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What Stress is Really Doing to Your Employees — And How to Stop It

5 Habits to promote in your workplace that counteract stress
By: Hannah Manz and Amanda McDonald
August 3rd, 2017

 

Stress is a part of everyday life; it isn’t a bad thing.

However, our reaction to stress can be dangerous to our health and the health of others if we don’t manage it appropriately. This is why it’s important that we learn where stress stems from and what we can do to lessen its effects.

We are affected by stress in more ways than one

Stress takes a toll on our musculoskeletal system.

When we experience stress, one of the body’s first reactions is to tense up.1 Not only is it a natural reflex to the stress itself, but it’s also the body’s way to protect against pain and injury.

Unfortunately, our muscles do not relax until the stress passes, so the sooner you can get rid of the stress, the better.

Unfortunately, our muscles do not relax until the stress passes. The sooner you can get rid of the stress, the better.

If you have ever experienced a “tension headache,” then you’ve also likely been distracted at work due to the pain.  Tension headaches occur when your neck, shoulders, and upper back muscles become victims of chronic muscle tension due to chronic stress. The strain can also lead to migraine headaches.

Chronic muscle tension related to stress can also lead to migraine headaches.

Our respiratory system needs to work harder.

After our muscles tense up, our respiratory system becomes enhanced. We then begin breathing harder.1 This intense breathing, or hyperventilation, has the potential to bring on a panic attack to someone prone to high anxiety.

This intense breathing, or hyperventilation, has the potential to bring on a panic attack to someone prone to high anxiety.

Our cardiovascular system is heavily burdened.

You may be familiar with the two main components of the cardiovascular system, the heart and blood vessels. But do you know how much they coordinate with stress? The cardiovascular system provides oxygen and nourishment to the entire body, including all of its organs, and when acute stress comes on, our heart immediately begins to work harder.

The cardiovascular system provides oxygen and nourishment to the entire body, including all of its organs. When acute stress comes on, our heart immediately begins to work harder.1

Our heart starts to perform stronger contractions when it is under stress. In addition to mightier contractions, the blood vessels directing blood to the heart and large muscles enlarge, causing increased blood flow to these areas.1 Since blood flow volume is increasing, blood pressure is also increasing.

This typical reaction to stress is known as the fight-or-flight response. This survival mechanism of the human body is activated when we feel the need to flee from a harmful situation or for something as simple as noise in our offices.

Our metabolism,  sleep, and mood are affected.

Stress triggers your hypothalamus, the part of our brain that is the link between the collection of glands that produce hormones (the endocrine system) and nervous systems, to send a signal to the autonomic nervous system and the pituitary gland. This signal is the catalyst for the production of epinephrine and cortisol, the “stress hormones.”

This signal is the catalyst for the production of epinephrine and cortisol, the “stress hormones.”1

Our gastrointestinal system becomes hypersensitive.

Under stress, our brain becomes more alert to the sensations of our stomach. This is why you may experience “butterflies,” stomach pain, or nausea while stressed. Chronic stress can lead to stomach ulcers or even worse stomach pain.1

In addition to stomach sensations, stress can also affect digestion; it may alter the nutrients your body does/does not absorb. It can even slow down or speed up digestion.

Stress leads to a hyperactive nervous system.

The nervous system is the center of all of the body’s reactions to stress. Most importantly, it creates the fight-or-flight response in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to fend off possible threats.

The adrenal glands receive a signal from the SNS to release two certain hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline and cortisol cause the heart to beat faster, respiration rate to increase, blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate, the digestive process to change, and glucose levels in the bloodstream to rise to deal with the emergency.1

Lifelong effects of stress

Many serious, lifelong health issues can be brought on by the numerous effects of stress.

Chronic stress is found to be at the root of anxiety, depression, addiction, obesity, muscle pain, high blood pressure, clogged arteries, a weak immune system, heart disease, and cognitive impairment.2

Furthermore, those who suffer from depression and anxiety are at twice the risk for heart disease than people without these conditions.3

In addition to these physical health issues, more and more studies are continuing to explain the impact stress has on your psychological health. Researchers from the Brain Mind Institute at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) have investigated the relationship between chronic stress and the loss of social skills and cognitive impairment. Their research suggests there is an enzyme that attacks a nerve cell regulatory molecule in the brain when triggered by stress which leads to these problems.

Researchers from the Brain Mind Institute at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) have investigated the relationship between chronic stress and the loss of social skills and cognitive impairment. Their research suggests there is an enzyme that attacks a nerve cell regulatory molecule in the brain when triggered by stress which leads to these problems.4

These studies are complex, but important ones. As humans, we will undoubtedly experience stressful situations throughout life. However, the positive thing to note is there are health-enhancing habits that can help relieve stress on a daily basis.

However, the positive things to focus on are the many health-enhancing habits that can help relieve stress on a daily basis.

Integrate these 5 habits into your everyday life to prevent and conquer stress

  1. Identify and address triggers

Take a minute to sit down and think about what makes you angry, irritable, sad, tense, or worried. Truly identify what your triggers are, and think about what you need to do to deal with them.

The key thing to remember is to remain focused on the things you can control.

  1. Get enough sleep

The average adult should be striving for 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, more than 40% of all adults say they lie awake at night because of stress.5

If you’re looking to improve your amount and quality of sleep, experts suggest going to bed at the same time every night and eliminating distractions, especially technology and screens, from your bedroom and nighttime routine.

  1. Go for a daily walk

A daily walk can be extremely beneficial for your health! Not only will it deepen your breathing and relieve muscle tension due to stress, but it will also increase your body’s production of endorphins. Endorphins are “feel-good” chemicals and neurotransmitters that improve your mood so a few steps will go a long way.6

  1. Practice relaxation techniques

There are many different ways to relax and induce calm in a stressed-out body. Deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, repetitive prayer, and focusing on a soothing word are a few stress relief practices.

But for some, it might be something as simple as a bath, music, or being in nature to help relax.

  1. Maintain a strong support system

One of the most important things you can do to manage your stress is surrounding yourself with loving, encouraging friends, family, and coworkers.

Although it’s not exactly clear why there is a theory that people who enjoy close relationships with family and friends also enjoy increased longevity.7

To conclude, you’re not alone in experiencing stress. It’s simply part of our fast-paced environments.

But learning to take control of your stress by being mindful of the stress triggers in your life and developing stress relief habits in your daily routine can improve your overall health – mentally, physically, and emotionally.

  1. American Psychological Association. (2017). Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx.
  2. Baum, A. & Polsusnzy, D. (1999). Health Psychology: Mapping Biobehavioral Contributions to Health and Illness. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 50, pp. 137-163.
  3. Anderson, N.B. & Anderson, P.E. (2003). Emotional Longevity: what really determines how long you live. New York: Viking.
  4. Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. (2014). How stress tears us apart: Enzyme attacks synaptic molecule, leading to cognitive impairment. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140918091418.htm.
  5. American Psychological Association. (2017). Stress in America. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/index.aspx.
  6. Fox, K.R. (1999). The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutrition, Vol. 2, pp. 411-418.
  7. Harvard Health Publications. (2016). Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response.
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