HBR

When work stress (literally) makes you sick

by REGAN WALSH, HBR

November 9, 2017 | 6:04 pm
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It’s certainly no secret that a high-pressure job can cause inordinate amounts of anxiety and tension, which can manifest themselves in myriad physical ways. Studies show that our brain and body have trouble distinguishing between the kind of stress caused by real danger (our house is on fire) and perceived danger (a boss with too many demands).

In response, our bodies release hormones and chemicals to speed up our heart rate, increase blood pressure and stimulate our muscles. We become more alert and responsive, which is appropriate when we’re in harm’s way. But our bodies can’t sustain that level of readiness for long periods of time. After a while, they begin to break down. That can result in anything from chronic headaches to nausea and insomnia or more serious physical disorders, including heart attacks, hypertension, and, of course, stroke.

So if we find ourselves in the kind of job that is resulting in a hit to our health, we must take intentional steps to better our body and mind.

If you’ve been suffering from a steady stream of stress-induced sickness, it can be difficult to pinpoint the source. Consider carrying around a small journal or set of index cards. At the onset of your physical symptoms, write down what’s happening to you and around you. Were you writing an email to a difficult client? Were you preparing for a meeting with your boss? What was your train of thought at that time? What will make you feel better greatly depends on what’s (literally) ailing you, but here are some good places to start:

WORK YOUR BODY AND MIND.

Researchers have often touted the ability of exercise to improve our response to stress. Working out acts as a stress test run for our physiological systems, according to the American Physiological Association. They communicate to each other, as they do when we’re anxious, becoming more efficient in the process. Meditation is another common stress-reduction technique, allowing us to improve mindfulness and objectivity.

SET BOUNDARIES THAT SERVE YOU.

Take inventory of your own stress touch points, and set boundaries. The National Sleep Foundation recommends no screen time one hour before bed.

GIVE VOICE TO YOUR THOUGHTS.

In my talks with clients who are experiencing significant work stress, I’ve noted that often an honest conversation with a boss or colleague can provide immense relief.

IS IT TIME TO LEAVE?

If stress at work is causing you real, physical pain and you feel strongly it will continue despite your best efforts, it might be time to go. If the answer is yes, walk away. If the answer is no, remind yourself that staying in a job is a choice, despite its drawbacks, and there’s power in that, too.

(Regan Walsh is an NYU-certified Executive and Life Coach.)

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by REGAN WALSH, HBR

November 9, 2017 | 6:04 pm
  |     |     |   Start Conversation

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