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Lessen Your Stress To Protect Your Health

If you don’t wind a guitar string tight enough, it can’t make a sound. But apply too much tension, and it snaps. People and stress are a lot like that.

We’ve all felt the enhanced focus and surge in productivity we get from a looming deadline or a client’s high expectations. But when pressure exceeds our ability to cope, our health, mood, creativity and relationships are bound to suffer.

Dr. Hans Selye, the Vienna-born endocrinologist who pioneered stress research in the 1930s, believed we experience strain not so much because of what happens to us but because of the way we react to it. Our response makes the difference between enjoying the challenges of running a business and succumbing to burnout and exhaustion.

Stress causes a powerful physiological response, which makes sense when you consider its survival value for early humans.

When a cave-dwelling woman encountered a dangerous beast, her body reacted with a cascade of changes that equipped her for fight or flight. The hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine ramped up breathing and heart rate, directed blood to the limbs, slowed digestion, spiked blood sugar, and increased blood-clotting factors.

We no longer run into saber-toothed tigers outside the cave door, but we go through the same physiological arousal when somebody cuts us off in traffic or undermines our authority in a meeting. Most of us are resilient enough to cope with ordinary stress triggers.

But when stresses are chronic, the same arousal that helped our cavewoman escape a tiger can damage our physical and mental health.

How Stress Affects Your Health
Researchers say chronic strain can cause high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, irritable bowel syndrome and depression. Many believe weight gain is another result of chronically elevated stress hormones. Stress can also depress the immune system and worsen symptoms for those who have HIV/AIDS, arthritis, ulcers, skin disorders and other conditions.

The nonprofit American Institute of Stress estimates that work-related stress costs American businesses $300 billion a year from accidents and injuries, time off work, turnover, reduced productivity, medical, legal and insurance expense, and workers’ compensation judgments.

Further, health care costs are almost 50 percent higher for those who say they suffer from high stress, reports the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Ongoing strain takes a toll on creativity too.

In separate studies of graduate students, schoolchildren, musicians and others, various researchers found that elevated stress caused poor performance at tasks that require creative thinking and problem-solving. The arousal of the flight-or-fight response isn’t compatible with the relaxed, free flow of ideas or higher-order tasks.

Are You (Or Your Employees) Stressed Out?
There’s no diagnostic test to show whether your stress is manageable or inching toward the red zone. But these signs of tension can indicate you (or employees) have a problem:

  • Irritability and short temper

  • Muscle tension—especially in neck, jaw, and shoulders

  • Anxiety or panic, sometimes accompanied by shallow breathing, rapid heart rate, and/or sweaty palms

  • Constant feeling of time pressure

  • Moodiness and depression

  • Headache

  • Back pain

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Persistent fatigue

  • Upset stomach, diarrhea or other digestive disorders

  • Worsened symptoms of chronic illness (e.g., arthritis, lupus)

  • Feeling of paralysis—inability to make decisions or take action

  • Sexual dysfunction

If you have employees, odds are they feel pressured. A 2000 Gallup Poll found that four in five workers do, and almost half want help in learning how to manage tension. One-quarter of those surveyed have felt like screaming on the job, and 14 percent felt like hitting a co-worker.

The same year, a national survey of 1,300 U.S. workers, commissioned by real-estate valuation firm Integra Realty Resources, found that nearly one in eight had called in sick because of stress.

Employee tension may manifest as:
  • Low morale

  • Poor attitude

  • Irritability with colleagues and customers

  • An increase in work-related errors

  • On-the-job accidents

  • Threatening behavior

And employees’ anxiety may spill over at work even if the cause is trouble at home (a top source of anxiety), worry over loved ones or health issues.

Changing Your Response To Stress
There’s no such thing as a stress-free life—and if there were, would you want it? As Dr. Selye put it, “Complete freedom from stress is death.”

Given that fact, there are only two things you can change to alter your reaction to anxiety: yourself and your environment, to the extent it’s under your control.

Let’s start with steps you can take to moderate your response to stress.
  • Take care of yourself
    When you’re under strain, it’s easy to let good health habits slide. But that’s when you most need good nutrition, sleep and exercise.

    Snack on fruit, vegetables, nuts and protein. Cut back on sugary treats and too much caffeine—both of which make blood sugar spike, then crash, causing greater fatigue.

    When you feel pressured, walk away from work—literally—for five, 10 or 15 minutes. Even small doses of exercise help dissipate surging stress hormones. If possible, add brief walks before and after work and during your lunch break.

    If you enjoy a hobby or aerobic activity, make time for it. Swimming, gardening, jogging or painting two or three times a week eliminates tension and enhances resilience.

  • Relax your body and mind
    One simple way to unwind is spending a few minutes stretching major muscle groups. Or learn progressive relaxation, which involves tightening, then relaxing muscles while breathing deeply.

    “Mindfulness meditation” builds awareness of tension and your physical response. Spend a few minutes focusing on breathing and scan your body for stress symptoms—a queasy stomach or tight shoulders. Merely observing what’s going on, without judgment, relieves pressure.

    Relaxation methods are taught in communities everywhere as well as in classic books such as Dr. Herbert Benson’s “The Relaxation Response” (HarperTorch, 1976) and Lawrence LeShan’s “How to Meditate” (Little, Brown, 1999). Practicing these techniques regularly has been proven to lower blood pressure and calm the other physical manifestations of stress.

  • Express yourself
    When pressure rises, social contact is more important than ever. Talk to family members or friends, or meet with a counselor or therapist.

    Some people find relief through writing about difficult situations. Others pray. Whether you’re talking to your higher power, your journal or your brother, discussing problems relieves strain.

  • Manage your time
    Becoming more efficient won’t eliminate the pressures of running a business, but it will give you a greater sense of control, which in itself lessens stress.

    Read time-management books, or consider taking a workshop or hiring a consultant. The techniques you learn will help you recover wasted time and improve your effectiveness.

  • Find the lighter side
    In his book “Anatomy of An Illness” (Norton, 2005), Norman Cousins explains how he regained his health, primarily through laughter. No joke: Exposure to books and movies that tickle the funny bone lessens anxiety, enhances immune function and promotes healing.

  • Reducing Strain In The Work Environment
    Because you’re the boss, you have the power to change your company’s environment for the better. Here are ways to cut down on stress for yourself and staff.

  • Build in breaks
    Make sure employees periodically take a breather, especially on hectic days. Add as much variety as possible to their work so they’re not constantly performing the same task. Conduct walking meetings so everybody gets a stress-buster.

  • Beautify the place
    Researchers have discovered that office workers exposed to flowers and foliage plants are more creative and less anxious. You can also encourage relaxation with music or the soothing sound of water from a tabletop fountain.

    Enhance the office’s appeal with paint and décor in peaceful hues—especially blues and greens. Avoid red, bright yellow and orange, which increase arousal.

    Fragrance improves mood as well. Try candles or oil lamps scented with lavender, pine, clove, rose, orange and other aromas.

  • Clear the communication channels
    Anxiety increases when you and employees have different expectations. Make sure workers understand your philosophy and goals—and how their job contributes to the company’s success. Set and discuss priorities so workers know what’s important to you.

    Studies show that good communication is the most significant factor in making employees feel that their work environment is healthy. The result is higher job satisfaction, better morale and fewer absences.

    Conduct performance reviews at least once or twice a year to compare notes, offer suggestions for improvement and learn about problems. Listen to complaints with an open mind. You’ll relieve employees’ stress if they know they can come to you with difficulties.

  • Value employees as people
    Understand that they bring stresses of their own to work and be flexible about their personal needs. You might lose work hours in the short term, but in the long run, you’re building employee loyalty and commitment to the business.

    Whenever possible, give workers a say in decision-making. The most debilitating strain occurs as a result of extreme pressure coupled with low control.

For More Information
To learn more about managing stress, investigate these resources.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health publication “Stress Management in Work Settings”
http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/87-111.html

The American Institute of Stress, with a focus on stress and health
http://www.stress.org/