Stress goes up every time our sense of control goes down. When we can’t predict what’s coming next, our adrenaline climbs and so do our heart rate, blood pressure and respiration. We are ready for “fight” or “flight” — to run from a bear or put out a fire. And then nature expects us to rest and recover.
But suppose the stress is not a short-term emergency. Suppose it goes on and on. Suppose we are dealing with a difficult client, a project with problems, job insecurity, a hospitalized parent, an ongoing financial crisis, and then an infertility diagnosis or recurrent pregnancy loss at the same time. Suppose as we begin to catch our breath after one crisis, another one hits, and then another.
This is chronic stress and it can give us a progression of physical side effects. Let's talk about these side effects and how to better manage that stress while working.
What Is Chronic Stress?
"Stress is often described as a feeling of being overwhelmed, worried or run-down," according to the American Psychological Association. "Stress can affect people of all ages, genders and circumstances and can lead to both physical and psychological health issues. By definition, stress is any uncomfortable 'emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes.' Some stress can be beneficial at times, producing a boost that provides the drive and energy to help people get through situations like exams or work deadlines. However, an extreme amount of stress can have health consequences and adversely affect the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems."
Unlike everyday stressors, like a deadline or an interview you're nervous about, chronic stress can result in serious health conditions that affect us both physically and psychologically. We have ways of relieving stress to avoid burnout, but what about the side effects of chronic stress?
What Are the Side Effects of Chronic Stress and How Can You Treat Them?
There are tons of side effects of stress, including the aforementioned ones. But the physical side effects of chronic stress can be especially detrimental.
Here are a few of them:
Under stress, we breathe rapidly and shallowly to get oxygen to our brain and muscles quickly. It's great for short-term flight and fight, but it's not great in the long run. Hyperventilation changes carbon dioxide levels, and you may feel dizziness, tingling in your fingers or lips, dry mouth and nose, butterflies in your stomach, or even chest pains because your diaphragm and rib muscles are working overtime.
Tip: Try some slow, gentle breathing to turn down the hyperventilation and let your body know it's time to relax. Sit comfortably in a chair and begin counting back from 20 and exhale after each number one number. Let your belly, not your chest, rise and fall as you breathe — and pause for a moment after each breath. Harvard research finds a total of 20 minutes a day of this diaphragmatic breathing can reduce stress symptoms by 50 percent. Try this when you’re stuck in traffic, in the elevator or grab a break. These are all great de-stressing opportunities!
Under stress, our brain centers are also activated so we can scan for short-term danger, but it’s not great for the long-term. We may find we startle easily, have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and have recurrent theme dreams or nightmares as our brain works to digest the stress.
Tip: Try to bore your brain when it's time to sleep or relax — like counting sheep, re-reading a book or listening to familiar music that's slower than your heartbeat. The brain relaxes when we know what's coming next; it helps us keep calm during stressful times.
Under stress, our muscles may be ready to run or rumble, but if you are immobile because you’re constantly worrying, you may find your fingers drumming, your back muscles spasming, your scalp muscles tightening, and your jaw muscles clenching.
Tip: Try to tire yourself physically and use up the adrenaline. Find a buddy for a lunch run, use the gym, or sign on for a community work project. Even cleaning your office desk drawers or your closet will help, since it will increase your sense of control and burn up adrenaline at the same time.
Chronic stress can give us a progression of psychological side effects, as well. These side effects can make it feel like stress is overtaking your life.
Here are some effects:
Since your brain is still chewing things over and trying to digest your stress, concentrating will be a challenge, too. Your sense of direction may fail you when you come out of the elevator, you may forget even familiar names, and following directions may be more difficult.
Tip: Try doing only one task at a time for now, even if you are typically a multitasker. Making mistakes will make you feel even more out of control and stressed.
Even if you’ve been good at rolling with the punches, your emotions may begin to feel off-balance. You may feel more anxiety than in the past (and you even might have anxiety attacks at work), anti-social, near tears and more irritable than normal.
Tip: Schedule pauses in your day to catch your emotional breath and use the time for yourself! Call a friend instead of texting, sing out loud, do a crossword puzzle (if you like them), give yourself a pep talk, get a massage, meditate or pray, buy something small that makes you happy (like lip-gloss), help someone less fortunate, or take a long shower –you get the idea. All relaxation techniques work, but only if you do them. If you find it hard to give yourself permission to de-stress, consider me your counselor and let me give you permission!
After weeks or months of dealing with your stress, it's no wonder that you may feel low. And depression can affect your workplace performance. Your capacity for dealing with change and uncertainty may not be depleted, but it’s certainly somewhat exhausting. Expect to feel less energy, less social interest, and less libido and, if think you have less of a sense of humor, you're probably right.
Tip: If you’re experiencing many of these reactions, you find yourself not bouncing back, and your ability to concentrate is so altered that it’s hard to function at work, it may be time to speak to your family doctor or a mental health specialist.
The good news is that all the chronic stress symptoms are usually temporary and may begin to disappear when your world becomes more predictable again because you regain your sense of control. You may feel like staying at home, but sticking to office routines and following a work schedule may help you through this period. It can give you structure, distractions and opportunities for laughter — nature’s own stress antidote.