With high achievement comes high expectation and responsibility. The constant pressure to perform and deliver professionally as well as maintain a personal life can at times overwhelm the strongest of us and cause us mental and physical stress.
Stress is the reaction to pressures such as these and if not checked and managed, chronic stress can ultimately be very damaging to our health and so to our professional and personal lives. If many employees in a firm are stressed, it can take a toll on corporate health.
For some perspective, in 2018-19 a total of 12.8 million workdays were lost in the UK due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. However, it is often those in the most essential roles, like executives and senior employees, who are under the most pressure.
So, if we recognize that our mind and bodies need a regular pitstop; a corporate health check and a rebalance perhaps, then we can help maintain our personal best mental and physical condition and so maintain our valued position in life.
It’s worth noting that not all stress is bad for us. We have it to thank for superior focus on an impending deadline or running a 10k. Likewise, what one person finds stressful another may not. Some people thrive in front of a crowd whilst others experience a pounding heart, a dry throat and the urge to run for the hills. This type of stress is short-term and will dissipate quickly once the experience is over, as breathing slows and muscles relax. However, if stressful experiences are frequent, a person may find themselves with low level chronic stress and this can be detrimental.
Why do we get stressed?
Our stress response evolved back when we needed to run away from a wild animal, hunt for food in times of drought or confront a rival trying to woo our mate. This fight or flight response helped us face danger. After all, our lives were at stake. Today we may be far safer than we were back then, but our bodies don’t necessarily know this. As renowned biologist Robert Sapolsky (1998) put it,
Stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.
What is the stress response?
Two hormones are responsible for the stress response – adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol.
When adrenaline is released it tells the sympathetic nervous system to do its thing. What follows is an elevation in heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose and blood is mobilized towards muscles and away from non-essential organs, like the digestive system. The body is ramping up to fight or flight. Maybe you’re running across the savannah from a lion, or maybe you’re just sitting at your desk, sweating (yes, adrenaline stimulates perspiration too).
Cortisol is regulated through the HPA (hypothalamus – pituitary – adrenal) axis which connects perceived stress in the brain to the adrenal glands. When we are stressed our cortisol levels rise and, similar to adrenaline, cause an increase in blood glucose, sending it to the brain and certain other muscles, restraining it from non-essential functions like fighting infection and reproduction. It even affects parts of the brain that control fear, motivation and mood. In contrast to adrenaline, this is a much slower and longer-acting response.
Again, the stress response isn’t inherently bad and can help us to be alert and focused when we need to be. However, too much for too long and some serious health consequences can begin to manifest themselves.
Symptoms of chronic severe stress
Typically, the first clues that you’re stressed are physical signs, such as tiredness, headaches or an upset stomach.
There could be many reasons for this, as when we feel stressed we often find it hard to sleep or eat well, and poor diet and lack of sleep can both affect our physical health. This in turn can make us feel more stressed emotionally. As the body is on edge we may become hypervigilant and experience mood changes such as anxiety and irritability which in turn can develop into depression and insomnia. If you’re picturing a downwards spiral, you’re not wrong! There is hope however if the causes of stress are addressed.
Chronic stress and your health
The heart – Chronic activation of the stress response can result in chronically increased blood pressure and heart rate, as well as adverse lipid profile. These are all recognised risk factors for atherosclerosis, which is a build-up of plaque on artery walls, and the main cause of coronary heart disease and stroke. As such, there is good reason to want to avoid prolonged stress in order to reduce your risk of developing CHD or suffering a future stroke.
The brain – An increase in blood pressure can of course lead to the notorious stress headache! Meanwhile, the stressors themselves may lead to rumination, anxiety and insomnia.
Insomnia, or poor sleep hygiene, can influence health-risk behaviours such as poor eating habits and smoking. Sleep is incredibly important for rest and repair and several epidemiological studies have linked poor sleep to an increase risk of obesity, diabetes, depression and stroke. One of which examined the lifestyles and health of participants over ten years, none of whom had heart disease at the conception of the study. Five hours of sleep or less was found to be associated with a 45% increase in risk for a heart attack! Shocking, but not surprising!
More specifically however, as a result of long-term stress, adrenal hormones have been found to alter memory by altering synapse formation of nerves as well as changing the rates of cell death within the hippocampus – the region of the brain associated with learning and memory. This means that cognitive function and job performance are impaired, which makes sense if you’ve ever struggled to focus whilst stressed.
Many stress-induced health impacts are due to the body essentially neglecting certain functions in order to prioritise those that are essential to survival…
Immunity – High levels of cortisol inhibit important immune chemicals called cytokines and a type of white blood cell called B cells. This is likely to put you at risk for minor, but annoying, ailments like the common cold or cold-sore flare ups. It is also a major risk factor for chronic fatigue syndrome.
Digestion – It has long been recognized that stress can cause stomach ulcers – holes in the stomach or intestine wall – since Hans Seyle, who coined the term ‘stress’, experimented on rats in the 1940s; making them bathe in uncomfortably cold water. Upon autopsy, many rats displayed gastric ‘stress ulcers’. In the same vein, stomach ulcers are well documented in patients with excess cortisol secretion by the adrenal glands. This may be because stress hormones mobilise blood away from the stomach, increasing acid reflux and making the usually thick mucus-laden walls, weak and vulnerable to a bacterium, H. Pylori. Again this is a result of long-term stress, unlike episodic stress experienced by a zebra running away from a lion, hence the title of Sapolsky’s acclaimed book Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers.
Reproduction – If you’re in a state of survival you don’t have time to make babies, that would be very optimistic! Being the most optimistic bodily function, reproduction may be completely neglected in times of stress. For women this could cause hypothalamic amenorrhea which is loss of the period for three months or more due to stress. When menstruation ceases there are wide ranging affects including a decrease in bone density due to a decrease in the sex hormone oestrogen. This increases the risk of developing osteoporosis. For both men and women, stress can decrease sex hormones, thus decreasing libido and overall energy and making you vulnerable to depression.
Chronic stress has also been linked to premature ageing, acne, psoriasis, hair loss and Type 2 diabetes.
Note that these ailments are not definitive nor comprehensive and there is ongoing research into this complex arena that really highlights the mind-body connection.
Tips to manage stress and improve corporate health
- Get enough sleep – it may seem a good idea to burn the candle at both ends but you can tackle difficult situations far better when sufficiently rested. Sleep is a priority, not an inconvenience.
- Delegate – be resourceful by delegating tasks or outsourcing to skilled people – this is more effective and gives you a chance to breathe amidst your busy schedule.
- Positive perception – Remember it is our perception of a stressor that determines if it becomes “stress”. For example, we can transform an unpleasant commute into ‘me time’ by listening to music or an audio book.
- Identify stressors – separate what you do have control over versus what you don’t have control Try drawing two circles and writing down parts of life that can be irksome into these categories. Then focus on how you can make the latter as good as possible.
- Having a routine. Developing a predictable structure and balance around work, chores, hobbies, exercise and socializing can reduces uncertainty and lower anxiety.
- Be kind to yourself! There’s no doubt those with a type-A personality are likely to have higher blood pressure. So, let go of perfection!
- Express yourself! Working in a corporate environment may require you to ‘put on’ a professional face. Being yourself with friends can make you feel more at harmony.
- Try relaxation exercises such as meditation and yoga. These can calm the mind and body and act as a buffer to stress.
What can Echelon Health do?
Well, there is some good news! Echelon Health can certainly help with one significant stress factor in your life – your underlying health. Through early detection of diseases that would, if left undetected and untreated, lead to potentially life-threatening situations, together with a consultation with one of our world class physicians, an Echelon Health Personal Health Assessment can really empower you. Likewise we offer packages for executives and employees to boost corporate health. Prevention is definitely better than cure.
To find out more about how an Echelon Health Personal Health Assessment can help you de-stress your life, why not call +44 (0)20 7580 7688 or email firstname.lastname@example.orgRequest a call back
HSE – Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2019
Healthline – Everything you need to know about stress
Ayas N T, et al. A prospective study of sleep duration and coronary heart disease in women. 2001.