According to statistics from the American Institute of Stress, a reported 83 percent of Americans suffer from work stress. Over time, that stress can have a negative impact on your personal and professional life, not to mention your health and well-being. So how to break the stress cycle at work? I spoke with Kelly Turner, PHD, Harvard and Berkeley-trained researcher and NYTimes bestselling author, screenwriter and producer who studies people who have had “radical remissions” and highlights the healing factors they have in common. Embracing those factors can also make a difference in our stress levels.
Good Stress Vs Bad Stress
Turner explains that understanding the difference between good stress (also known as “eustress”) and bad stress is key. Eustress might be things like getting a promotion and being excited, or the endorphin high we feel after giving a great presentation. Turner says, “hormones like adrenaline, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins are released, but not cortisol,” which is the stress hormone that, when elevated, has been tied to adverse health effects like depression, sleep disturbance, weight gain, and digestive issues, among others.
However, when we’re dealing with negative stress (feeling overwhelmed, under-qualified, uncertain, experiencing relationship troubles), we get a rush of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine to help you push through and deal with the perceived threat, Turner explains. “When you have a stressor for five to ten minutes it doesn’t hurt your immune system (it actually helps) but as soon as it’s lasting more than ten minutes then we’re getting into a problematic situation where you have chronic cortisol release.”
Signs You’re Caught In A Destructive Stress Cycle
“When cortisol is chronically released over time (more than a day) you’re going to be disrupting the body’s natural rhythm and suppressing your immune system,” says Turner. She adds that research has shown correlations between elevated cortisol levels and higher white blood cell counts, higher blood pressure, impact on insulin release, and more.
Some signs you’re caught in a destructive stress cycle may include trouble sleeping, feeling like coffee doesn’t “work” anymore, “and when the primary emotion of your days are feeling overwhelmed, frustrated or anxious. Another sign of stress is reduction in productivity.” You may also experience appetite changes (often a tendency to gravitate towards foods high in sugar, salt, and fat), feeling irritable, digestive discomfort, and fatigue.
Follow This Three-Step Method
Turner recommends a three-step approach to managing stress.
1. Assess the stress. “Make a list of everything that’s stressing you out. This should include personal stuff and work. Then star or circle the biggest stressors.”
2. Make a plan (with the help of others). “Ask for help figuring out how to alleviate those stressors. When working together on figuring out how to deal with the stressful load, oxytocin is released, which will help you feel lighter.” And get ahead of the stress, she adds. Anticipate potential challenges and ask for the support or resources you need upfront rather than when you’re in crisis mode. So for example, be honest with your boss about a tight deadline or communicate with your partner about needing time to work on a project.
3. Change your daily habits.
We can’t always prevent stressors from happening, but it helps to have daily habits in place to manage stress. Some of the healing factors Turner discusses in Radical Remission can also be useful for managing stress. A few of the big ones:
-Releasing suppressed emotions.
-Take up a mindful practice like meditation or gardening—“something that helps quiet the mind.”
-Work on your diet. Turner’s research supports “moving towards a plant-strong diet and get plenty of healthy hydration and eating the rainbow of vegetables in different ways and getting the healthy fats and proteins you need to fuel your day.”
-Make exercise a part of your routine. It benefits mood, helps build strength, and can even be a social connector.
-Consider working with a coach. “Some things are in our control, many are not,” says Turner. “Some people work with a coach to figure out where they can take action, and where they need to surrender. It can be really helpful to have a coach in your corner, someone who is educated and knowledgeable about what you’re going through.”
And when the stress increases, you need to step it up. It may seem counterintuitive at first but “research shows that in the face of something that feels formidable, you need to work harder to stay out of the cortisol cycle. You need to exercise more, meditate more, plan some weekend rest even more so. You shouldn’t be working through the weekends or sacrificing your sleep—that would lead to poorer results and productivity.”
She recommends interrupting the cortisol cycle for 5-10 minutes per day (at least) to help. “For some people, that’s watching a short video that makes them laugh or makes them think about something that’s not stressful. Or maybe it’s looking at pictures of their kids or pets. If you spend those five minutes not taking a break ,though it doesn’t count because you’re not disrupting the cycle. You have to make sure those five minutes really are a break.”