I believe one of the most crippling patterns that most of us have but take for granted is stress. Stress is the "wear and tear" that our bodies and minds experience as we adjust to our perceived changing environment and its demands. The most popular known cause of stress is called the "fight or flight" response, a term coined by Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon.
This response is hard-wired into our brains in the hypothalamus. When we get stimulated by something that we perceive as a threat, the brain initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemical release that prepares our body to get away from the threat or to fight it. The chemicals released into the bloodstream include adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
The classic textbook example of fight or flight is what takes place when we encounter a tiger. But instead of a tiger, I suppose it is more realistic to think about what happens when an out of control pit bull runs into you. You either fight it or run away. Either way, your body chemistry and physiology changes. Other examples include escaping being hit by a car, surviving a gunpoint robbery, a sudden relationship break up or being fired at work.
Our response to such events can create a state of consciousness from which we start filtering our experiences, causing us to perceive almost everything in the world as a possible threat to our survival. If we keep up this perception for long, our thinking becomes nebulous and fear becomes the lens through which we see reality. This is called trauma. How then can we cultivate positive attitudes if we perceive everything as a threat, acting out from this survival state? We can’t.
Apart from the stress caused by traumatic experiences, such as a car accident, a hostage situation, a lawsuit, business deals, natural disasters or the sudden loss of a loved one, stress can be a very cumulative process. And can also go unnoticed or repressed. Some people can be in denial about their stress as a way of not dealing with the issue, for example, when experiencing marital conflicts or being a workaholic.
Considering that our work environment can add to our daily stress load, we have to learn to manage our energy to avoid burnout. In order to minimize stress, we have to learn to adjust to tight deadlines, leaner staff, increased workload, a demanding boss, stressed co-workers, transcontinental flights in economic seats, jet legs and roadside foods in order to get the job done. Also, most of us have a family to take care of, which can add to our daily stress. When stress reaches high peaks, the most common feeling we experience is that of being overwhelmed. Life becomes a series of short-term emergencies and we lose the ability to relax and enjoy ourselves in the moment. Then, burnout is inevitable, and there goes the quality of our lives and family.
As the quality of our lives deteriorate, so does our productivity. Doctors’ visits increase and medication is prescribed, masking our stress. We drink more coffee to feel more energized and more wine to help us relax. Meanwhile, the insurance premiums of our employer go up while our health goes down! Organizations are learning the hard way that wellness programs not only keep a workforce productive, happier and healthier, but also directly benefit the bottom line.
There are many diseases related to prolonged stress and anxiety, including high cholesterol, heart disease, back pain, headaches, insomnia, cancer, sexual disfunction, ulcers, weight fluctuation and fatigue. They are also responsible for absenteeism in the workplace, which can create stress for those who have to cover for the absentees!
Many people can get addicted to stress, to the rush that it creates. The challenges in the work environment can create this kind of rush, especially for those with competitive personalities. But the downside can be very dangerous, even fatal. Prolonged stress lowers our immune system and we can become easy prey for several diseases, including acute depression, heart failure and cancer. And it can destroy family life as well. But some people prefer a trophy, regardless of what it takes to get it.
I believe that stress management techniques can be extremely helpful and there are many out there. But in order to use them, we first need to become aware of our stressors and have the desire to change them. I have worked with several highly stressed people that were constantly sick and moody. They had a hard time recognizing their stressors and to change their lifestyle and modus operandi. Why? Because they accepted their stress as normal. They were on the move, active, making money, driven and they believed that being stressed was just part of the process, the price of success. They became addicted to it.
This is the danger that a stress pattern can cause to one’s life. When you are in it you cannot see it. You get used to it because at first it can chemically motivate you into action but in the long run this unbalanced biochemistry depletes you. You can be a highly driven individual and still manage your stress. And you can also enjoy power, achievement, money, social status and life in the fast lane. The point here is for you to become aware of your stressors in order to do something about them. Your body will thank you. Your co-workers and family too.
And if lack of money, social recognition or your employment situation is what is causing you stress, well, it can be a great opportunity to review what matters most to you. You can turn any situation around if you can see where you are and where you want to be. Then you just have to plan your work and work the plan to get there, keeping stress at healthy levels. You can alter stress patterns by taking very simple steps such as improving your diet, cutting off stimulants, exercising, receiving regular massages, practicing focusing techniques, planning your work and monitoring your personal and professional interactions.
If you already do these things but are experiencing stress, check your values and belief system, as well as your personality traits to see if you have conflicting intentions. Also, take a look at your environments to see if they are supportive of your process. And don’t forget to adjust your attitudes accordingly. In some cases, psychotherapy is recommended. And while medication can restore chemical imbalances, they can have significant side effects too. You can also invest in a coaching program to help you and your organization become a cohesive, stress free team. Coherence is the best anti-stress medicine in the workplace.
As mentioned before, a little stress can be a good thing. A good indicator of whether or not our activities are at healthy stress levels is whether or not we experience flow. This is a state of consciousness where time stands still, also referred to as being in the Zone. It is very common to experience it while practicing a sport, playing music or working on a captivating project. By holding an intention to experience it, we can transform ordinary activities into extraordinary feelings of well being. We just need to increase our sense of purpose and challenge ourselves a little bit more.
Since we can re-pattern our brains, the power to change our lives to enjoy it fully is within us. And we can start this process at any age, regardless of our circumstances. A good place to start is by being very clear of our intentions and commit towards healthy behaviors. Then, we can watch a new life unfold before our eyes from a space of clarity and certainty.
And what a joy it is to nurse ourselves back to a healthy, stress free lifestyle. If you are interested, take our free introductory course which will help you gain more clarity on any issue by allowing your answers to come to you.
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