Reducing stress will have a profound, positive impact on both your mental and physical health.
Updated: May 23, 2019
Stress and its causes have, of late, been a major focus with people trying to better understand how it can impact people‘s mental health. Stress and its big brother / sister chronic stress can reduce our intelligence and capability to perform. Why? As well as flooding our brains with stress chemicals that can impair considered thought, long periods of stress for people have been shown to be a significant driver of mental ill-health problems such as anxiety disorders, panic disorders, depression and even psychosis further down the line.
There are, of course, many causes of stress. In this article I will only talk about stress caused from not creating reasonable boundaries around work, social and other life pressures to help allow time for resting your mind and thus reducing stress.
Burst of stress that can all too easily become chronic stress if the root causes are not carefully managed. The great thing about this is, that we can all take steps to help ourselves and others by reducing some of the things that trigger and sustain stress.
Why reduce stress?
In short bursts the chemicals released by a stress response can sharpen the senses and be highly effective at getting us out of, or through, tricky situations. Chronic or sustained stress is very different though. Stress chemicals running riot around your body for prolonged periods become toxic. This means that stress is, quite literally, a killer. There is much science pointing to the psychological and physiological effects of stress on the body being far and wide. As well a reducing or removing our body’s ability to produce serotonin and dopamine (neurotransmitter chemicals responsible for our happiness), persistent high levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol (produced by the adrenal gland) have been shown to adversely impact the body’s defence mechanisms as well as having harmful impacts on the composition of cells in the human body. Overtime this can lead to, or at least make us more susceptible to, many forms of physical illness; illness that either makes us very poorly or which could ultimately killing us.
Is this a new thing? Surely we have always been stressed. What about when we were hunter-gatherers living in caves?
Correct, stress is not new. Our ability for the body to trigger a stress response is an essential part of human survival. It is these very responses that trigger the fight-flight-freeze response in periods where there is a need for a survival instinct to kick in.
However, it seems the occurrences of chronic stress and their effects on people‘s well being are becoming more common place. The BBC reported recently that the average age of stroke instances in the UK had fallen for the first time because there was a statically significant increase in people having strokes between the ages of 40 and 69 - stress will undoubtedly be a major driver of this shift.
Surely, the 21st Century holds the answer!
Hmmm, well. There is much written about the level of human preparedness for the 21st century. Moore’s law shows that technology is evolving at exponential rates roughly every two years. Even this model is predicted to break in the next 5 years because the level of computing power / its fractional cost cannot continue to grow / reduce at exponential rates. Some say that, as a human race, we are actually unprepared for this pace of advancement in the 21st century and the related implications. We are also struggling with the ethical and regulatory implications when it comes to how best to use this technology in the best possible way; because we’re struggling where to draw the lines.
If it is the case that technological evolution is outpacing our ability to keep up with it, what does this really mean? There is good book by Yuval Noah Harari called ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ that describes very well some that challenges that lay in front of us. In addition to all this, the fibre of how we live in society has fundamentally changed. Our lives are lived in an ever-connected way. In many cases the examples of ever-connectedness we have at our finger tips are awe-inspiring when used with sensible boundaries. However, when that’s not the case, there can be a significant downside; with the social pressures and the constant desire to be interesting in the social sphere, and blurred work-life balance pressure to be ‘always on’ mean we’re just keeping our heads above the water and therefore feeling in control and being on top of life can be more challenging than ever.
Digital technology and the services it brings are truly transformative for how we live. The convenience it creates from the ability to always be connected can be a great benefit. The flip side, of course, of this ever-connectedness, is the inability to, well, disconnect. At a time when we‘re more connected than ever 40% of 18 - 24 year olds report feeling lonely on a regular basis. This state of ever-connectedness can trigger more stress and becomes a viscous cycle; it becomes impossible to achieve a calmness in the mind as we dip from one thing into another.
Without clear boundaries, the continuous checking-in is creating fractures in our ability to concentrate. When, what we actually need, is a regular calmness that enables good, well balanced mental health to keep us at optimum levels of performance.
So what’s the problem?
The mental health research charity MQ reports that there are 10m people suffering with some form of anxiety in the UK but only 15% of those are being treated. People are more regularly experiencing anxiety and worry for fear that they’ll somehow miss something or get behind if they don’t constantly keep checking in. When the time spent doing this could be spent on things that make us feel much happier, healthier and more fulfilled. This desire for ever-connectedness can, if we’re not careful, become the new norm; constantly infiltrating our lives.
The amount of information we have available to us in an instant, and that we can can consume, is vast. We’re more informed than ever across a multitude of topics. All this multi-tasking, though, might make us feel like we’re unable to master key things, or anything, for that matter; and this can make us feel more anxious and less competent in things that are important to our life and work.
Perhaps the obvious risk is that, rather than making things easier, it can make us more confused. It can close down our thinking rather than broaden it as we indulge in confirmation bias to cut through the noise. The myriad of things coming at us from various angles make us more indecisive in areas where we previously would have made easy decisions. Booking a holiday can be quite stressful because of all the choice we have. An activity that should be seriously enjoyable impacted by a relatively new phenomenon called ‘decision paralysis’; followed by a form of anxiety triggered from the idea that we might have made the wrong choice.
How do we break out of it?
All of this can feel like a vicious cycle. As we look for more details or information sources to confirm our views and decisions, we feed the machine - literally and metaphorically. We re-enforce the logic created in AI algorithms about us that could join dots and take our life choices down a paths that bears no resemblance to who we are.
We also live in a world where the flexibility of work and working locations can actually mean we work longer hours than ever. One hypothesis being because we’ve convinced ourselves that this is expected. That we have traded our life balance for the flexibility given to us; that somehow, somewhere we have exchanged our much needed downtime for an always-on commitment.
On the contrary, the idea of more flexible working should enable us to have a much better work-life balance. The reduced time spent on trains or in cars liberates time. Time spent working away from the office can increase concentration and productivity not reduce it.
In the past I have been guilty of delving into emails late at night or during weekend. Doing this generally takes us into a completely different mind space. Then we get frustrated that we have allowed this to happen and rob us of our much enjoyed (and needed) downtime. Frustrated at ourselves for choosing to engage and frustrated at others who we perceive don’t respect what should be reasonable boundaries.
There was report recently that said c. 10% of people are awake sending work emails during the night and c. 40% of people are doing their emails rather than enjoying breakfast with their children. Surely this is wrong.
I have recently taken the steps of redrawing the boundaries around my work-life balance. Making sure I can be present in the moment for my friends and family. As part of this I have removed my work email and diary from my phone. Sometimes this is inconvenient but the gains way outstrip the losses.
I am also learning through daily meditation to enable my mind to be more relaxed. Less judgmental. To not feel guilty or feel a need to constantly check-in; in the desire to create sense of being on top of, or ahead, of things. Because this illusion of control is just that, an illusion. A story created by the mind.
I have learned that boundaries are really (really) important to ensure work, social or other pressures don’t become all consuming; aided by the technology we have so easily at our finger tips.
With these quite simple changes I am finding my productivity is much better through greater focus and concentration when I am at work. I feel more relaxed. I feel less stressed. I feel more fulfilled.
In a podcast I listened to recently on ‘Tribe of Mentors’ called ‘Busy is a Decision’ by Debbie Milman it was said that the way we spend our time is always a choice. Busy is never done to us.
So, spend some of your precious time thinking about, perhaps, the small and sustainable steps you can take to reduce stress in your life. Dedicating time and focus on being present, in the moment, is a beautiful thing. For one, I am convinced it is a key enabler for a much more enjoyable and fulfilling life. A life with much less stress.