Stress has become a hot topic! Disability claims due to depression, anxiety and other mental health concerns are the leading cause of long term disability in Canada. More and more stories are emerging of people stuck at home because they are suffering from chronic stress or burn-out. In the workplace Employers notice lower productivity and increase in sick days; and employees are dealing with physical pain, anxiety, and depression. Carmien Brys, owner of FResCoaching, has written a brief overview of what (chronic) stress really is, how it differs from burn-out and gives us a little inspiration on what we can do about it.
What is Stress?
Stress is not a bad thing; it is our body’s way to provide the necessary resources to rise to the occasion. Our stress response, the way we react to a situation that evokes stress, has had a tremendous evolutionary advantage. Imagine this: you are out picking berries and you see a lion approaching you. You will need to either fight the lion or flee from it. Our stress response is designed in such a way that more, or less, blood will flow to the areas of our body that we need for survival. For example, more blood will flow to the muscles in our legs allowing us to run faster; and less blood will flow to our stomach as digesting our food is not necessary for survival right now. Our body’s primary focus is to either ‘fight or flight’ in order to survive. After the lion is out of sight and we feel safe again, our body will adjust itself in order to find balance. Your breathing and heartbeat will return to normal, your stomach starts working again, you stop perspiring, your blood pressure lowers and you feel a general sense of calm washing over you whilst recovering.
However, as happens often with once useful bodily responses, our stress system has not changed a bit over time. When facing a stressor our body reacts in the exact same way, even if our life is not at all in danger. Still, adrenaline (one of your stress hormones) will help you to rise to the occasion and perform better than you usually would.
What is Chronic Stress?
Chronic stress occurs when our body is not allowed the time to recover. Our stress levels don’t decline, but slowly increase, in the following situations:
- When a stressor persists for a very long time
- When the stressor is extremely overwhelming (ex. the death of a loved one)
- When one has to deal with multiple stressors at the same time (ex. experiencing stress at work and having to take care of a sick family member at the same time)
Under normal circumstances, this is what happens: you are faced with a stressor, so your stress level goes up. However, as your stressor disappears over time, your stress levels decline. Your body has activated its recovery mechanism and restores itself to a baseline level of stress.
Now, how does this image change when we talk about chronic stress. You will see an accumulation of stress, leading to a diminished ability to recover, ultimately leading to a higher baseline of your stress levels.
What are the signs of chronic stress, besides ‘feeling stressed’? These are a few examples of what you might notice:
- Having a hard time making decisions
- Inability to empathize with others
- Unable to see the bright side of things
- Difficulty structuring your day
- Feelings of depression, anxiety, or even panic attacks
- Physical symptoms such as; Digestive issues, heart palpitations, headaches, muscle aches, etc. are common as well
This is why chronic stress often gets wrongly diagnosed as having a depression or an anxiety disorder.
What is Burn-Out?
Burn-out happens when the source of our stress response is located at work. Generally speaking, you could say there are two causes: having too much on your plate or having a dysfunctional relationship with a co-worker or supervisor. If this goes on for a very long time, you experience chronic stress. And at some point our body’s recovery mechanism is totally depleted and we crash: when this happens you are having a burn-out. You are not able to function anymore and rational thinking seems like a skill you lost. It can happen to all of us, although it seems that people who are ‘on fire’ at work (feeling engaged, passionate about their work, and ambitious) run a higher risk to burn out. Many employers offer access to an Employee Assistance Plan through their employee benefits package. These programs help employees deal with stress both at work and at home. Please contact us to find out more about adding this to your existing group benefits plan.
It is important to remember that our body knows how to recover from stress and you can take action to help your body do so. Here are a few things you can do to combat the effects of stress to prevent a burn-out:
- Try to do at least one thing you love everyday, even if it’s just half an hour
- Take a nap
- Go for a nice walk
- Get a massage
- Cuddle with your pet
- Get more hugs from your friends and family
- Play a board game
- Have a meaningful conversation with a friend
- Cook a nice dinner
Whatever works for you! Here`s a link for you to check out for quick and easy ways to relax.
If you want to know more about how our stress system works and what you can do about it, please visit the FResCoaching website at https://www.frescoaching.com for more information and contact details.