GET MORE SLEEP.
It’s the obvious one for a reason and also the area where most Londoners fall short. It requires conscious effort but immediate paybacks. Our body in the sleep state knows how to recover and replenish all the important functions way better than we know how to do in our waking life, so consider it effortless stress reduction. All you have to do is make sure you go to sleep earlier. No more Netflix or youtube before you sleep. Make sure you give yourself at least an hour with no screen time before you go to bed and you will feel completely different the next day.
We can actively reverse the stress process by paying attention to our breathing. Again, this takes conscious attention and some discipline but it works. After 3 Minutes of stopping and simply noticing your breath and allowing longer, slower breathing to replace the shallowness of stressful breathing, your nervous system will completely relax and you will be able to focus better, think more clearly and be more creative. The key here is to really stay with your breathing, if you get lost in your thoughts for those 3 minutes, it doesn’t count. Your body needs to know it is being listened to for once and it will thank you. Start with 3 deep breaths and then just notice your breath as it rises and falls in your body. 180 Seconds- it’s worth a try!
PRACTICE EMOTIONAL HONESTY.
There’s nothing better to keep stress going than to pretend it doesn’t exist. The likelihood is that if you are experiencing stress at work, a lot of that stress isn’t actually from work at all, it’s caused by unresolved emotions from other places. We like to pretend we are alright, hoping the effects of suppressing our emotions will just slowly vanish away but avoidance is the least healthy approach to take, together with constantly complaining but never acting on the issues. Try practicing telling somebody you trust how you ACTUALLY feel, not how you think they think you should feel. Vulnerability and emotional honesty often seems painful for us and that’s because you are acknowledging feelings you’ve been bottling up for ages. So the discomfort is actually a release. This release is what you need to calm the stress response and return to your healthy state. If you don’t have anyone to talk to, be honest with yourself. Scream into a pillow if you are frustrated or angry or there’s always good old fashioned crying.
GIVE YOURSELF MORE TIME.
Stress is often caused by feeling like we are constantly on the back foot . We think we don’t have time because we don’t want to abandon the little habits that we could actually change which steal all of our time. Like our phones….. Turn your phone to black and
white mode and it will make it seem so boring you don’t want to use it. Or stop checking your emails out of anxiety every 5 minutes and check them once every hour or two hours. You will be more focused when you do read them and able to respond more consciously.
TAKE A MOMENT TO STEP BACK.
A consequence of stress is that we stop seeing the bigger picture and get lost in a convincing tunnel vision mode of not being where we need to be. This is why going for a walk clears our head - we connect with the world outside of ourselves. Take a few minutes to stop and check in with yourself about where you are and why you are doing your job. Think about the reasons you applied for the job, your motivations and how it fulfils you. Think of the things you have achieved recently and how you - not somebody else did this. Think of how you bring your authentic self to your job and how you add something valuable to the work you do. By switching to a positive internal narrative, we not only do we find some more motivation to continue but also show ourselves some compassion, which is a really important tool for reducing stress.