avemen didn’t suffer stress, that is true, but a physiological mechanism designed to help them cope with the threats which their life imposed on them is what causes us to suffer from stress in our 21st century life.
The caveman within and survival
Imagine yourself in an environment where it was either kill or be killed and all you had was a spear. Our ancestors had to literally bring home the bacon and the possibility of being the food of some other animal which was faster and had bigger teeth. Faced with a threat, the body had a great mechanism to help us get ready to fight or run. Adrenalin is the hormone secreted in times of danger or need for energy. It causes the body to get ready for action by increasing the metabolism, going to the toilet to get rid of excess liquid (and sometimes solid) waste, makes the sense sharper, increasing sweat and makes us vigilant. The mechanism also told us to temporarily stop wasting energy healing, sleeping and making antibodies to fight infection. In such an environment this was a good survival strategy and the chase would only last minutes and would be over. The problem is our lifestyle has evolved but we still have the caveman instincts within, which now fire up when we perceive a threat and unlike our caveman ancestors, those threats go on for hours, days, weeks and even months and we may want to run away from them, but we can’t.
Consequences of stress
Hans Selye was the first person to describe stress and he found it in abundance in the trenches of the First World War. Young men, suffering from shell shock had their fight and flight system overwhelmed by the constant stress of danger so that their whole bodies and minds became worn out with it.
Now, while some arousal in response to our environment is a good thing, because without a little stress we wouldn’t get out of bed, prepare for that presentation or revise for an exam. In contrast, too much stress over a long period of time actually kills us, eventually from heart disease, infections and even some cancers. In fact, some people believe there is a modern day phenomenon called adrenal fatigue caused by prolonged overstimulation of the adrenal glands which secrete adrenalin. The problem is that we still have a caveman solution to a 21st century problem and no amount of “pulling ourselves together” can change our physiology. We need to work with it and manage our stress.
Five methods for helping you manage your stress from work.
- Create a boundary between work and home. With many of us working from home and or expected to “do as many hours as the job requires” this is harder than you may think, but just because it is hard, doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. So if possible don’t take work home at all. If not, limit the days when you do. If you have a home office, make sure you keep your work in there and shut the door on it when not working. It is essential that you take one day off a week at least, even if your work is your life. All work and no play makes Jack/Jill a very dull boy/girl indeed.
- Sharpen the saw. This is a term used by the late, great, Steven Covey, management guru and author of The Seven habits of Highly Successful People. Sharpening the saw means making time to learn new skills, not necessarily related to work. If you are physically competitive it may be setting a target to complete a physical challenge. For others, it might involve creativity or learning to play an instrument. It isn’t a luxury but a necessity which will benefit you in work because you will feel fitter and/or creative.
- This has the benefit of helping to combat the physical aspects of stress. It can give you thinking time so that you can problem-solve better and it may even help you sleep better. It may be as little as taking the stairs, getting off a bus a few stops earlier or walking the dog. A tip: Can you walk or cycle to work at least one day a week?
- Choose a mental/physical discipline and do it regularly. This is much more fun than it sounds! Mindfulness, meditation and yoga are all examples of disciplines which help to link body and mind together and help you live as a whole person. Yoga in particular can help you keep a well-toned and healthy body and it isn’t just for skinny people who can tie themselves in knots.
- Take a break from your desk. There are good sound reasons why the health and safety at work act states an employee must have at least a 20-minute break during an 8-hour day. If you sit at your desk and eat your lunch you are more likely to develop digestive problems, bad posture and respond to an email in a tetchy tone. A break means you are less likely to suffer energy drops and you will approach your afternoon better.
You wouldn’t get into a plane, bus or train if the driver or pilot was worn out by stress because they are more likely to make a mistake that would cost you your life. Just because you fly a desk, it doesn’t make you less important to the lives of your colleagues and most of all your family. Look after yourself, you are worth it!