Keys to managing stress at work
Chronic stress is one of the main causes of sick leave at work. Keep reading to learn how to detect and manage it.
Too much work, poor time management, job instability, lack of stimulation, challenges with work-life balance, constant traffic jams… The office can be a highly stressful environment, especially after a relaxing summer holiday. “Depression related to chronic stress is one of the main causes of sick leave from work”, says Cinthya Molina, psychologist at SHA Wellness Clinic. “However, it is important to clarify that stress is a natural, innate and instinctive mechanism that we need to survive, and without it we’d be lost. It helps us to achieve our goals, meet challenges and alerts us to threats. The problem is when acute stress, which is good and necessary, becomes chronic and we don’t know how to manage it. In fact, studies have shown that a little stress enhances memory, while too much stress suppresses it”.
Chronic stress impacts health and can lead to cardiovascular, digestive and psychological issues that include anxiety or depression, headaches and back pain, even hormonal imbalances. Cinthya explains that there are three phases in this process. “When acute stress becomes chronic, the digestive system is the first to notice it because there is a direct connection between the brain and the stomach, which translates into digestive issues. In the second phase, and if overexposure to stressful stimuli hasn’t been managed properly, the body begins to ask for rewards, that is, dopamine. And it gets it through sugar, alcohol or eating more. That’s why people who are stressed out turn to substance abuse or binge eating for solace. The third phase is when you really get sick and there is a noticeable change in your personality: you become irritable, you have memory problems and you can ultimately develop an anxiety disorder or depression”.
To learn how to manage stress, you need to first learn how to recognise its triggers. “A stressful stimulus is new, uncontrollable, unpredictable and threatening. Therefore, the first thing to do is to identify these situations and design a strategy. When the body is stressed, it generates cortisol, which causes the brain to send more blood to the muscles, increases blood pressure and palpitations, dilates the pupils and tells the stomach and kidneys to stop working. The solution is to look for situations that make us release oxytocin, that relax us. And social support has been shown to be the strongest predictor of anti-stress: chatting with others, laughing, increasing social and sexual relationships and, ultimately, engaging in activities that give us pleasure, such as exercise or spending time on hobbies. Helping others is one of the most oxytocin-producing activities, and therefore gives us a lot of pleasure. That’s why I always say that there is no act more selfish than being altruistic”, says the expert.
Another very useful tool is progressive muscle relaxation. “When we’re stressed, the sympathetic nervous system, which is what keeps us alert, kicks into gear; to relax the body has to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is achieved with muscle relaxation techniques, such as conscious breathing. This involves breathing out a little longer than it takes to breathe in, because your pulse quickens when you breathe in, while when you exhale it slows down”, concludes Cinthya.