In our loud and busy modern world, stress is almost synonymous with business.
There are three main types of stress:
- Acute – caused by a brief event, such as an argument or running late
- Acute episodic – frequent acute events, such as work deadlines
- Chronic – persistent events, such as unemployment, mental health issues, or conflict
Most people will experience all three forms of stress in some capacity at some point in their lives. Whilst this may look different for everyone, all three variations of stress trigger the same response:
- The hypothalamus region in the brain sets off a reaction via the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is responsible for regulating involuntary responses, like blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. When a stress response is triggered, the ANS signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline into the blood.
- Adrenaline causes increased heart rate and blood pressure, which, for a short period, can have positive effects: higher energy levels, more oxygen-rich blood, and heightened alertness. However, if the stress continues, the adrenal glands release another hormone, called cortisol.
- Cortisol initiates the release of glucose into the blood, and turns off some regulatory systems so that the body can focus entirely on the stress response. Hormone levels will not return to normal until the stress passes. If the stress persists, these reactions continue to be triggered, eventually leading to inflammation and cell damage.
The negative impact of being busy and its causal relationship with stress cannot be ignored. In this blog, I’ll be exploring five ways being busy can lead to stress, and some tools we can use to manage it.
We can describe stress as the result of demand exceeding ability. As a business leader, there are periods where the demands of our business are simply outside our capabilities or control: we cannot be everywhere all at once.
Our brain responds to these impossible demands by pumping out adrenaline and eventually, as described above, cortisol.
Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone, and high levels have long been associated with anxiety. At first glance, stress and anxiety might seem like two sides of the same coin. Many of the symptoms, too, are almost identical:
- Racing heart
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Digestive troubles
A key difference between the two is that stress almost always has an easily identifiable trigger. It is in response to a stressor, something the brain recognises as a threat. Feeling anxious, however, might come completely out of the blue, with no identifiable trigger. It can come as a reaction to ongoing stress, with the stress itself being the “possibility of harm” that the body perceives.
We can help to manage both stress and anxiety during busy periods using coping tools such as:
- Breathing and meditation
- Mental fitness
- Counting to ten
- Focusing our attention on a soothing phrase or visualising a happy place.
As business leaders, our to-do lists are so long that it can feel almost impossible to dedicate our full attention to just one thing at a time. We might be working on an important project, only to be distracted by an email or a team member asking for assistance. Our attention can jump like this hundreds of times throughout the day.
Many CVs boast “great multitasker” as a skill, but is it really an effective way of working?
Research suggests not.
Earl Miller, neuroscientist at MIT and an expert on the psychology of attention, says our brains are simply not wired to multitask effectively, and that every time we switch rapidly from one task to another, there is a “cognitive cost”.
A study by the British Institute of Psychiatry quantified this cognitive cost, suggesting that we lose up to ten IQ points when we try to multitask! In a study aimed at understanding cognitive processes and multitask performance, Dr. D. Meyer found that shifting between tasks can “cost as much as 40 per cent of someone’s productive time”.
As well as cognitive costs, there are metabolic costs to consider. The rapid, continual shifting of focus causes our brains to burn through energy and nutrients, meaning we feel exhausted. We might begin to eat more, feel run down, and make more mistakes at work. This, of course, doesn’t help with stress levels!
Evidently, research shows that multitasking is not great for our cognitive abilities, nor is it a productive way of working. But what’s the link with stress?
In short, approaching tasks in this way has been found to increase the production of both cortisol and adrenaline, which, as we’ve already explored, have well-established ties to stress and anxiety.
In an article for Psychology Today, Tim Elmore, author and founder of Growing Leaders, states: “When our brain consistently shifts gears, it creates stress and tires us out, leaving us mentally fatigued. The barrage of information is overwhelming. Figuring out what you need to pay attention to and what you don’t can be downright exhausting.”
Overstimulating our brains in this way can create a “dopamine addiction feedback loop”, which essentially means our brains are constantly searching for external stimulation.
Not an ideal approach to Being Productive!
The solution is to avoid multitasking as much as possible (easily said, not easily done!). During especially busy periods when multiple things are demanding our attention all at once, this can be incredibly difficult. However, wth a mindful approach to prioritisation and getting things done, we can structure our to-do lists so that we have the space to focus on one task at a time, and be strict with ourselves about what we add to it and when.
When we’re short on time, we may not be as willing to dedicate time to the habits that keep us healthy. When we’re working at a million miles an hour, failing to pause once in a while and check in with ourselves can be a recipe for disaster: we might be headed for the head-on collision known as burnout.
Below are some examples of self-care practices and why they’re important in managing stress:
When we are in periods of relaxation, our body releases chemicals which lower stress hormone levels. We might relax by simply lying down, reading a book, listening to music, going for a walk, or taking a bath. Relaxing activities help to decrease our heart rate, relax our muscles, lower our blood pressure, and improve our coping abilities.
- Spending time with loved ones
Fulfilling our emotional needs – especially when we might have been neglecting them during busy periods – helps to prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation. A Plos One study showed that stress, happiness, and wellbeing levels were “better evidenced by the strength of [participant’s] social circles than by the physical health data collected on a fitness tracker”.
The practice of writing down our stressors, concerns, and worries can immediately make us feel more in control. It can help us to tap into uncomfortable feelings and find clarity and purpose.
- Mental Fitness
Self-care may feel like something we simply don’t have time for. But it’s a worthwhile investment; after all, it’s much better than letting things escalate until our stress levels become unmanageable.
I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of working late into the night, desperately trying to get things done that we didn’t have time for in the day.
Or perhaps we got to bed at a reasonable time, only to lie awake for hours staring at the ceiling, our minds racing with all the things we have to do.
As discussed at the start of this blog, when the body’s stress response is triggered, the hypothalamus in the brain sets off our nervous system. The hypothalamus is located in the endocrine system, which is mediated by the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal access (HPA).
Interestingly, the HPA access also plays a vital role in mediating our sleep-wake cycle. Prolonged stress levels have been correlated with hyperactivity of the HPA access, which can result in decreased sleep duration and poorer quality of sleep. This can then lead to issues with memory, bad mood, difficulty concentrating, and making more mistakes – all of which add to our stress.
The link between stress and insomnia has been well documented for many years. The primary culprit for this link is cortisol: people suffering with insomnia experience a cortisol spike in the evening. For people with better sleep hygiene, cortisol levels reduce in the evening, making it easier for them to fall asleep.
We can help to improve our sleep hygiene by:
- Practising breathing exercises or guided meditations before we sleep
- Turning off all notifications and avoiding technology at least 30 minutes before bedtime
- Reading a book
- Avoiding large meals and caffeine before bedtime
When we’re especially busy, we might find it difficult to maintain healthy eating habits. It’s much quicker to grab an unhealthy snack than it is to make a nourishing and filling meal.
Whilst this is okay in moderation, refined sugars, simple carbohydrates, and saturated fats – as found in unhealthy foods – can cause high levels of cortisol, which we know creates the perfect conditions for stress. These are empty calories and provide little to no nutritional value, meaning we’re more likely to feel tired and sluggish.
In an attempt to keep our energy up, we might be drinking excessive amounts of caffeine – which actually does the opposite. In fact, caffeine activates the HPA response discussed earlier, which can magnify feelings of stress.
A 2017 study by Ohio University looked at the effects of caffeine versus a caffeine placebo on blood pressure, cortisol, and other stress functions in 25 participants. It was found that caffeine more than doubled the levels of stress hormones in comparison to the placebo.
Research suggests that during periods of stress and busyness, it’s more important than ever that we limit our caffeine intake and favour a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, fibre, and unsaturated fats.
Making YOU a priority
When we’re busy, it’s easy to let our mental and physical health slip down our priority list. But in order for us to show up at our best, it’s important that we dedicate time to managing our stress levels and protecting our energy.
And remember: you are stronger than your stress.
For more tools and resources, come and join the conversation over on LinkedIn.