Dear stress, let's break up

In medical terms a stress fracture is a fatigue-induced breaking of the bone caused by repeated stress over time.

When we consider stress as a mental state, its effects can be described in the same way. It’s not a single event that causes us to fracture, but if we think about the full breadth and depth of life’s demands, then it’s the repeated and accumulated stress over time that results in our feeling fatigued, or even broken.

Many businesses and organisations these days are constantly being asked to do more with less. We are expected to produce more: more sales, more profit, higher output, bigger savings, with less resource – be that money, time or person-power. I believe that this has led to an entire workforce (and I include the unwaged economy in this) for whom stress is a common and daily experience. One of my favourite sayings goes, “What is popular is not always right; what is right is not always popular.” Being busy and stressed is certainly pretty popular these days. In fact, being in a state of stress or urgency is the new normal. But that does not make it right or healthy.

In the course of my work, delivering team development workshops, personal development courses or one-to-one coaching in the workplace, I see every day the impact of this new normal. People are struggling under very heavy workloads due to the ‘more with less’ paradigm, but, compounding this is the fact that life outside of work, for many people, is just as busy and stressful.

Expectations on businesses, public organisations and non-profits are at an all-time high, families are under more pressure than ever before, and women are often at the centre of the storm. Society has changed so much in the last 50 years, and even the last 15 years, and I don’t believe we have adjusted our communities, working conditions and institutions such as schools and pre-schools, enough to cope with these changes.

We no longer live and raise our families in villages, with the constant companionship, division of labour and inter-generational support that these provided. Nowadays, many families, once the children are grown up, are dispersed around the country or the world, and communities that were traditionally built around the village or the church have been eroded as cities have grown and organised religion has declined. The fallout from these factors is that our support networks are smaller and weaker than they used to be, and this impacts on our well-being – whether we are single, coupled, or have our own family.

The “stuff” that we are surrounded with has changed significantly too, but in my mind, the most significant of these changes are in technology and food. Smart phones have only been around for about ten years, and yet the changes they have wrought on our lives have been spectacular. My phone now serves as my computer, my diary, my map, my postie, my travel agent, my calculator, my camera and my newspaper! And I’m still not tapping into a fraction of the potential it has. I’ve heard it described like this:

      If an alien landed on Earth, how would you explain the internet to her? – You would probably have to say, “There is a device in my pocket that allows me to access the entirety of human knowledge; I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with people I don’t know.”

Another thing I think we would find ourselves having to explain to our new alien friend is the stuff we put in our mouths which we loosely refer to as “food.” Many of the things we call food are so heavily processed (meaning diluted, contaminated and generally tampered with) that there is very little nutritional value in them at all. This is significant when talking about stressful, busy lives, because in order to cope with our heavy workloads and heavy lifeloads, we need a LOT of energy. It is not good for our energy levels to be eating heavily processed, nutrient-poor food, and yet this is the only type of food that is abundant, powerfully marketed and easily accessed.

The result of all of this is that many people are struggling, and too many of us start every day depleted of energy. Our performance at work suffers, and so do our relationships. We may feel as if we are just keeping our head above water, and sometimes even sinking below it.

It sounds pretty bad doesn’t it? Don’t despair; while there are many factors causing us to feel this way (such as the ones I’ve described above), that we can’t influence, here are five things we CAN do to help our bodies produce a bit more energy, and not waste so much of it.

1. Identify any pressurising beliefs.
Our beliefs drive our behaviour. So if we believe that we have to do everything, fix everything, take care of everybody, do everything perfectly, be liked by everyone, and never let anyone down, then we inevitably end up taking on more than we should, doing other people’s jobs/chores, refusing offers of help, and generally taking care of everyone’s needs except our own. I challenge you to have your internal radar on and listen to the messages you give yourself day in and day out, as they will be reinforcing your beliefs, and some of those may be responsible for wasting your energy.

2. Challenge those pressurising beliefs by asking yourself these questions.
- Who can I get to help me with this?
- Does it matter if it’s not done perfectly?
- If someone is not important to me, does it matter if they don’t like me?”
- Do I need to take care of ME right now?
- What is the cost (to me) of doing this?

3. Breathe. Deeply and slowly.
When you are stressed or rushed, your body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode because it thinks you are in danger. This results in the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline coursing through your body, sucking up vitamins and minerals you need for energy production. It also creates free radicals which damage and age your body’s cells. By pausing to breathe deeply, into your diaphragm, (often described as “belly-breathing”), you are telling your body that it’s OK, you’re not actually in danger, and your body will respond by calming down. As a result, you will feel less rushed and anxious. If you can accompany your deep breathing with a supportive phrase such as “Take your time,” or “Slow down, it will be ok,” then the effect is amplified.

4. Eat more plants.
If I call them plants rather than fruit and vegetables, will you be less likely to roll your eyes and say, “Heard that before!”??  I could write all about mitochondria, the Krebs cycle and aerobic respiration, but it would be easier to just say that the vitamins and minerals found in unprocessed coloured plant foods (including nuts and seeds) are essential for extracting energy from the food you eat. Without enough quantity and variety of vitamins and minerals, the process of making energy for your body breaks down, and your energy levels drop.

5. Get more, better quality sleep.
Now you really are rolling your eyes because you’ve heard it all before! Maybe some of you are eating junk food and staying up late because you’re just rebellious at heart….? There’s a reason we can survive three weeks without food but only three days without sleep. Sleep is when our body repairs itself from the toll the day has taken on it; when it processes experiences, solidifies memories and works through problems we’re struggling with. That’s why you can suddenly wake up in the middle of the night with an ingenious solution for a complex problem, or instant clarity about something that has been confusing you. The opposite of your body’s ‘fight or flight’ mode is its ‘rest and repair’ mode, and sleep is the best and longest opportunity you can give your body to recover and heal itself. It is also worth noting that, due to changes in cortisol levels throughout the night, your best quality sleep is between 10pm and 2pm.

If you feel like being stressed or rushed has become a normal state for you, then beginning to make small changes in the five areas covered above will gradually bring your body and mind back into a more sustainable way of living and working. The toll that living with constant stress and urgency takes on our mind and body has a big impact on our quality of life. This refers to the strength of our relationships, our performance at work, our ability to enjoy things and our energy. I think too many of us have bought into, or been conned by, the ‘more with less’ paradigm, and it has resulted in our trading quality of life for quantity of life.

I think in fact, less is sometimes more.

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