I am 41 years old and the vice president of a large organization. Over the last several months I have begun to worry about my memory. I find myself struggling to focus at work. I’ve recently missed several appointments and have begun to experience chronic headaches. I don’t feel depressed or nervous. All of my medical tests and examinations have come back negative, but I am concerned. My doctor suggested that it could be stress.
Stress on the job led 34 percent of all American employees to consider quitting their jobs, and more than half reported an increase in physical illness and poor relationships. Employers have seen significantly increased healthcare costs for illnesses related to stress and secondary costs related to lost productivity and absenteeism.
Stress is a biological and biochemical process that begins in the brain. The brain “interprets” a situation and sends chemical and electrical messages to the entire autonomic nervous system. This response triggers the release of hormones. More blood is distributed to the extremities to allow you to physically defend yourself or run from danger. Once you take action, the body moves back to a state of “rest.” However, with chronic stress and no imminent danger to respond to, the body and the mind remain in a high state of stress or vigilance. This chronic state has dangerous effects on the heart, brain, and immune system.
Recognize it — Alter perceptions of stressful events. Action is the fastest way to reduce stress. Stop thinking and start doing.
Exercise — Physiologically we need to “burn up” stress responses.
Increase Social Support — Being with supportive others buffers one from stress reactions.
Laughter — This helps us keep perspective and restore coping; laughing is a physiological release for built-up tension and stress hormones.
Learn to delegate — Giving up control will help keep you in control.
Nurture self — This helps to rebuild the soul and keep the harmful physical effects of stress away.
Keep perspective and avoid the “what if’s” — Restructure thinking to stay in the present and avoid the future worries.
Develop coping strategies — Stay proactive and develop a plan for managing changes in life. Avoid feeling helpless, which triggers depression, anxiety, and panic.
Seek out or help to create a healthy work environment — Find jobs/tasks that allow you to maximize your skills and offer some control and influence in a collaborative environment. We are unlikely to change our behavior unless we believe that there will be an immediate benefit to our health. Telling somebody to monitor the amount of saturated fats in their diet when they are not currently experiencing any medical concerns is unlikely to yield a change in behavior. Behavior change needs to be anchored to improvements that can be experienced now.
Visualize yourself benefiting from the changes — If you are quitting smoking or improving your diet, visualize your arteries with blood flowing freely without the clogging effects from unhealthy behaviors. Imagine your heart pumping at a regular comfortable rate without having to work so hard.
Remind yourself that you are making the right choices — For example, tell yourself as you exercise that you are lowering your cholesterol, keeping your weight down, and improving the overall functioning of your heart.
Do you listen to a health message and find yourself acknowledging that, while it makes sense, deep inside you’re thinking, “I could never really do that.” Confidence is built when we are able to have several small measures of success in high-risk situations. So if you notice that resisting high-fat foods is particularly difficult for you when you’re dining out with friends, then small improvements will be felt as success to be built upon. This will improve your confidence and commitment to sticking with your healthy behavior.
Many of the motivating factors we’ve talked about involve changes that you need to make inside yourself. There are also environmental changes you can make to support your efforts to change unhealthy behaviors. Surrounding yourself with cues to remind you of a commitment to change and help you sustain changes can be quite useful.
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