This is part of an article in 5 parts, taking you through the physics of stress, and how to prevent it. Start reading here – or go to one of the below sections to dig deeper into each element.
Seen from a physical point, stress is the sum of the effects of a prolonged exposure to cortisol. No more, no less.
It can damage your brain, your body and in worst case it is deadly. Yes it is. And not only in Japan.
Cortisol is as such a natural and necessary element of our metabolism, but its just not meant to be in our blood all the time. It is released into the blood when we face something that we perceive as danger. It makes you an instant superhero ready for either fight or flight, even if the danger is ‘only’ a deadline or a pile of tasks with no time or capacity to do them. When we discuss stress, the perceived danger is the stressor – what makes us stressed.
While adrenaline, the other powerful stress hormone, gets in and out quite fast, cortisol is released slower, and gets out of the system quite slowly:
The scale on the figure is days. Perhaps even weeks.
So what happens if you face a new danger – stressor – while you still have cortisol roaming in your blood? Well. You just get more. And if it continues, you have build a constant high level of cortisol.
This is what we call chronic stress.
Knowing this, it is obvious that there are three strategies to avoid chronic stress:
- Avoid the stressors. Don’t give the body an excuse for releasing cortisol.
- Keep the amount of released cortisol low. If we can make the body not producing so much cortisol when facing a stressor, the impact will be smaller.
- Get the cortisol out faster, so that the build-up is reduced.
Let’s go through these three strategies, one by one.
1. Avoid the stressors
To avoid them, we need to know what they are. Stressors can be physical or psychical, they can be work-related, related to our private life, family-life or to the society. Identifying what your stressors are, can help to make it clear what can be changed, what can be avoided, and what you have no influence on.
If it is work-related stress, this model can help clarify the more specific stressors, and be a tool for dialogue:
Things to avoid at work, both for leaders and employees:
1. Lack of social safety. Lack of recognition, lack of support form peers or the manager and lack of social relations.
2. Lack of autonomy. Lack of influence on decisions that impact your daily work, hyper control and micro-management, and working on something, where you at the end of the day, do not have the mandate. Lack of control of own time. When thousands of emails floods your inbox, and when deadlines are unrealistic and set by others.
3. Lack of mastery. Not having the needed skills and competencies to do the work. When you lack time to deliver a result you are comfortable with and lack delivering results.
4. Lack of purpose. If what you do and why, does not make sense to you.
2. Keep the amount of released cortisol low
These factors have impact on the level of cortisol released:
3. Get the cortisol out faster
The body does have systems in place that helps restoring after a stressful event. Oxytocin is another powerful hormone, that both makes us feel good, but also stimulates degradation of cortisol. Same goes for serotonin and dopamine, The trick is to activate it, and you do so by doing things you enjoy.
Do the lifehack
Our bodies were not designed to the busy lives we live today. We were not designed to keep going month after month, year after year. We have convinced ourselves into believing, that this is the only way if we wish to be a success. Its just so incredibly expensive if we measure in happiness, life expectancy and quality of life.
It is your decision how to continue.
Not your manager’s and not the society. Take the blue pill and go back to work and believe whatever you want to believe is good for you. Take the red pill and change your life – and if you are a leader, you also have the power to change it for your employees.
Go do the lifehack.
Header picture via unsplash.com