Life-hack: How not to get stress

Life-hack: How not to get stress

By Line Bloch, 14. June 2016

This article is a part of a series in 5 parts, taking you through the physics of stress, and how to prevent it. Start here – and dig deeper into each element.

Seen from a physical point, stress is the sum of the effects of a prolonged exposure to cortisol. No more, no less.

It can damage your brain, your body and in worst case it is deadly. Yes it is. And not only in Japan.

Cortisol is as such a natural and necessary element of our metabolism, but its just not meant to be in our blood all the time. It is released into the blood when we face something that we perceive as danger. It makes you an instant superhero ready for either fight or flight, even if the danger is ‘only’ a deadline or a pile of tasks with no time or capacity to do them. When we discuss stress, the perceived danger is the stressor – what makes us stressed.

While adrenalinethe other powerful stress hormone, gets in and out quite fast, cortisol is released slower, and gets out of the system quite slowly. The scale on the figure is days. Perhaps even weeks.

cortisol stress

So what happens if you face a new danger – stressor – while you still have cortisol roaming in your blood? Well. You just get more. And if it continues, you have build a constant high level of cortisol. This is what we call chronic stress.

The strategies

Knowing this, it is obvious that there are three strategies to avoid chronic stress:

  1. Avoid the stressors. Don’t give the body an excuse for releasing cortisol.
  2. Keep the amount of released cortisol low. If we can make the body not producing so much cortisol when facing a stressor, the impact will be smaller.
  3. Get the cortisol out faster, so that the build-up is reduced.

Let’s go through these three strategies, one by one.

1. Avoid the stressors

To avoid them, we need to know what they are. Stressors can be physical or psychical, they can be work-related, related to our private life, family-life or to the society. Identifying what your stressors are, can help to make it clear what can be changed, what can be avoided, and what you have no influence on.

If it is work-related stress, this model can help clarify the more specific stressors, and be a tool for dialogue:

Things to avoid at work, both for leaders and employees:

1. Lack of social safety. Lack of recognition, lack of support form peers or the manager and lack of social relations.

2. Lack of autonomy. Lack of influence on decisions that impact your daily work, hyper control and micro-management, and working on something, where you at the end of the day, do not have the mandate. Lack of control of own time. When thousands of emails floods your inbox, and when deadlines are unrealistic and set by others.

3. Lack of mastery. Not having the needed skills and competencies to do the work. When you lack time to deliver a result you are comfortable with and lack delivering results.

4. Lack of purpose. If what you do and why, does not make sense to you.

what creates stress at work

2. Keep the amount of released cortisol low

These factors have impact on the level of cortisol released:

  • Drink less caffeine. Increases the level of cortisol in your blood. If you think you have plenty, then perhaps you should rethink how many cups of coffee or how many cokes you drink a day.
  • Eat healthy. And regularly. You know what that is. And drink plenty of water.
  • Do physical activity. The interesting thing about exercise is, that you produce both adrenaline and cortisol when being physical active. This is also why you should not do heavy exercise if you are ill with chronic stress. But before you plan to stay home at the couch as a preventive action, know that the better physical state you are in, the less cortisol is produced by physical activity, and the more resistant your body is to it. Also, exercise releases serotonin and endorphins, that counteracts cortisol.
  • Get enough sleep. Too little sleep is a stressor in it self and is known to increase the level of cortisol. Increased levels of cortisol makes you wake up at 4 am, so that you get too little sleep, and the circle is complete. This is definitely a design flaw, if you ask me. So prioritize sleep. And no, you don’t just need 5-6 hrs of sleep. Very few people do. You need 7-8 hours of sleep every night. As a test, try to count how many hours you sleep at night, a few days into a holiday, where you don’t have any reason to get up early.
  • Be happy. Experiments show, that if you have a happy day at work, it reduces the amount of cortisol. It works both on workdays and in leisure time, but if you consider where you spend the most time, happiness at work starts to make (even more) sense.
  • Learn not to be afraid. Your limbic system react to things and situations, that is perceived dangerous. This trick is to convince your body that thing that seems dangerous is not. It is not easily done, but you can train your brain to not be afraid of certain situations.

3. Get the cortisol out faster

The body does have systems in place that helps restoring after a stressful event. Oxytocin is another powerful hormone, that both makes us feel good, but also stimulates degradation of cortisol. Same goes for serotonin and dopamine, The trick is to activate it, and you do so by doing things you enjoy.

  • Listen to music. Music is proven to reduce cortisol levels – but I am not sure if it goes for all types of music..
  • Have physical contact. Massage is well known as therapy, but also plain hugs works.
  • Enjoy stuff. Anything goes, as long as is makes you feel good and relaxed. Eat something nice, look at beautiful art or take a walk in some nice or even breathtaking nature.
  • Take breaks. I guess this could have been placed under “Avoid the stressors”, but it is important anyway. Take breaks.
    Short breaks during the day. 10 minutes every 1-2 hours. Yes you are buzy, but your brain needs it to work optimally.
    Longer breaks during the week. You probably have days off, use it to take at least one entire day off, and do not think of work – and do not rush home to paint the walls, clean the house, or what ever you have on your private todo-list.
    Even longer breaks during a year. Vacation, they call it. If your email-inbox is a stressor, then don’t check it at the pool-side. You can easily clean it up when you come back, if you plan for it. If keeping your phone open for emergencies it a stressor, then don’t. If possible.
  • Have fun. Laughter is powerful and proven to reduce cortisol levels.
  • Breathe (out). Deep breathing techniques lower your stress and cortisol levels. It engages the vagus nerve, that triggers a signal within your nervous system to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and decreases cortisol. It also helps if you are nervous before an exam or an imprtant presentation: If you take 10 slow deep breaths, it will calm you down.
  • Be social. We are social animals. Interacting with someone else releases oxytoxin.
  • Learn to embrace the stress response

Do the lifehack

Our bodies were not designed to the busy lives we live today. We were not designed to keep going month after month, year after year. We have convinced ourselves into believing, that this is the only way if we wish to be a success. Its just so incredibly expensive if we measure in happiness, life expectancy and quality of life.

It is your decision how to continue.

Not your manager’s and not the society. Take the blue pill and go back to work and believe whatever you want to believe is good for you. Take the red pill and change your life – and if you are a leader, you also have the power to change it for your employees.

Go do the lifehack.

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