What is stress?
Stress is a mental and physical response that mobilises the body’s emergency resources – ‘flight, fight or freeze’ - by flooding the body with hormones to arouse it to meet the challenge. When in the grip of a stress response, the capacity for rational thinking diminishes, and the brain shifts its focus and attention to dealing with the stressor instead of focusing on the tasks in hand.
Stress can be good for you – it can keep you on your toes. Reasonable levels of stress can motivate you to change or adapt; stress pushes you to learn new things and new ways of doing things and learning new things. Human bodies are designed to handle small amounts of occasional stress, which can provoke individuals to improve performance.
But when the stress becomes significant and persistent, the body cannot cope; high levels of stress can be very bad for you. The hormonal surges that are released when a body is stressed have the ability to weaken the immune system, affect the cardiovascular system and damage chromosomes related to cancer cells and ageing, resulting in a wide range of physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, chest pain and frequent colds. The ability to take in information and to learn is impaired, and anxiety and depression are also common.
Stress in the workplace
Executives are particularly susceptible to stress. Common stressors include high pressure to perform, long working hours, and managing complex issues such as trying to maintain profits in difficult commercial conditions, or working with limited resources.
The ability to cope with stress is highly personal and depends on the individual’s biology, as well as their experiences, relationships and support mechanisms. Early life adversity for example, may make a personal more vulnerable to stressors later in life. The lack of a social support network will mean the person cannot put the stressor into perspective, making it harder to deal with.
But recent neuroscientific research is showing that there are concrete actions executives can take that will help them to deal with stress.
The brain has the ability to change its structure and function by strengthening or reducing the neural connections within it. This capacity is called neuroplasticity and means that mind-set, behaviour and associated stress need not be fixed. Creating new neurons or new pathways in different parts of the brain is hard work and takes time, but by consciously making daily choices of positive emotions and learned optimism, neural networks associated with anxiety and stress can be weakened.
Research has shown that any type of meditation can profoundly and permanently change the way different parts of the brain communicate with each other. MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the amygdala (associated with fear, emotion and the body’s response to stress) appears to shrink as if it becomes less activated. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex (associated with awareness, attention and decision-making) becomes thicker. How these two areas are connected together also changes: the connections between the amygdala and the rest of the brain get weaker, whilst the connections between the areas associated with attention get stronger.
Physical activity works off the biochemical and physical changes that occur in the body due to stress, and the body can be made to feel as if it is dealing with the stressor. For example, aggressive activities like kickboxing or punching bags simulate ‘fight’, and aerobic exercises like jogging or swimming imitate ‘flight’, thereby reducing the level of stress hormones in the body.
Supporting the immune system is essential when the body is under stress, so eating well and getting enough sleep are of paramount importance.
Social contact helps on various levels. When interacting with trusted colleagues at work or loved ones at home, social contact generates the trust/love emotions that help the individual to feel connected and less fearful. Talking honestly to trusted friends and family also help to see stressors in a different light, which may reduce the stress response. Stress is contagious, so it is better to avoid anxious people.