Managing the pressures and avoiding stress

With the new year upon us, I thought I’d give some thought to health and share my views on one of the biggest cause of workplace sick days and household traumas - STRESS.

Ask any top performer, be it an athlete, sportsman, singer, actor, or even a celebrity dancer or skater, and they will all tell you that they perform best when they feed off the pressure of the moment and the adrenalin kicks in.

And it’s very similar for us mere mortals in our everyday life. We need some pressure, drive, motivation or incentive to do our best and our body is a great machine at getting the adrenalin flowing when we need it.

In its most basic form, our body’s response to a potentially stressful situation is the ‘fight or flight’ reaction – where it gears us up to deal with a perceived threat. In our evolutionary years, this was likely to be the sabre toothed tiger – but modern day variations range from an actual threat to our physical wellbeing to a Boss on the war-path, a road raged driver, a challenging situation like public speaking, a daunting task - or even Christmas with the in-laws!

How your body responds to stress

When you experience stress, your body goes through a series of physiological responses that feed into your nervous system and circulatory system and affect everything from hormones to heart rate.

The “fight-or-flight” response of the body during times of stress is well-documented. This instinctive response floods your body with adrenaline and cortisol, which increases heart rate, redirects blood flow to the muscular system, releases fats into the bloodstream for use as energy, increases breathing rate, tenses muscles, and increases your blood’s clotting ability—all of which are intended to help you fight off (or run from) an opponent.

We’ve all heard of amazing feats of strength and courage in stressful situations – like the mother who lifts a car off her injured child, the man who runs for 10 miles for help, the children who rescue an injured parent - all helped by the physiological reaction to stress.

The only problem is, if the cause of stress is not a sabre-toothed tiger but a long day at the office, your body doesn’t know the difference, so it reacts to all stress in the same way. Over time, this can wreak havoc on your health physically, mentally, and emotionally. The situations may vary – but the physiological reaction can be very similar.

How your heart is affected by stress

Stress affects your cardiovascular system in several ways:

  • Heart rate increases
  • The rate of blood flow speeds up, increasing blood pressure
  • The release of fatty acids into the bloodstream for energy increases cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • Under chronic stress, the continued release of cortisol seems to have some effect on where fat is deposited in the body, most often in the abdomen.

The effect of chronic stress on your heart

Over time, the physiological reactions to stress can take a toll on your cardiovascular system:

  • Due to an increased heart rate, it’s possible that your heart could take on an abnormal heart rhythm or you could have problems with the heart muscle itself
  • With the increase in blood pressure, your cardiovascular system can have all of the usual problems associated with hypertension including increased risk for heart disease and stroke
  • Due to the increase in cholesterol and triglycerides in your bloodstream, there is potential for your arteries to thicken with plaque over time, which could lead to coronary artery disease or heart attack. The deposit of fat in the abdomen, leading to an “apple” shape, is a marker of metabolic syndrome and is considered a risk factor for heart disease
  • Under ‘stress’ there is an increased depletion of Vitamin B and Vitamin C in the body and this will affect your immunity system. That’s why people with chronic stress are far more susceptible to colds, viruses and other illness
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) and high cholesterol are known as the ‘silent killers’ – outwardly there can be no signs at all. You can appear to be the calmest person on earth, but have high blood pressure, or be as thin as a rake and have high cholesterol

If in doubt, check it out. A 10 minute blood pressure test with the doctor or a 5 minute blood test for cholesterol levels could save your life.

I had my BP checked this week, by accident – literally! I was taking the mother-in-law to A&E, walked out of the hospital car park and got whacked on the head by the barrier arm. There was blood everywhere, but thankfully only superficial - at least I was in the best place and I’ve lived to write this article!

However, during the routine check-up for concussion, the nurse took my BP and it was through the roof. It settled back down when I visited the doctor three days later – but still too high - and as a result, I’m on the pill! So perhaps the car park barrier did me a favour after all.

The bottom line is that pressure is good for us to perform at our best, but chronic stress is very, very bad for us.

How to manage stress

So here are a few tips to help you manage stress in a good way:

  • Stress is 100% perception, so try to change some of your perceptions. If you don’t perceive something to be stressful, all of a sudden, it isn’t
  • Develop a ‘can do’ attitude and look at the positives (if possible) in a situation, to help you overcome any negatives
  • Deal with things that are within your ‘sphere of influence’. If they aren’t in it but they need to be, work on bringing them in or influence people whose ‘sphere’ they are in
  • Be assertive in your behaviour and attitude with others. This means, standing up for your own rights and beliefs – but in a way that accepts and understands those of others. Sometimes this just means saying ‘no’ and learning not to take on too much, or agreeing to unrealistic timescales – other times it’s as simple as just talking things through – or just not putting things off
  • Planning and preparation can make you feel much more in control of things and help with anticipating events rather than reacting to them. It’s also great for avoiding the OSINTOT syndrome (oh sugar I never thought of that)
  • Maintain a healthy and balanced diet - stress can really play havoc with your metabolic rate, the production of fat for energy, so we don’t want to make it any worse with a high saturated fat, high salt, high sugar, high carb intake. Be sensible with alcohol, caffeine and nicotine – easier said than done, I know!
  • Take regular exercise – no matter what it is or where it is, it will be good for you. Exercise will invoke something called the ‘parasympathetic’ (the equivalent of beating up the sabre tooth tiger!) and re-balances the body’s hormones following ‘fight or flight’. It also strengthens muscles joints and bones, keeps the heart healthy and improves circulation and oxygen intake, and increases the levels of endorphins and serotonin (also known as ‘the feel good factor’!)
  • Learn a few relaxation techniques – to help you ‘chill out’ and have a bit of ‘you time’
  • Find some ‘blockers’ – things which you have to concentrate on for a while that literally block out all other thoughts, e.g. reading a good book, crosswords, puzzles, juggling, doing a STEP class (concentration is essential here – I always end up facing the wrong way!)

Some people are, naturally, better at coping with stress than others (different personality types etc.) and my article isn’t intended to solve problems (I’m not a doctor or psychologist), but rather to raise awareness levels – both in yourself and also those close to you.

As business advisors, we care about the health of your business – and this includes you.

Here’s looking forward to a perceptibly less stressful 2014 - and not being attacked by car park barriers!

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