Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Clear Thinking About Stress

by Bruce Taylor

There seems to be a lot of confusion and loose thinking about stress in popular journals and books. How else can you explain terms like "good stress" and concepts like "A certain amount of stress is good for you," or advice like "Stress is unavoidable." Once you understand the meaning of stress you'll realize that stress is always harmful, that there is no "safe" level of stress, and that you can deflect stress if you know how. Let's start by straightening out the definition of stress: stress is not a mental or emotional state, and it's certainly not a moral or metaphysical issue. Stress is a physiological and medical condition, produced by prolonged feelings of insecurity and anxiety.

Physical and Mental Symptoms

The Japanese word, "karoshi" means, approximately, "death by stress," and it's a significant source of mortality among Japanese workers, especially middle-aged white collar men. Stress kills them either directly, by causing their bodies to break down, or indirectly, through depression and suicide. In either case, stress is bad news and it's no exaggeration to say that your life is at stake in a stressful situation. Chronic stress has been linked to degenerative diseases of the heart, brain, intestines, skin, liver, pancreas, kidneys, and immune system. There is virtually no system or organ of your body that isn't at risk from stress.

Our Biological Inheritance

If stress is so harmful, why in the world are we so susceptible to it? Wouldn't you think that evolution would have eliminated it? In a sense, stress was invented millions of years ago, long before we became human, as an adaptation to living in a dangerous world. To explain this paradox, let's imagine one of our long-ago ancestors on the plains of Africa who suddenly looks up and sees a leopard on the branch over his head. In much less than half a second, without any conscious thought, his brain registers the picture of the leopard and classifies it as a life-threatening danger. Then the brain starts to mobilize the body either to run away or for defense.

Fight or Flight?

When the brain perceives the leopard in the tree and decides that it is dangerous, it sends a signal to the adrenal glands, which sit on top of your kidneys. In response, the adrenal glands produce two hormones: first adrenaline and later cortisol.

Adrenaline acts very quickly on almost every part of your body. Your heart begins to beat more quickly and strongly, the small blood vessels in your skin contract (that's why you look "white as a sheet" after you're scared), your stomach stops digesting food, and your vision narrows to a "tunnel". All of these changes make you, for a little while, stronger and quicker than you normally are - ready to run away from the leopard.

As you're running away from the leopard, the adrenal glands start to produce a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol acts to increase the amount of sugar in your blood for quick energy, and if you have to flee for days and days without food, cortisol helps your body convert muscle and bone into energy.

The combined effect of adrenaline and cortisol is to give us the energy we need to deal with dangerous situations - and that's why we evolved the fight/flight response in the first place.

Where Does the Stress Come In?

As long as your body is reacting to a leopard in a tree, everything is fine: you run away and the stress hormones start to disappear after an hour or so. But if you can neither run away from the danger nor fight it, then the levels of stress hormones never go down. The adrenaline keeps on making your heart beat hard, and the cortisol keeps breaking down muscle and bone to keep your blood sugar high. If this goes on for days at a time, you will start to feel the effects: changes in your sleep and eating patterns, tunnel vision, abnormal tiredness, and a general anxiety and uneasiness. What we commonly call stress is your perception of your body's physical reactions to elevated hormones.

Why Does Work Cause Stress?

"Well," you might ask, "That's all very nice about reacting to the leopard in the tree, but why does my work trigger a stress reaction - I haven't noticed any leopards about." It seems that the brain is not very sophisticated about recognizing danger: it reacts to an angry boss, or an upcoming deadline, or an office bully in just the way it would react to the leopard: it starts to mobilize the stress hormones to either fight or run away. But in the office you can't do either one - you can't punch people in the nose and you have to come back tomorrow, even if you don't want to. This combination of perceiving danger and not being able to do anything about it triggers job stress, and it won't stop until you can either fight or flee.

More Control Means Less Stress

If lack of control makes stress worse, then it follows that being in control counters stress. "Being in control" means different things to different people. For some workers, it just means getting to decide when they take their breaks, and to have some flexibility in scheduling. For others, it means getting to decide how to get the job done: what order to machine the parts or how to process the forms most efficiently. But for all workers, getting to make decisions about how and when to do their job reduces the feeling of danger, lowers stress and improves health.

Learning Conquers Stress

Many, many studies show that one of the best things you can do to reduce your stress level is to start learning something new. Ideally, it should be something new at work, but that's not necessary. If you're feeling stress at work, taking an evening course, or even listening to books on tape helps put you back in control of your life and, as we've seen, more control produces less stress.

Social Support Helps Fight Stress

The last big thing that you can do to reduce your stress level is to build up a set of friends to support you. Studies show that, when assembly line workers are allowed to talk and socialize at their work stations, their level of stress goes down and the quality and speed of their work goes up. Similarly, if you can walk down the hall and drop in on a friend for a five-minute conversation, the social contact will start to reduce your anxiety and the stress associated with it.

What Does This All Mean For You?

We started out with the fuzzy thinking that produces notions like "good stress," and we learned that stress is inherently bad for you - very bad. We discovered that stress is not just in your head - it's making changes in your entire body. And we learned why we have stress in the first place - it's a leftover reaction to perceived danger, that gets triggered by modern-day situations like toxic work environments. And we learned at least three ways to reduce your stress level - take more control, start learning new skills, and develop a social support network. The bottom line is this: you need to take job stress seriously, because it can kill you; and there are actions you can take right now, on your own, to start lowering your stress.

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Bruce Taylor is the owner and principal of Unison Coaching, and helps people deal with difficult tasks and decisions in their lives. Bruce specializes in helping workers cope with stressful jobs, toxic job environments, and workplace bullying. He can be reached at bruce_taylor@unisoncoaching.com

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4 Comments:

At 8:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Essential oils, roots and herbs can be used in a variety of ways to promote healthy living and stress testing. They are used to create natural remedies for treating ailments common to both people and animals, to add flavor to food, to make perfumes and to create environmentally friendly cleaning products.

You do not have to own a garden to tap into the benefits of plants, roots and herbs. A few herb pots located by a sunny window are enough to get you started. Then, all you need are some essential oils and you are ready to go.

For therapeutic purposes, only the purest oils will do. It is possible to be fooled into thinking that you are purchasing a pure oil. Often, a lesser quality blend of several oils is used to mimic the properties of the pure oil. Blended oils are acceptable for fragrance purposes such as for perfuming a room, but pure oils are a "must" for medicinal purposes.

A reasonable guide to the purity of an essential oil is its price. Pure essential oils are generally more expensive. Common oils such as lavender and geranium are much cheaper than frankincense and carnation oil. It is advisable to become familiar with essential oil prices and then rely on this knowledge when purchasing oils from unfamiliar sources. Keep in-mind that you will generally get what you pay for. A price list from a reputable dealer is a valuable resource when purchasing essentials oils.

Usually, pure essential oils cannot be applied directly to the skin and must be mixed in a base oil to reduce their strength. Base oils such as almond oil or wheatgerm oil are commonly used for this purpose. Base oils are generally derived from seeds, nuts or vegetables and allow you to create essential oil remedies that can be massaged into the skin.

So, what do you need to get started with essential oils and natural remedies?

Without a doubt, Lavender is one of the most useful and desirable oils. Not only does it work wonders on cuts, bruises and burns, it also aids sleep and helps with relaxation.

The Tea Tree and Eucalyptus oils are useful for treating a variety of respiratory ailments. These are excellent for the treatment of colds and coughs. They can be massaged into the chest or burned in an oil burner to help clear the airways and prevent congestion. Tea Tree oil is a natural antiseptic and can be dabbed on cuts, bites and stings. It is often used to treat spots and pimples and when diluted with water, acts as a mouth gargle (keep in-mind it should never be swallowed).

Another basic antiseptic is Geranium oil. With its distinctive perfume and pain relieving properties, it is a necessary inclusion when starting out.

Peppermint oil should also be purchased as it treats digestive complaints and may be used in preparations for freshening breath.

For fragrant perfumes and establishing ambience in a room, buy some Patchouli and Ylang-ylang oils. Often combined in scented candles and air fresheners, a few drops of each in an oil burner creates a wonderfully perfumed home. Orange oil mixed with Cinnamon oil is a lovely winter alternative that evokes seasonal, holiday smells. Besides their perfume qualities, all four of these oils have other properties. Patchouli treats eczema and dandruff. Ylang-ylang is reputed to relieve stress, palpitations and high blood pressure. Orange is used in natural remedies for depression and nervous tension and Cinnamon is excellent for warts and viral infections.

The herbs, Thyme and Rosemary can be grown in pots and used when needed. To create essential oils from herbs, stew some large amounts in pure water, collect the steam and cool it. The oil will rise to the top of the drained water and can be collected with an eyedropper. Alternatively, a "flower still" can be purchased to make the job easier. Thyme and Rosemary are both antiseptics and can be used in skin care preparations. They are also delicious when used in cooking.

Lemon oil and fresh lemons will purify water and, when mixed with honey, are effective remedies for colds and flu. Lemon and white vinegar are highly efficient cleaning agents that can be used for domestic cleaning tasks without damaging the environment. Use white vinegar as a natural disinfectant or mix it with water to clean windows and wooden floors. It is also handy to keep a bottle of white vinegar in your car if you swim in the ocean. It will bring instant relief from jellyfish stings.

Citronella oil is perfect in summer to keep the insects at bay. Another natural repellent is Garlic. Fleas will not bite a dog that has been eating garlic, so a few garlic capsules in the dog food are a cheap solution to your pet's flea problem. A soft collar soaked in Citronella will also do the job.

Garlic also helps to promote a healthy immune system when the weather turns cold and viruses begin to circulate. In fact, most of the oils and herbs listed above are effective in helping to prevent many common winter illnesses.

Whether you are looking for remedies or nature friendly products to use around the house, the oils and herbs suggested above should help get you started. You will be ready to make some healthy changes in your way of life!

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