Like the flu, work stress has become epidemic. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that up to 40 percent of Americans rate their job stress as extremely high. The damage isn’t just emotional, however. Chronic stress debilitates the body and lowers resistance to disease. Fortunately, you can take simple steps to relax and beat the grind.
When Stress Works Overtime
Physiologically, working under constant stress is like racing your car’s engine with the parking brake on. Parts start wearing out. Integrative medicine expert Dr. Andrew Weil notes that while our minds have embraced modern life, our bodies haven’t changed much in ten thousand years. They are not designed for long, sedentary hours facing chronic anxiety.
A major culprit is the hormone cortisol. Cortisol plays a crucial role in the fight-or-flight response, arming us with short-term energy, enhanced memory and pain tolerance. However, extended stress triggers chronically elevated levels that lead to health problems. Common effects are insomnia, depression, poor memory, and lowered immunity. Longer term, cortisol overload contributes to heart disease, cancer and autoimmune disorders.
Nurture Your Inner Neanderthal
According to Dr. Weil, one way to combat modern stress is to return to our roots. Spending time outside, eating natural foods, and getting a full night’s sleep are among the basics that many of us overlook.
- Indulge your hobbies. Hobbies relax and revitalize us. Even just six minutes of pleasure reading can lower stress levels. If you need inspiration, try new activities with an open mind. Yoga classes are filled with people who never thought of themselves as the meditative type.
- Move your body. Exercise breaks the physical stress cycle and promotes restorative sleep. The trick is to find a practical activity that you truly enjoy even if it’s power walking at the mall.
- Try mind-body activities. Disciplines such as yoga and meditation induce a calm state that counteracts the stress response. You dwell more in the present and feel less anxious about the past or future.
Strategies for Decreasing Stress at Work
When under stress, it’s often hard to tell what you can change and what you must gracefully accept. Even in the toughest workplace, however, you can change your own behavior.
- Stop multitasking. Most people’s brains are not wired to multitask, and doing so causes stress and lowers productivity. Instead, chunk your time and work on tasks sequentially. Cut down interruptions by using strategies such as checking email only once per hour.
- Take lunch breaks. Many Americans skip breaks due to workload, but leaving your desk helps cut daily stress. Take a walk or have a good laugh over lunch with co-workers or a YouTube video. If you must work through lunch, schedule a later break on your calendar.
- Find out where you stand. Feeling in limbo at work is stressful. Get your responsibilities in writing and talk regularly with your boss about expectations and performance. Keep a written log for later reference if needed.
- Look for another job. Even if changing jobs isn’t feasible, the act of testing the waters can make you feel more empowered. You never know what opportunities might emerge.
By getting back to basics and spending time on activities that you love, you can keep job stress at bay. The key is committing to your own well-being.