Salt’s mindfulness columnist Andy Hix explains what stress can do to your body and mind, and how to easily avoid it.
How do you usually deal with feeling stressed at work? Most people seem to carry on working in the hope that getting a few more things done will make them feel better. Some people say they like to feel stressed.
I would like to draw a distinction between stress and pressure. Pressure is the feeling that you’ve got to perform at your best and work really hard in order to succeed. That can be a good thing.
Stress is when the body’s fight, flight or freeze response is activated by the sympathetic nervous system. The same thing used to happen when we were confronted with a sabre-tooth tiger as happens now when we’re fretting about missing a deadline: your heart starts beating faster, your muscles tense and you start sweating as you prepare for action. Systems not essential for keeping you alive in the immediate term, like digestion, slow down or stop.
In the old days, we’d have a good run around, the danger would pass, and the adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine would drain from the body and we’d skip merrily one our way. Or maybe be eaten.
In modern life, we don’t get eaten so often, but it can feel like the danger never fully passes. There’s always something on horizon to worry about, and feeling stressed can be an ongoing or common occurrence.
The effects on the body can be severe. Here’s a little diagram of all the effects it can have:
So what to do? Well, if you realise you’re feeling stressed, don’t carry on working, STOP! Stop is an acronym:
STOP, TAKE A BREATH, OBSERVE, PROCEED
First, Stop what you’re doing. If you’re at work it might help to sit somewhere away from everyone – maybe even go into the toilet. Once you’re somewhere that you’ll be undisturbed, close your eyes and Take some deep breaths.
Now just observe your breath, Observe any feelings or sensations in the body and any thoughts you’re having. No need to do anything, just watch. You can remind yourself that you’re safe and not about to be eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger.
This sends a signal to the body that it’s OK to switch back to the parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the ‘rest-and-digest’ activities. Take as long as you need for you breathing to slow down.
Lastly, Proceed. Consciously decide what you should do next. Do you need to talk to someone? Go for a walk? Ask for a deadline extension? The idea here is to not just plough on as you were before but to do something that’s going to help you feel better.
Of course it’s not easy to remember to do this in the heat of the moment, but the more you practice the more it will become your default response. You can use it when you’re feeling even mildly anxious.
The response of carrying on working, or working even harder than before, is often a counterproductive way of dealing with stress. Instead of doing more, we need to do less.
I hope you find this helpful. Let me know how you get on.
Andy Hix is director of zen at work, a London-based mindfulness consultancy. Get in touch with Andy for a free taster session at www.zenatwork.co.uk.
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Photo credit: Filippo C from Flickr