By Leigh Stringer
Lots of us experience stressful moments at work, but do you actually know what’s happening biologically in your body when you experience stress—and what that means for your ability to make decisions? Learn more below.
Reduce Stress, Increase Focus
I went rock climbing for the first time recently. I consider myself a fairly athletic person, but this activity definitely took me out of my comfort zone. Despite being “on belay,” or harnessed, and in the hands of an expert on the ground below, I got about 75 percent up a 50-foot climbing wall and just froze. I was out of breath, mentally and physically taxed, a little freaked out, and I just could not figure out how to get any further up the wall. My arms and legs just could not reach any more of those tiny colored knobs. At this point, having no other options, I stopped for a minute on a rock crevice, took some giant yoga breaths, and looked around at the beautiful scenery around me. I was surrounded by the Sonoran Desert—full of cactus plants and the Santa Catalina Mountains. The quiet of nature sunk in and I thought about the spectacular view.
Then, amazingly, after about a minute of focused breathing, I found the mental and physical strength to figure out a new climbing route and make it to the top. For me, this was a great lesson in “taking a breather when things get tough.” Now, when work gets stressful—and it can get really stressful sometimes—I take a few deep yoga breaths and look outside or maybe take a short walk. I learned later that this deep breathing produces what’s called a relaxation response in the body that is important for getting your brain to focus on being productive, not stay in permanent “fight, flight, or freeze” mode.
Most of the time, stress is talked about as a negative thing, but the truth is that not all stress is bad. All animals have a stress response, which can be lifesaving in some situations. The nerve chemicals and hormones released during such stressful times prepare animals like us to face a threat or flee to safety. When we face a dangerous situation, our pulses quicken, we breathe faster, our muscles tense, and our brains use more oxygen and increase activity—all functions aimed at survival. In the short term, stress can even boost our immune system.
Problems occur if the stress response goes on too long, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided. Over time, continued strain on our bodies from routine stress can lead to serious health problems, such as anxiety disorder, depression, digestive issues, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.
The thing about stress that is really counterproductive for the workplace is that it shuts down our ability to be creative and to make calm, thoughtful decisions. When we are stressed, we get very reactive and tense. Have you ever been really stressed out at the office—with your phone ringing off the hook while you are simultaneously responding to seven emails and you have someone waiting for something standing by your desk—and you thought, “Wow, I just had a brilliant insight and I’m going to reflect on that for a minute”?
No, this probably did not happen, because when we encounter a perceived threat—our boss yells at us or we are under a deadline, for instance—our hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of the brain, sets off an alarm system in the body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts our adrenal glands, located by the kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of the brain that control mood, motivation, and fear.
Making calm, thoughtful decisions when we are stressed out is just about physically impossible. Fortunately, there are many ways to calm down and reverse the crazy hormonal party happening in our bodies. The key to stress is to understand how it affects us physiologically and then manage it in a productive way.