Stress; such a common term, and for some a badge of honour.
Whether you're a worker-bee, entrepreneur, mum or dad, student, trying to find your way, or just trying to drive down a packed highway during peak hour... Stress affects us all at some point or another.
Contrary to what we tend to hear this evolutionary adaptation hasn't left us for a reason; our bodies react before our minds do to prepare us to fight or flee a situation, though nowadays it might be more of the "get out of the way of an oncoming car" rather than the "escaping a sabre-toothed tiger" variety.
Understanding this allows us to come to terms with the fact that stress can be considered in many ways and isn't necessarily always a bad thing, and that short periods of stress may even help us succeed and focus! A study published by UC Berkley in California recognised that acute stress may allow for improved performance even push you to a greater level of behavioural and cognitive performance. It's when stress is long-term (aka chronic) that it has the potential to affect your health and wellbeing in the long term.
Modern stress follows us home by following the technological breadcrumbs left by our personal devices, with phrases like 'sleep hygiene' and 'screen time' becoming more common in the modern vernacular. Making things harder is the continuing blurring of the lines between home and work, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic - those jobs that you might have otherwise been able to reasonably leave to the next day now guilt you into working back a few hours "just to get it done".
According to the Mental Health Foundation in the UK, work-related stress accounts for an average of 23.9 days of lost work for every person affected.
How do you know if workplace stress is starting to affect you?
It may start with feelings of restlessness and/or unease, even when attempting to relax. You may be working 8-10 hours a day, rarely taking meaningful food or water breaks. Perhaps work begins following you to bed - you might work in bed, or even dream about it (though I might be inclined to call it a nightmare!)
Physically: the physical signs may slip by unnoticed, or particularly the increased heart rate, heart palpitations, fatigue, reduced libido, gastrointestinal upsets (constipation, diarrhea), and even the loss of or change to your normal appetite. But when you find you're starting to get a cold or the flu a little more often, it's a wake-up sign that you can't ignore any longer.
Emotionally: you may experience feelings of anxiety, fear, and/or depression, as well as some sadness or frustration. The effects of a stressful life event may worsen if you're already experiencing a mental health issue, and you may find yourself becoming more irritable or experience other behavioural changes.
Cognitively: you may find you score lower on a test of cognitive performance, which routinely assesses reasoning, perception, mathematical ability and problem-solving. You may also find that your memory doesn't work so well, due to your mental RAM being overloaded. Find yourself losing your phone, wallet or keys more regularly?
Substance Use: You may have increased your alcohol or drug intake (illicit or otherwise), or find you need it to relax or fall asleep at night.
Okay, so stress might be getting to me; what can I do about it?
Let's be real about the commitment and reframe the guilt. You're human and only have one life; it's not meant to be spent constantly thinking about spreadsheets and emails. There are a couple of things you may be able to do to disconnect from work and enjoy your downtime:
Meditate or practise mindfulness: in which you focus on your breathing for a few minutes and let go of all outside distractions. Breathe in for three... and out for five. Mindfulness is free, easy and is associated with numerous psychological and physical benefits. You may find you're also able to focus and re-group during more stressful periods, find a practise that works for you or download one of the many apps that are available to help.
Find a hobby: whether it's gardening, reading, videogames, fencing or knitting (which is a badass way to spend your time, let me just say) - finding an activity outside of work that brings you some intrinsic joy will go a long way to helping you psychologically detach from any workplace stress that you might be experiencing. Coined by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: Mee-ha-ly Chick-sent-me-high), there is an experience known as being in a 'flow state' that describes a state of being where time means nothing and you are totally absorbed in the process of what you're doing. There are a number of advantages though the ones we're focusing on here are the increased emotional regulation, happiness, and level of fulfilment you may experience after taking part in something that helps you find your flow. The process alone helps you detach though you may also find it helps with your experience of stress during the work-day as well.
Set boundaries and stick to them: this includes not checking emails or taking calls outside of your agreed work hours. If you have set SLA's (service level agreements, or a contract) with your workplace, there will usually be a clause noting your hours of work. There may be projects that require some extra work from time to time, though this should be an exception and not the rule. You're only getting paid for this pre-agreed time and by sticking to your boundaries you may find that you're feeling more productive, confident, refreshed and ready to get back to work the next day.
Self-care: the phrase 'self-care' has gotten a lot of airtime recently, and though it's been for a good reason the highlighted ways of doing so (i.e. face masks and bubble baths) may not apply to all audiences and leave some people thinking "that's not for me". Self-care is whatever you need it to be, and something that just makes you feel... Good. It may be a cup of tea and a conversation, or a video game where you shoot things (or a bubble bath and face mask) - if it makes your soul feel good, you're on the right track.
Limit time spent on social media: thanks to the influencer craze, you may find you're inundated with people talking about 'the hustle', the relentless and never-ceasing grind that determines whether you're going to be successful. If that's what gives you purpose, I'm not here to tell you that it's wrong - however, for a lot of people (including me) that might just sound exhausting. But more importantly, it could leave you with feelings of guilt that you're not doing the right thing or enough of it. Jealousy and resentment may join the party, with you left to pay the bill - and for what? A life that is good, but after hours of scrolling through a filtered reality, a life that is subjectively not good enough. Switch off and reconnect with what's physically in front of you - remember what you have, rather than what you don't. If you’re finding it hard to switch off, try one of the above and let us know how you go! You only have your best life to live.
On a side note: Be honest with yourself about how and why you're spending so much time thinking about work - are there other things happening in your life that you don't want to face? If you are experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of prolonged exposure to stress and are starting to feel overwhelmed or like you may be out of options, you may wish to speak to a registered counsellor or psychologist. Some organisations enlist an Employee Assistance Program to provide psychological support to their employees. Speak to your HR team if you're comfortable to do so about whether this is available to you, or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. It's strong to speak.