The authors of a must-read book, Sort Your Brain Out, explain how harnessing stress in the right way can be beneficial to business owners, and why chronic stress should be avoided at all costs.
What is stress?
Stress is a friend. Without stress, you’d be constantly flummoxed, you’d never get anything done and you’d never manage to rise to the challenges presented by today’s world. Stress, or more precisely the stress hormones, cortisol and DHEA, are the keys to your ability to respond effectively to changes both within your own body and in the outside world. Without the ability to release cortisol and DHEA you would lack the behavioural flexibility that enables you to do every worthwhile thing you have ever done.
The relay race of chemical messages that results in the release of stress hormones is triggered by your brain when it detects an issue that needs urgent attention. The rather unpleasant feeling of being stressed is actively created by your brain as a direct result, and this, believe it or not, is a good thing – it’s motivational. It compels us to act, to deal with the source of stress. Once this has been achieved, we return to the more pleasant state of mind associated with lower levels of cortisol.
When stress gets out of control
Stress, if harnessed properly, can provide many benefits but only if you don’t let it hang around too long. Cortisol works best for you in short doses but too much cortisol over long periods can be extremely detrimental to your health. If you want to stay friends with stress and benefit from it, it’s best that you don’t let it outstay its welcome.
Stress has got itself a bad name. This is largely due to the fact that it is widely misunderstood. When faced with stressful situations at work most people respond by not only working harder but also by working much longer hours. Tired and irritable they gradually become more and more stressed. They start taking stress home with them, they take it to bed with them and they even take it on holiday. Lack of quality time spent with their family means that they too get stressed, and with mounting tensions, guess what? More time is spent at work to avoid conflict!
What has happened is they’ve unsuspectingly boarded an ever accelerating, non-stop train with no control over its speed or where it’s heading. Feeling unable to slow it down or hop off, they just keep going, riding along on the runaway Stress Express.
The chemistry of stress
Cortisol has V.I.P. access to every single cell in your body: it is lipophilic (fat loving) which means it can mix freely with fatty substances and so pass unchallenged through the cell membranes that surround each cell. The job of these membranes is simply to keep their insides in and surrounding fluids out. But not only can cortisol cross this barrier freely, to enter into every single cell of your body and brain, it can also get inside the nucleus of each of your cells – the nucleus being where all your DNA resides.
The impact of hormones released from glands into your bloodstream is so profound because they effectively switch every cell that makes up your entire body into a different mode. By orchestrating which genes are switched on and off, cortisol puts your body and brain in a mode that’s best suited to deal with, and ideally remove, the source of the stress you’re experiencing. This is the point that people often miss when they get stressed about being stressed, they don’t realise that a little bit is good – it’s chronic stress that causes trouble.
How to deal with stress
Travelling on The Stress Express is not a problem providing, that is, you’re the one doing the driving. If you want to positively utilise stress, you must be the one that decides when and where you slow down, when and where you stop and when and where you get off.
Rest stops along the line are extremely important. There are several different categories of rest that you should consider, each vital in terms of not only reducing cortisol levels but also permitting important cellular maintenance work to take place – keeping your body and brain working well on the time-scales of days, years and decades.
Taking small bite size periods of time out throughout the day helps you get through each week better, and ensuring that days off allow you to have some periods of total rest will certainly help you get through each month more effectively. It also really does help to take a stress free holiday, it will allow your over-worked brain to do some deep cleaning and seriously needed repair work. An uneventful holiday is perfect in this regard!
Meditation is clinically proven to reduce cortisol levels. Laughter, a burst of exercise, socialising and listening to music are also at your disposal whenever you decide it’s time to take action to reduce your cortisol / stress levels.
Dr Jack Lewis & Adrian Webster are authors of Sort Your Brain Out, published by Capstone.