A typical day in the life of the twenty first century busy person begins like this - woken by the blaring alarm clock or even worse a raucous radio announcer, a bowl of over processed breakfast food, or nothing to eat at all, and a rush to get to get to work. Meetings, reports, deadlines, peer pressure - the list goes on. The body’s fight or flight mechanism is triggered but without the safety valve of physical activity to defuse it's state of red alert. The 'distress' caused by these events triggers adrenalin and cortisol to flow into the bloodstream. And as the day or the week goes on, it doesn’t get any better. Their stress results in increased irritability, anger, aggression, more arguments and depression while increasing the risk of dysfunction, disease or even disability. Trying to function with high stress levels also results in low productivity at work and at home.
The lifestyle of the twenty first century person is filled with stress - stress created by family, friends, work and themselves. It's a combination of psychological and physical 'stressors'. Much of the psychological stress we experience is a largely a product of how we think - our attitude. In the twenty first century, psychological distress often has more to do with our overreaction to situations than it does to the actual external pressures. It's not so much as what happens to us, as how we react or respond to the situation or event. Ten thousand years ago as fisher hunter-gatherers, our stress response to a bear, a snake or a fire heading towards us was critical for our survival. Now the threat posed by such physical stressors has largely been replaced by a new range of far more subtle and insidious psychological stressors. Much of this is the psychological pressure people feel as a result of something happening around them or to them. The pressure of too much work, deadlines or exams, complex relationships, arguments or being 'told off'. However, the difference between positive 'eustress' and negative 'distress' is how a person interprets these events and how many of them they're subjected to.
Fortunately there are many strategies we can use to take control of this stress which can easily be incorporated into our everyday activities. However, when you are stressed, you rarely have the skills to step back and identify the cause. Even if you do, it's difficult to take action if you have not been given the tools you need to take control of the situation or your reaction to it. Stress, and the negative thinking that goes with it, can become an addiction. Negative thinking becomes a habitual way of responding, and a downward spiral begins - down into more and more negative thinking and as a result more and more stress.
The new forms of physical stress add to our burden of psychological stress, but are often so subtle or such an integral part of our busy lives that we remain oblivious to them. These physical stressors produce a negative effect on our bodies no matter how or what we think about them. You may be surprised to learn that the main ones include your alarm clock, the modern media, low quality food, loud noises, short or poor quality sleep and late nights. As we become more psychologically stressed we actually have a tendency to expose ourselves to more of these particular physical stressors. For example, if you are not getting enough sleep, you have to rely more and more on your alarm clock, and if you oversleep and wake up already fatigued, you may not have time for breakfast or may feel you need to jerk yourself in wakefulness with a shot of caffeine. Because we feel pressured and fatigued we may resort to junk foods and energy boosters, such as sugar and fat laden foods to get through the day. Or you reach the weekend feeling as twisted as a pretzel, and a bit too much partying is needed to 'unwind'. So the stress spiral becomes tighter and tighter.
Much of what is aired on television is negative and shows scenes that our subconscious mind does not distinguish from reality, particularly scenes of violence and brutality. Our minds aren't designed to cope with seeing these events every night on the news. While our conscious mind can override these images to a large degree, even an adult will still experience some subtle negative influence in the brain.
The alarm clock blaring creates an instant state of stress which is aggravated by the grating voice of the radio announcer trying to sound as though they're awake. The body is propelled from deep sleep to a state of ready to fight off anything. Similarly, loud noises are also a stress which destroy concentration in the short term and hearing in the long term. Blaring music on smart phones (and I have one but don't have it on too loud) are not only a major issue for hearing loss but also an increased number of waking accidents at road and railway crossings.
Poor food stresses the body as it depletes nutrients which are essential for its effective functioning. Top of the list are the highly processed foods with sugar, vegetable oils, processed grains and food additives. Don’t be mislead by the plethora of ridiculous attempts to make processed food look healthy. My guide is that if it is processed it has become a stressor on the body and is no longer a food. Eating quickly and overeating also places stresses on your digestive system. You can't absorb the nutrition in your food as effectively if you gulp your meal and overload your stomach by eating too much. Eating this way requires more effort from your digestive system, more blood is redirected to your gut, making you feel sluggish, fatigued and more stressed.
At last, the end of your busy day and time for well-earned sleep. But can you get to sleep, and when you do, do you get enough? Mostly, you just don’t seem to get enough. Poor sleep and going to bed late adds to the toll exacted by psychological stress. The average length of sleep has declined from around 9 hours a hundred years ago to seven hours or less today. And the depth of sleep has also declined, thanks to television, caffeine, increasing work pressures and Thomas Edison inventing the electric light. Welcome to the 24-hour stress cycle. Each little bit adding onto the next little bit and the result being more health problems and lower productivity.
Signs of stress and stress related health disorders include sleep problems, digestive and eating disorders, headaches, anxiety, depression, anger and hostility, drug abuse, overeating and eating disorders. These have all reached epidemic proportions in our busy society, even in kids. Too much stress reduces our capacity to function effectively. Stress can short circuit memory and brain function, causing decreased concentration, mental focus and memory, making it more difficult to think clearly, particularly during more stressful periods, such as exams. Stress limits your personal power and the more stress you have the greater are the limitations imposed on reaching your potential.
Another very significant effect of distress is the gradual depletion of the immune system. As early as 1977 studies showed immunosuppression amongst people under stress, as well as students during stressful periods, such as exams. More recent studies have found people with higher levels of psychological stress show a greater susceptibility to infectious disease. Subjects with higher rates of stress were significantly more likely to contract respiratory infections than those who lead comparatively ‘stress free’ lives.
Lesser-known effects of distress include increased cortisol output, resulting in increased appetite and weight gain and depletion of certain nutrients in the body. Current research suggests that stress may play a significant role in increasing the body’s requirement for a range on nutrients, such as C, E, A and B-complex vitamins, minerals such as magnesium, zinc and calcium and omega 3 fatty acids. Fortunately, some animal studies have also shown the effects of stress-induced oxidative damage (free radicals) can be reduced through a diet high in antioxidants.
The good news is stress can be managed and even made into something positive. There are many studies that demonstrate the use of various techniques, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapies such as goal setting and cognitive restructuring, relaxation, meditation, physical activity and dietary changes. Any of these approaches used alone or in combination (and research shows that a combined approach is more effective) can dramatically reduce negative stress. Making time to manage your stress can result in significant improvements in your productivity, and your health. Use as many of the techniques and strategies listed below from the iLEAD program as you can.
Learn to relax. Take some slow, deep breaths – the more the better.
Learn to meditate. Even 10 minutes a day is a great start, or take up yoga to stretch your body and mind.
Get more physical activity. Physical activity is one of the best ways to de-stress, as it breaks down the stress hormones in your body. Just a quick five minute walk can do wonders. I tell my students to go for a brisk 10 minute walk before exams as it lowers stress and increases the blood flow to the brain. Which is just what you want to improve your thinking.
Find a nice place to relax, to be able to just get away each day.
Open the windows for some fresh air.
Play some Baroque music
Get some sun each day
Set your goals.
Learn some simple techniques to control those busy voices in your head. Yes, of course you have voices. Take control of them. Rather than letting them control you, write down all the dramas you have in a journal. Get them out of your head and put them in perspective.
Realise that we often stress over small and relatively unimportant things. They may seem important now but they won't be in a few weeks and you'll wonder what all the fuss was about if you remember them at all.
Eat less processed food.
Eat as much wholesome and nourishing food as you can, particularly green vegetables, fruit, nuts and beans as they are 'super foods'.
Eat less processed grain
Eat less meat and dairy
Avoid artificial food colours (102-150) and flavours (600s).
Have a fresh vegetable juice instead of a soft drink.
Cut down sugar and alcoholWhat’s great about all these strategies is that they also improve the overall health of the individual and reduce susceptibility to most of our twenty first century chronic diseases. They'll also improve your thinking and consequently your results at work.
And my final message: wake up to the effects of stress on you now. If you seem to think you don't need to manage your stress better, then you probably really DO need to. One of the primary symptoms of suffering from too much stress is thinking that you're coping just fine. Implementing some simple strategies now can enhance health and well being for life.