Stress is seen as one of the big curses of the modern world. To understand stress we have to understand a little about biochemistry.
Adrenaline increases cardiac output and raises glucose levels in the blood, providing instantaneous bursts of power. This energy funds your body and muscles. Your brain becomes sharper, more productive and you are able to move more quickly.
In order to fund this burst, a second hormone kicks in called cortisol. It’s a steroid hormone, which really sharpens your brain by opens up the blood vessels. Without adrenaline and cortisol you would probably just lay in bed all day and do very little.
Cortisol stimulates the body’s flight or fight responses. It’s produced when your emotions begin to run, particularly fear, anger and anxiety. The body uses the appropriate amount of adrenaline and cortisol throughout the day but if you produce too much relative to the need that you have, you end up with too much cortisol in your system.
The bodies reaction to cortisol is what we call stress. Stress is a normal process that can work to our advantage, but when it goes out of kilter it becomes an issue.
When you have too much cortisol in your system, it makes you feel really burnt out. Your brain and body are working too hard relative to the issue that is in hand. So if we have too much left over we need to figure out ways of dealing with it.
Anxiety, the fear of the unknown, is the thing that forces us to produce cortisol without necessarily having an obvious way to get rid of it. Our body has a very efficient way of getting rid of cortisol but our mind has a very efficient way of producing it. We need to get these two things into sinc by building up our mental toughness and dealing with anxiety.
At work we often have a lot of pressure applied to us. In resilience terms we argue that pressure only becomes pressure when you decide it is pressure. This is how our thoughts hinder us. Once we decide we have pressure, then cortisol is produced.
If you are a pessimist and think pressure is coming, you will not be able to deal with it and you begin to give up and surrender. Cortisol is produced to enable you to surrender but it can be overwhelming.
Overwhelm can be measured by the amount of work you have to do, added to the amount of time that you have, multiplied by the quality that is required – then this is divided by the control that you have.
The volume of work may be a lot to do. If it can be done at a low standard of quality then you can deal with this. If you can stretch it out over a week then you can deal with it. You have to phase that work and prioritise what you do first.
How much time you have is important as our brain optimisation processes can help us. If we do big or difficult tasks at the beginning of the day it saves us time as our brains are fresh. We optimise our brains by doing those things earliest in the day, so we can do them faster. Not all jobs can work this way but many can. And those two hours spent going through emails first thing in the morning – could be time better spent.
A lot of people who get anxious and stressed at work will spend a lot of time faffing about. They are worrying about the things that they can’t control and they are not spending time doing the things that they can. We have to figure out what we can and can’t control within our workload, to be able to deal with it. We need to be able to order our lives so that we can do the things that we have the most control over first.
So if we look at:
- How much we have to do – we can phase the order of that,
- How much time we have to do it in – we can look at how much we are going to use our optimised brains to help us
- The amount of control we have – we need to stop going on about what you can’t do and start working out what you can do
The last thing we have to think about is quality. At work people do not always have an obvious quality standard. They have a way of doing something because it is excepted practice or they do something as it is driven by process. With a lack of obvert quality standards, people operate at their own levels of quality.
For some who are sloppy and slap dash, they operate at a low level of quality, so they can do more work at a lower standard. However there are a lot of people in the workplace who may have high levels of anxiety for example and they operate at a need to have a perfect standard. They do less work because they are trying to do all of that work at a higher quality standard. More work builds up around them, they need more cortisol so they get more stresses. Talk to your manager to understand what is good enough for a piece of work in terms of this quality standard.
If you have too much cortisol in your system, what can you do about it?
- Take action. Do the things that you can control. A feature of people who are less stressed is that they actually do what needs to be done. They stop talking about it and stop putting it off and just start working. They will start working on anything just to knock stuff off their list, it doesn’t matter that it is not the hardest thing – they just start.
- Exercise. People who say they get a lot of exercise are often those people who feel less stressed because they are actually exercising the cortisol out of their system. Exercise such as yoga brings together stretching and muscle use to burn cortisol.
- Laugh. Laughter is brilliant for getting rid of stress. Having good sociable times with people and in fact just doing stuff is the point. When you are doing things you are burning up the cortisol.
- Meditate. Learn to get a hold of your thoughts. Being more mindful, noticing what is going on in the moment, allows you to distress. If we can manage our breathing we will be able to manage our thoughts.
You need to figure out whether you distress better by being busy or you distress better by doing less. Personally I like to distress by doing things like baking, DIY or my recently discovered passion of housework.
Stress is good for us until it goes out of kilter. The thing that drives it out of kilter most of all is how we think. As a human being we are able to control stress, we just have to find out what works best for us.
Good Resilience! by Russell Thackeray