New research has found that work stress really does make you ill, but how to combat it when spending two weeks on a wellness retreat isn’t an option? Try our top fixes…
Why Work Stress Really Is Ill Stress can be useful, but new research has cast doubt on psychologists who insist it’s not bad for you. Chronic stress, the kind that you can get from a stressful job, can actually make you physically ill, says a new study published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology. The study looked at immune cells in the human gut, which act as ‘alarm cells’ to help you defend against infection, but also any challenge or stress, including psychological. Study leader Adam Moeser said this can even include being nervous about a public speaking gig.
Like any system, these alarm cells can be overloaded and unable to return to normal. In this state they become inflammatory, triggering the release of histamines, mucus production and even ramped up pain levels. They have been linked to IBS and asthma too. The immune response itself, set off by chronic stress, makes you ill. So, how can we fight back?
Trying To Relax At Work Won’t Kill Stress Your workplace might have table football or breaks designed to ‘de-stress’ you. Seems like a good idea, but in 2017, more University of Michigan researchers, led by David Mayer at the Ross School of Business, found that relaxing at work doesn’t actually reduce stressful scenarios. ‘When an individual comes out of relaxation activities at work, and realises the stressful situation hasn't changed, it may generate frustration and reverse the benefits of relaxation,’ said study co-author Chen Zhang. It’s making like an ostrich – putting your head into the printer and hoping everything goes away.
Learn Something New At Work Instead Chronic stress is the kind that makes you ill, but many jobs are just chronically stressful, there’s no way around it. So, what can you do at work to help reduce its effect? ‘When it comes to addressing negative emotions and actions in stressful work environments, building positive resources by learning something new at work could be more useful than relaxing,’ Chen Zhang said. Managers take note: the study found that everyday learning at work buffered the kind of work stress that can lead to being rude, or discussing confidential information inappropriately.
Spending 30 minutes a day to actively think about your problems can beat stress
Face Down Your Worries Stress can be useful – without it we would spend our days giving absolutely zero f**ks about everything. But the things that stress us out often don’t get dealt with because we run out of time, causing a constant baseline level of anxiety. You can combat this by being disciplined and dedicating 30 minutes a day to actively thinking about your problems. That’s according to 30 years of research published in The Journal Of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics. Confronting a worry will help you decide how important doing something about it really is, and relegate niggling problems to the ‘file for later’ part of your brain.
Go For A Walk Somewhere Green Many studies have shown that green is good for your mind. For instance, Stanford University researchers took people on a 90-minute walk through a leafy park and then scanned their brains. They saw the walk reduced activity in the area of the brain used for ‘rumination’, or worrying. This contrasted with another group who walked for 90 minutes by the side of a road, whose brains remained unchanged. Can’t get out to a city park at lunch? Then make your workplace greener. You can use plants, but a 2016 Vrije University Medical Centre study found that even looking at photos of natural greenery reduces stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
‘Viewing green scenes may thus be particularly effective in supporting relaxation and recovery after experiencing a stressful period,’ said the study authors. ‘And thereby could serve as an opportunity for micro-restorative experiences and a promising tool in preventing chronic stress and stress-related diseases.’ Finally, a legitimate reason to stare at your desktop photo!
Short Circuit The Stress Response Stress is a physical response to threat. ‘Fight or flight’ can be as easily triggered by a disastrous email as an unexpected encounter with a tiger, even though you can’t run from an email. Your breathing gets shallow, your heart beats like the clappers and your muscles tense up. But you’re not a hostage to this; you can use your body to calm yourself down.
You need to recruit your vagus nerve. It links your brain and your heart, and is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which returns you to the opposite of ‘fight and flight’: rest and digest. Slow, rhythmic breathing activates it, so the power to reset is in your hands. Breathe in slowly for a four count, hold for two and then breath out, ideally through your nose, for a four count. You can increase the effect by using a 5-2-6 rhythm.
Seeing the world in black and white tends to lead to mental inflexibility
Learn To See Grey Rather Than Black And White We all like certainty, but seeing the world in black and white tends to lead to mental inflexibility. There’s usually more than one solution to a problem, and how you classify problems, or negative outcomes, might even change once you see things from a different perspective. Practising this mindful perspective will help you to observe your emotional reactions to stress without being consumed by them. You’ll see that you’re not necessarily an ‘anxious’ person – you’re just dealing with a stressful situation, which will pass.
Smell The Lemons Aromatherapy and essential oils have been used since ancient times to reduce stress, fight inflammation and depression and help people sleep. So it may not be surprising that science is beginning to find evidence for this kind of thing actually working. A Japanese study led by Akio Nakamura found evidence that inhaling certain fragrances could alter blood chemistry and even gene activity, reducing stress levels. They were testing linalool, which exists in many essential oils, including tangerine and lemon. You don’t need to use essential oils (you should avoid lavender and tea tree oils in any case) because just smelling these scents seems to have a calming effect.
WHAT NEXT? De-stress from work and repair the damage from sitting down for eight hours with our warrior abs workout...
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
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