Work related stress can be both acute and chronic. The body is better suited for acute stress than it is for chronic stress. Our systems get fired up in a “flight or fight” type of stressful situation. This means with a threat, we get a faster heart, higher blood pressure, shift of blood supply from the internal organs to our muscles, adrenaline floods into our bloodstream, and our senses become more aware of our surroundings. This makes us better prepared to fight for our lives or run from a dangerous situation.
Difficult managers, irate customers, rude, obnoxious people, or frustrating coworkers are not really Saber Tooth Tigers, but our body responds to the threats from each as if they were. As long as this is once in a while, this doesn’t cause a problem. We can usually retire to our cave (go home and put our feet up) and feel safe, eat, sleep and so forth, recovering from the metabolic costs of our hyperalertness and extra energy expenditure.
If these exposures are chronic, the body doesn’t get adequate opportunity to rest. This wears us down both physically and emotionally. If this goes on for months, “burnout” can be the result. Vacations are quite helpful in this regard. Three day weekends are also quite good. This allows us to stay away from the obnoxious stimuli that wear us down, and allows more time to recharge.
A more simple analogy might be an overused cell phone. It gets hot and eventually the battery wears down. If you don’t recharge it long enough, it won’t be fully charged, and consequently will“run out of juice” sooner.
SO, WHAT HAPPENS?
The physical effects of chronic stress include high blood pressure, fast heart, palpitations (flutters in the chest from heart rhythm disturbances), neck and shoulder pain, low back pain, chronic fatigue, headaches, chest pain, episodes of shortness of breath. Over longer term, this could lead to chronic daily headaches, trigger point development in muscles, Hypertension, Coronary heart disease, irritable colon, and some still believe there may be a connection to peptic ulcer disease, although much less than we used to.
Emotionally, the effects are sleep disturbance, irritability, hyperalertness, chronic anxiety, depression, and sometimes a little paranoia (which in some working environments is not necessarily inappropriate).
I see patients who become so hyperalert, they perceive normal functions of their body that they don’t normally feel, and this scares them into thinking something is wrong. Given all the other signs and symptoms above, they could wind up with a whole batch of symptoms and really convince themselves they are at Death’s door. They aren’t, but they are picking up messages from their body that something is wrong, and the body won’t stop giving the message until the underlying problem (recurring stress) is resolved.
WHAT CAN I DO?
When one has a difficult working situation, I always counsel patients that they need to take steps to make their work environment less hostile. This is more difficult than it sounds as you have to get other people’s cooperation and requires tact and sensitivity. Despite that, sometimes there is nothing that can be done, and the patient’s only recourse is to seek employment elsewhere. With the down turn, that can be a very difficult situation. I certainly wouldn’t recommend someone quit until their next “landing place” was already secured. There are always jobs for really good employees, but most don’t make the change for fear they will be left without a job. That makes them feel trapped and feel a little unsafe and vulnerable, which makes the stress worse. This economic downturn and chronic job stress are tougher on those with poor self esteem. Their assumption is that they can’t do anything about the situation. This leaves them prone to feeling trapped and silently angry. Those who are “hot reactors” tend to have high levels of adrenaline anyway, and increases in stress can put them over the top of their coping ability. Rage can be seen more often in these people. There are some personalities that tolerate it, and some that can’t.
Everyone, however, can participate in stress management strategies that are more than just coping, but really restorative biologically. Exercise programs where you are able to get your heart rate up 20-30 beats over resting 30-45 minutes at a time, 4 days a week result in significant measurable reductions in blood pressure and heart rate response to stress. Those people with exercise programs have lower levels of adrenalin released into their blood in response to stress than couch potatoes do. Exercise and protect yourself!
Taking a break from work also allows a more full restoration of energy and relief from the onslaught. Leave your cell phone at home, and do something different. Movies, picnics, art shows, fishing, sailing, lay on a beach. Take a nap in a hammock. Take a long weekend. Go to a new place for a vacation. Pick up a new hobby.
Develop a group of friends that you can talk to. Not just bitch and moan, but to really have a meaningful discussion about your feelings. Much of the chronic stress in our lives comes from decisions we’ve made. Maybe some weren’t the smartest, and a pattern of bad decisions will lead to chronic stress. Talking to others and getting their input might help you look at your life in a new way, and help you see how you are hosing up your life. Beware, however. You have to be careful in the information you share. Treating your close friend with the same trust you expect as you confide your inner most feelings is important. They should be able to share with you with the same level of privacy. As trust develops, you can go deeper with them, talking about the more personal things in life that bug you.
I had a professor in Medical School that said there were only two rules about stress: 1) don’t sweat the small stuff. And 2) It’s ALL small stuff. Although this is a bit of an oversimplification, but I think it’s probably true.
Another wise person said: If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.
So—- Change your pattern. Do something different. Be brave. Branch out. Listen to what your body is telling you and take care of it with the same compassion you would give an infant. It will make you healthier.
Ten ways to avoid stress:
1) Exercise regularly
3) Go have fun
4) Get more rest
5) Develop a close relationship with someone
6) Slow down
7) Let go of the need to control
10) Hang out with people