In this post, Dr Leanne Wall shares her insights into the neuroscience around stress response and management, and the importance of focusing on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Having spent over 20 years in the corporate healthcare sector, I am very familiar with the annual drive of setting goals and objectives and understanding their importance in defining expectations of employees within a business. However, in my corporate career, I have never seen a goal or objective that deliberately focuses on keeping ourselves healthy physically, mentally and emotionally. Clearly we can have all the skills needed to perform in a role, however, if we don’t arrive at work physically, mentally and emotionally sound then performing to the best of our ability can be extremely challenging both professionally and personally.
Working in the counselling space over the last few years highlighted the fact that self-care i.e. caring for oneself by deliberately focusing on staying healthy physically, mentally and emotionally, was not optional. This got me thinking. Why don’t we have the same objective in the corporate environment? Of course, the roles and responsibilities in counselling and corporate environments are distinctly different, however, if we look at it through a physiological lens, the stress response we activate, whether it is in a difficult counselling session or having a tough conversation with a corporate colleague, is the same. If this stress response is prolonged with little time for recuperation, our health and well-being can be significantly compromised.
Activating our stress response when experiencing pressures and demands at work and at home is normal. Many of us thrive when under pressure for short periods of time and enjoy the buzz when facing a tight deadline or important presentation. Low to moderate stress is generally manageable and most of us have our own coping strategies for dealing with it. Whether this is going for a walk with the dog in the afternoon when we get home, going for a run at lunchtime or hitting the gym in the morning. Perhaps for some of us, it is simply lying down and reading a book on the weekends. The issue arises when there are prolonged periods of stress without the opportunity for recuperation.
In his book “Why zebras don’t get ulcers”¹ Robert Sapolsky compares the acute stress response activated in a zebra being chased by a lion, with the stress responses we activate as humans. The most upsetting thing in a zebra’s life is an acute physical crisis such as being chased by a lion. In this life-threatening scenario, the zebra relies on its ability to activate its stress response to survive. What is fascinating is that within milliseconds of seeing the lion, the zebra’s flight, fight or freeze survival response is activated. Even before that part of the brain that can figure out what is happening has registered that there is a crisis. The need to survive and the flight, flight or freeze response results in a multitude of hormones being released, including stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which trigger several physiological responses aimed at mobilising the zebra to run. These responses include an increase in heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure and the dumping of glucose into the circulation for a quick source of energy. All these changes are geared toward getting the zebra out of the crisis.
At the same time, those physiological functions that aren’t needed during this acute crisis are down-regulated e.g. stomach acid production and blood flow to the gut, growth hormone production, sperm and egg production to name a few. As Sapolsky says in his book “When you know a tornado is coming you don’t decide to paint the house!”
Two outcomes are possible for the zebra, either they become the lion’s lunch or manage to escape unhurt. If they have been lucky to escape, their stress response gradually settles as the danger subsides and they go back to gentle grazing on the savannah. Why is this important to us? Why should we care if our stress response is switched on? Don’t we need it if we are in trouble? The important difference is that the zebra switches their stress response on for acute or short-term physical crisis and if they aren’t eaten for lunch, go back to normal physiological homeostasis or equilibrium after the chase. Their stress response subsides … until the next time!
Humans on the other hand, or certainly those in a first world country like we live in, rarely fight for their lives like the zebra or hunt for their food because they are starving like the lion. The most significant difference between a zebra and a human is that we don’t need to experience a physical crisis to switch on our stress response. In fact, we can switch on our stress response by simply thinking about something negative that may not even happen! Sapolsky asserts that when viewed from the perspective of the evolution of the animal kingdom, sustained psychological stress is a recent invention, mostly in humans and other social primates such as monkeys and baboons. We can experience wildly strong emotions (provoking our bodies into an accompanying uproar) linked to mere thoughts.
All those physiological changes associated with the acute crisis response can, therefore, be triggered long term. And if we spend endless months twisting our gut in anxiety, anger and tensions over emotional problems, this leads to illnesses such as high blood pressure, plaques in arteries, insulin resistant diabetes, stunting of growth, fertility issues to name but a few. We also know that prolonged stress increases the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and decreases our feel-good hormone serotonin.
Critical to this message is that we are very well adapted to switch on the acute stress response for short-term physical emergencies. Evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerge because we switch on a system that is designed for short-term emergencies, not long-term stresses like worrying about mortgages, relationships or promotions. The effect of a chronically switched on stress response is far reaching including mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Data supporting the fact that chronic work-related stress is a problem is on the rise in Australia. We also know that chronic work-related stress increases our risk of developing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics it is estimated that 45% of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime and these conditions tend to affect individuals during their prime working years².
Poor mental health costs Australian businesses $10.9 billion every year in absenteeism, reduced productivity in the workplace, and compensation claims³. On average, someone with untreated depression will need three to four days of additional sick leave each month and mental health conditions result in around 12 million days of reduced productivity for Australian businesses annually². Although depression and anxiety can be as debilitating as a serious physical illness, unfortunately less than half of those experiencing these conditions seek support².
There are important questions we need to ask ourselves. Are we in tune with our stress response and how it affects us from day to day in the workplace and/or at home? Do we listen to our own internal warning system that tells us if we are tracking well or not? We all differ in terms of what triggers our stress, how we present in stressful situations and what coping strategies are effective. The important point is to have the self-awareness to listen to our body when it is telling us that things are not in equilibrium. Finding the right work-life balance is often easier said than done, however, we need to find activities to help us rest, recuperate and recover from the ongoing demands of our workplace and/or home.
There are many ways we can manage our stress including identifying triggers that raise our stress levels and actively try and reduce them; establishing predictable routines which can be calming and reassuring and ensuring we take time out for ourselves; setting boundaries and not taking on more than we can manage; spending time with people we care about and who care about us; eating well and exercising; and practicing relaxation and planning things each day that we enjoy. This is not an exhaustive list and people often have their preferred ways of coping with stress. The important thing is to know when we need to activate our coping strategies and making sure we prioritise them during periods of high and prolonged stress.
If there is one message I would like to leave you with, it is that proactively focusing on our health physically, mentally and emotionally is mandatory. No matter how skilled we are at doing our job, how effective we are as a leader, parent, partner, son, daughter or friend, we need to continually and deliberately focus on our own physical, emotional and mental states to ensure we ‘show up’ at our best.
¹ Sapolsky, R. (2004) Why zebras don’t get ulcers? 3rd Edition. Henry Holt and Company, New York.
² Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results (4326.0). Canberra: ABS
³ PwC PricewaterhouseCooper Australia; Creating a mentally healthy workplace: Return on investment analysis, 2014. Available from www.headsup.org.au
⁴ Heads Up – How to create mentally healthy workplaces. www.headsup.org.au.
⁵ Strategies for creating a mentally healthy workplace. www.headsup.org.au/healthy-workplaces/strategies-for-healthy-workplaces