Today, we regard stress as just a minor cost of achieving success. We ask ourselves, can we afford to be laid back when the world is rushing by? So what, if there is a little stress? However, no one has spelt out how alarming it really is. We have not considered whether it is possible to be successful and calm at the same time.
Presenting some startling facts about stress:
Stress is the leading cause of:
Stress increases chances of:
Highly stressed individuals:
According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. Today more and more diseases are getting added to this list. To make matters worse, it is not visible. It is a silent killer!
So what is stress? According to Richard Carlson, “Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness. It has been defined psychologically as “the perception that events and circumstances have challenged or exceeded a person’s ability to cope.” It is not the circumstances, but our perception and coping style that creates stress.
The first step in beating stress is to understand the mechanics of its operation. Although the situations or events that elicit stress vary, at the physiological level, the response to it is broadly similar. It occurs in three stages:
1) Alarm – Flight/Fight/Freeze/Faint
2) Resistance – Biological coping or Acute Disease
3) Exhaustion – Collapse or Chronic Disease
At the alarm stage, the body responds through “flight” or “fight” reactions. It helps us, when quick action is needed, to survive a physical danger, but today in social transactions where we need thinking or controlled emotions, it’s more of a liability. Two new responses which have been added to this, is Freeze (immobility) and Faint (collapse).
What exactly happens in Flight/Fight? The sympathetic nervous system, by facilitating release of hormones, readies the body for quick action. Very simply, more blood is pumped to extremities to improve muscular capability, more sugar is released for greater energy, breathing is faster to get more oxygen, pupils are dilated, and digestive and other maintenance functions are put on hold. If we do need to run or fight, these excess chemicals are used up and the body is able to get back to a state of equilibrium.
What happens, however, if your boss shouts at you or you have an unrealistic target, or your child is failing his tests? Since the body cannot differentiate between physical danger or a perceived threat, it gets into a heightened state, but it has no way of releasing the pent up energy. The body tries to use its coping mechanism and provides danger signals in the form of acute diseases such as gastrointestinal disturbance, sleeplessness, raised blood pressure or blood sugar. However, if these are neglected, they lead to chronic illnesses that range from skin diseases and infections, to cardio-vascular diseases, asthma, diabetes, Alzheimer’s Disease and even cancer.
Stress also negatively impacts behavior, which is regulated by the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the newly developed part of the brain and controls all higher brain functions such as planning, decision making, judgement, problem solving and emotion regulation.
The stress reaction originates in the amygdala, which resides in the limbic system. If it detects a threat, it immediately sends a panic signal to all other parts of the brain. According to neuro scientist Joseph Le Doux, it basically hijacks the slower reacting PFC to shut down, and the faster acting survival mechanism swings into action. We feel overwhelmed with emotions and cannot think rationally. In this stage, a person may respond with aggression and get into a fight or withdraw and become defensive.
Feinstein points out that the left prefrontal lobe controls positive thought whereas the right side controls negative feelings. If the perceived threat is overpowering, it causes the communication between the lobes to break down; “the amygdala runs wild. Feelings of helplessness, despair and anxiety run amok.” Is it a surprising then that stress causes depression leading to suicide?
We can say that the negative effect of stress is a battle between the PFC which controls thinking and the limbic system that controls emotions. Our job then is to strengthen the PFC. We also need to ensure that the left lobe that controls positive feelings is the dominant one. Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, points out just how much this emotional maturity is responsible for success. Without it, all other qualifications and experience get reduced to nothing.
The Dalai Lama when asked what surprised him the most said, “Man. He sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health…he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” Eckhart Tolle has simplified it further. He says, “Stress is caused by being here but wanting to be there.”
Enough about Stress, let’s look at the antidote. Surprisingly more and more research studies are demonstrating the beneficial effects of happiness. We can expect that happiness would make us feel good; however, it goes further. It reduces stress, improves our health, increases our longevity and also boosts our chances of success – both in the personal and career front.
Consider a talented executive climbing up the corporate ladder. He has been to the best professional schools, has an impressive personality and great track record. He wishes to be Vice President at 30. It seems within reach. However, he starts stressing over it. He withdraws from social relationships and his leisure activities, and devotes all his time to work. His personal life suffers, his health goes down and fun disappears from his life.
Take another executive with similar background and goal. He works hard too, but he does not sacrifice his happiness, nor his relationships, and keeps time for just fun. Who do you think will be announced Vice President? In all likelihood, it will not be the stressed out executive. Even in the remote chance that he is made VP, he would be miserable. On the other hand, our second executive is fit and happy in either circumstance and his probability of success is more. Seems like in this case you can eat your cake and have it too. As they say, “a diamond is just a piece of charcoal that handled stress well.”
Stress is a killer, not just for the person but also for his dreams. It also shatters the aspirations of an entire family. Don’t neglect it any more, the time to stop is NOW! What can we do? There is no point in adding complicated tasks to our busy to-do lists, and getting more stressed. So, some simple steps to alleviate stress.
Lou Holtz states, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” So, let’s get rid of stress by learning to handle our load more effectively.
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