Remember the phrase, the straw that broke the camel’s back? It’s referring to stress piled upon stress, the kind you may have experienced one time or another at work. What can you do about workplace stress–or is it really such a bad thing? For many years, says The Economist, scientists thought that, just as a metal bar could withstand so much stress before it would break, humans could cope with stress as long as it didn’t become too severe—just like the proverbial camel. In fact, many came to believe that moderate stress could actually be good for you.
Recent facts show, however, that nearly half of sick days taken in the UK and Europe are attributable to stress-related illnesses. In America, says The American Institute of Stress (AIS), “job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults and that it has escalated progressively over the past few decades…Increased levels of job stress as assessed by the perception of having little control but lots of demands have been demonstrated to be associated with increased rates of heart attack, hypertension and other disorders.” You probably know that constant stress releases too much cortisol that can wear out your adrenal glands and disrupt your whole system. Missing work and declining health don’t paint a positive picture, do they? So who is right? Is stress good or bad for you?
It’s not that simple, says AIS, because we are all made differently. Some people thrive in pressure-cooker-like work environments where they must multi-task and perform a long list of to-dos. As long as they feel that they are in control, they’re happy. Others reject having so much responsibility and just want to be given a task they are capable of performing. Two people in the same challenging situation could experience completely different levels of stress because “the severity of job stress depends on the magnitude of the demands that are being made and the individual’s sense of control or decision-making latitude he or she has in dealing with them.”
Now scientists are suggesting that it’s not the level of stress you experience, but rather how you think about stress. “The same stress, perceived differently, can trigger different physical responses, with differing consequences in turn for both performance and health,” claims The Economist. It cites three different studies where one group of people was told that stress was detrimental, while others were told stress was beneficial or performance-enhancing before being exposed to a stress—a job interview, a financial crisis at work, and a tough exam. In each study, the people who believed stress was helpful experienced such things as higher levels of DHEA (a brain growth hormone), greater focus, higher engagement, fewer health problems, and measurable improvement in performance.
How can some people experience stress as beneficial? Scientists are learning that the way you respond to stress today was actually developed in your brain during your childhood years. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, in studying the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), shares that the amygdalae, that part of the brain that receives fearful emotional messages before forming rational thought, is larger and more developed in children who have had multiple ACEs. Our brains literally grow on what they are fed.
But don’t worry–if you’re prone to fear, you aren’t stuck with an overdeveloped amygdalae! Whether stress has a negative or positive effect on you is all about your mindset, encourages The Economist.
If you view a stressful situation as if you’re in sudden danger, your heart will beat faster, your veins will constrict, and your brain will blur the details and focus on the bigger picture. However, if you view the stressor as a beneficial challenge, your heart rate will still increase and your adrenaline will rush, but your brain will stay sharper and release a different mix of hormones that will aid in learning and recovery. Even your immune system will react differently, with positive consequences for both your performance and your long-term health.
Does this mean that stress is all in your head? Scientifically, your experience of stress begins with the message that enters your brain, but it does ultimately affect your whole being. This means that both your body and mind do need to take vacations and unplug. But one study cited by The Economist shows that reframing how you view stress can actually avert premature death. The trick is to view stress as not harmful and to accept it as a natural part of life. In fact, things would be boring if you were to remove every source of stress. You experience stress because you care about things that really matter to you.
What can you do about workplace stress? Rather than focusing on eliminating stressors, learn how to use stress to your benefit. View it as a challenge that can enhance your performance, remember to take periodic rest breaks to recover, and prepare to live a healthier, more meaningful life.
Employers, one source of stress is overworking. There is a solution!
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