Thousands of years ago, ‘pressure at work’ meant fleeing from invading marauders or battling woolly mammoths. Stress prepared cave men and women for ‘fight or flight’ situations, and helped them survive such trials; Neil Shah from the Stress Management Society offers his advice on how to manage an age old problem.
So stress isn’t a new problem. However, today it is office politics, traffic jams, overwork and late nights that cause our levels to rise. Whereas cave dwellers burnt off the stress through that eventual fight or flight, we don’t reach that final stage. As a result, we are increasingly all wound up with nowhere to go!
Look after your body
When stressed, we reach for quick fixes – stimulants like coffee, or foods high in fat or sugar. But this diet compounds the problem. Chocolate gives an initial sugar and caffeine buzz, but leaves you weary. Salty crisps dehydrate the body and brain and bring on fatigue. High fat meals raise stress hormones and keep them high.
Boost your immune system
To beat stress, you need a strong body. And that means a powerful immune system boosted by plenty of vitamins B, C and E together with minerals magnesium and zinc.
The best source of these nutrients is from food, rather than supplements. So eat a balanced diet of meat, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables and oily fish. If you need to snack during the day, try pumpkin or sunflower seeds and fruit.
Fresh organic food is the best source. If you can’t get fresh, frozen vegetables are a reasonable alternative as much of their nutritional content is retained.
Eat a ‘rainbow’
There are 350,000 different forms of edible plants on this planet. How many do you eat in a week? A variety is essential as different types and colours of food contain different vitamins and minerals. And your body can actually get stressed by trying to break down the same food time and time again. So eat ‘a rainbow’ of food colours instead.
If you want to deal with stress, drink water. It hydrates every part of the body and brain and helps you to better cope with stressful situations. A good rule is to take a few sips every 15 minutes. The best source is room-temperature still water bought in glass bottles (some plastic bottles can leach chemicals into the water inside) or use a jug filter system that you fill from the tap.
Drink a cup of coffee and your body is on high alert for a long time. Caffeine stays in the body for six hours before it starts to deplete, all the time triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisol, preparing you for fight or flight and compounding your stress problem. Caffeine also speeds up the digestive processes in the body. So no matter how well you are eating, your body may not have enough time to absorb the nutrients in your diet.
If you want to keep your blood pressure low, avoid salt. Sugar, nicotine and alcohol also stimulate adrenaline in the body, another hormone released to prepare you for fight or flight. Chocolate contains sugar and caffeine – a double hit! Such stimulants can trigger a stress reaction even when no major external stress is present.
For more information about good diet, consult a nutritionist who will be able to pinpoint the best approach for you.
Use a stress management technique
Once you have a healthy body, stress management techniques really start to work well. New methods are coming to the fore, offering exciting opportunities for HR professionals.
Central to this is the concept of ‘changing your state’. Stress makes your heart beat faster and your breathing become shallow. So aim to reverse that process through deep breathing, stretching or physical activity.
Human beings were designed to move, not sit on chairs. So exercise is an essential part of good body function. Not only does it keep the heart healthy and get oxygen into the system, but it helps deplete stress hormones and releases mood-enhancing endorphins, which help us cope with stress better.
Many companies are now launching travel plans encouraging staff to walk or cycle to work or use public transport (which usually involves a walk somewhere along the route). Others are launching lunchtime walking groups. Both are great ways of introducing a little exercise for chair-bound staff.
Breathing and stretching
Yoga has been used for centuries to induce a state of calm. Many companies run yoga sessions at lunchtime or after work. However now there is another type of yoga which can be used directly in the office. ‘Desk’ or ‘office’ yoga centres around stretching and balancing the body in very simple and unobtrusive ways. It also teaches breathing techniques including alternate nostril breathing which balances the levels of serotonin in the brain, helping promote feelings of happiness.
An excellent way to relax is through meditation, creative visualisation and self hypnosis. It’s a very simple technique to learn and can be taught to individuals or groups. A few minutes in a deeply relaxed state induced by self-hypnosis is the equivalent of several hours sleep, and can be used practically anywhere, from sitting at a desk to riding the bus home. Any qualified hypnotherapist can teach this technique to staff. See www.general-hypnotherapy-register.com for listings in your area.
Stress monitoring tools and awareness days
Science is making stress measurement increasingly easy at work. One product now available is a 1cm square LCD thermometer. Press your finger to the square for a few seconds, and it changes colour depending on how stressed you are. The science behind the stress square is simple. When we are relaxed, blood flows freely through the body. However, when we are ready for fight or flight, then blood is diverted to the muscles and essential organs, which means that our fingers cool.
Such devices can be stuck on mouse mats or desks and provide a great talking point for staff. As they can be used again and again, they are a simple stress management tool that lasts.
They are also being used as part of stress awareness campaigns within companies that might include awareness days with speakers, practical sessions on self-hypnosis or visits from therapists.
For more information on tackling stress, contact www.stress.org.uk or call T: 08701 999 235.