Lunching with friends can be a challenge. Especially when I hear about a classmate or a former colleague that has just passed away. When I asked what happened, I am often told that the cause was a heart attack brought on by stress.
Nowadays, most of us live a stressful life, work in stressful conditions, and deal with stressful people. And even managing our stress is increasingly stressful. But do we really know what is stress?
Stress is a feeling of emotional strain and pressure. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous (Wikipedia). Luckily, there are ways you can take to deal with stress.
Here are 8 important things you should know about stress.
1. Stress can be good for you.
Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts for a long time and becomes chronic stress, it can harm your health.
Stress levels fluctuate. Some stress every day is healthy as it builds resilience. What is not good for you is chronic stress which is an overload from continuous stress.
2. Stress levels are getting worse.
According to the World Health Organisation, the country that was most stressed from 2009 to 2016 was Japan, where 60% of the population experienced high to moderate stress. This stress was mostly caused by Karoshi – death from overwork.
Again, you don’t really need statistics to know this. If you have worked in the last 20-30 years, you would know that working life today is more stressful than working life in the 1990s. And if you have worked as long as I have, my working life in the 1980s was a breeze compared to now.
3. Stress can hurt your work performance.
It is well known in education that students with chronic stress contribute to over half of all school absences (Johnston-Brooks et al.).
This is similar for adults. Chronic stress at work can lead to high levels of anxiety, neuroticism, poor health (e.g. high blood pressure, heart diseases), lack of interest in work, and absenteeism (Michie and Williams). When you have chronic stress, your work performance suffers.
4. Stress can reduce the growth of new brain cells.
Research has shown that chronic stress reduces neurogenesis, which is the production of new brain cells (De Bellis et al.).
Chronic stress also impacts many cortical and subcortical brain structures. This contributes to impaired attention, learning, and memory (Lupien).
To boost neurogenesis, try exercising more, do more learning, and build more positive contact with friends.
5. Stress has gender differences.
Research has shown that girls usually outperform boys in school, although girls tend to suffer internal distress like depression and anxiety more than boys (Pomerantz).
In another study, gender and age differences significantly affected stress experiences. Female executives showed greater stress, suggesting that they experienced a greater amount of work change and associated stress than male executives (Beena).
6. Stress levels can be reset.
Your body can reset its stress levels. Depression is a good example of an “allostatic load” or adjusted stress thermostat, meaning a “new normal.”
The longer you are in any physiological state (e.g. depression, anger, happiness), the more stable that state becomes. It may even become the “default state” that you revert to over and over. That’s why, if you become depressed, you should get help immediately.
7. Chronic stress can lead to weight gain and ageing.
Several studies (Dallman; Epel; Koch; Roberts) connect chronic stress with reduced self-regulatory ability. In other words, the more stressed you get, the harder it is to regulate your weight.
Why is this so?
Your brain is constantly sending you messages to eat more to prepare to deal with stress. Your DNA will tell you to load up on fats, carbs, and sugars. Why? Because these are all sources of energy that you will need to deal with stress. So, lower your stress, and your capacity to lose weight gets better.
If you always feel stressed, it’s good to wake up and “smell the roses.” Start getting your life back as chronic stress will kill you. I believe some of the people I know died of chronic stress, even though “stroke” was the official cause of death.
8. There is no stress “out there”.
Your job is not stressful and it is you that stresses you out. If you feel that your job’s the problem, then you’ll always be miserable. Your kids don’t stress you out, again it is you that stress you out. In the office, your colleagues don’t stress you out, you do. Take ownership of your job, your kids, and your work, and realize that it is you that stress you out.
Once you realize that stress is your mind/body’s reaction to a perception (not reality), then you have a chance to shift your perception and turn your life around.
Those who lead a low-stress life are not “lucky” or “better” than you. They have simply, over time, acquired the life skills needed to make that part of their life work better. You can, too.
Here’s what you can do
Here are 10 things you can do to reduce your stress and reclaim your life. What you need to do is to understand how to run your brain and do these strategies.
Manage your stress. When you take action and manage your stress, you will feel better.
Write it down. Anything you write down gets taken off from your brain load and your stress goes down.
One-week rule. Ask yourself whether the situation matters a week from now. If it won’t matter a week from now, then stop worrying about it.
Redirect your attention to something else. If you can, focus on something else instead of focusing on what is stressful.
Exercise. Do some physical exercise like walking, jogging or cycling and you’ll feel much better.
Reframe the experience. Provide yourself with a new perspective and the stressor may go away.
Let it go. If the stressful matter is something that you have no control over, drop it from your attention and move on.
Relax, sleep, meditate. Your brain needs 6-8 hours of sleep a night. If you’re not getting that, you’re more susceptible to stress. So, sleep more and relax.
Eat healthily. Since chronic stress consumes resources, better nutrition can help your body cope better.
Learn coping skills. Many workshops will show you how to manage stress, manage your emotions, and build up resilience skills. Attend these and learn to take back control over your daily life. The good news is that chronic stress can be reduced.
You can get your life back. But it will take a concerted effort. Take charge of your stress levels and choose health and vitality. You’ll be glad you did.
- Beena, C. & Poduval, R. “Gender Differences in Work Stress of Executives.” Psychological Studies, 1992, 37, pp 109-113.
- Dallman, M. F., et al. “Chronic Stress and Obesity: A New View of Comfort Food”. Proceedings National Academy of Sciences USA, Sep 2003, 100, 11696-11701.
- De Bellis, M. & Keshavan, M. “Anterior Cingulate N-Acetylaspartate / Creatine Ratios During Clonidine Treatment in a Maltreated Child with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.” Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, vol 3, Sep 2001, pp 311-316.
- Epel, E., et al. “Stress May Add Bite to Appetite in Women.” Psychoneuroendocrinology, vol 26, Jan 2001, pp 37-49.
- Jensen, E. “What you should know about stress.” Adapted with permission.
- Johnston-Brooks. et al. “Chronic Stress and Illness in Children.” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol 60, Sep 1998, pp 597-603.
- Koch, F. S. et al.. “Psychological Stress and Obesity.” Journal of Pediatrics, vol 153, Dec 2008, pp 839-844.
- Lupien, S., Lepage, M. “Stress, Memory, and the Hippocampus: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Live Without It.” Behavioural Brain Research, vol 127, Dec 2001, pp 137-158.
- Michie, S. & Williams, S. “Reducing Work-Related Psychology Ill Health and Sickness Absence.” Occupational and Environment Medicine, 2003, 60 pp 3-9.
- Pomerantz, E., et al. “Making the Grade But Feeling Distressed: Gender Differences in Academic Performance and Internal Distress.” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol 94(2), Jun 2002, pp 396-404.
- Roberts, C., et al. “The Effects of Stress on Body Weight: Biological and Psychological Predictors of Change in BMI. Obesity, vol 15, Apr 2007, pp 3045-3055.