Health Hazards of Chronic Stress and Ways to Beat it

Research has linked chronic stress with increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and other potentially serious conditions. Chronic stress decreases the ability to fight infections and worsens some existing conditions such as asthma and digestive problems. Stress can make our muscles tighten and trigger migraine headaches.


Scientists have also found that when we are stressed over long periods of time, the hormones that are released can actually alter sections of the brain that help us think, feel, and react. Studies suggest that higher levels of stress hormones are associated with poorer memory, focus, and problem-solving skills.


Chronic Stress has been linked to overeating, overweight, and obesity in numerous animal and human studies over the past two decades. Ongoing stress has also been show to suppress cellular function and imbalances in stress-control systems in the brain.


So what can corporate wellness leaders do to promote "stress management" in their workforce? Here are two 'natural' means of reducing stress that can be communicated to your employees and implemented at low or no cost to the organization.

#1: Encourage your employees to be ACTIVE and allow them small breaks during the day to battle chronic stress

Physical activity can improve your mood and help relieve stress. In addition, regular physical activity can also help your employees maintain a healthy weight, and reduce their risk for heart disease and other leading causes of death and disability. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, produced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommend that adults ages 18-64 get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week.  


Keep in mind that it's best to spread out aerobic activities - activities that make you breathe harder and your heart beat faster than normal - throughout the week, and you can break them down into episodes of 10 minutes or more.Walking is one of the easiest activities to do reduce stress and has an evidence-base to back it up.


A study of brisk walking led to reduced mood disturbances that are typically associated with daily stressors. Even more impressive is a recent finding from 2007 that depression levels decreased and liveliness scores increased when participants in Japan walked in the fresh air and forest environment - indicating that walking paired with a "relaxing" landscape can help reduce stress even more. Why not suggest to your employees that they keep an extra pair of walking shoes at work?

#2: Focus on the Present or try Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a type of meditation that essentially involves focusing your mind on the present. To be mindful is to be aware of your thoughts and actions in the present, without judging yourself. This type of meditation has been shown in various studies to be a useful cognitive behavioral copying strategy for transforming ways in which we respond to both general stress and specific stressors.  


Other studies have shown this type of meditation to have beneficial effects on wound healing, self-regulation of chronic pain, and alterations in brain and immune function. Try this link for free guided meditations from the UCLA Semel Institute http://marc.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=22.


There are many free resources, such as literature and online videos and podcasts that employees can access at their workstation. You can provide your employees a short list of their resources or offer them on your intranet. Stress reduction in any organization needs to be a prolonged and consistent effort.


It really is relentless - meaning, that STRESS and the opportunities to reduce it go hand in hand. Try new ways of stress management at your worksite including chair yoga classes, resilience workshops, guided meditation podcasts and video casts, mental health screenings, and promoting physical activity and weight management.

Here are more general resources to share with your employees:

MedlinePlus magazine, “How to Fight Stress and Ward Off Illness,” http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/magazine/issues/winter08/articles/winter08pg5-6.html

News in Health, “Stress Affects Both Body and Mind,” http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2007/January/docs/01features_01.htm NICHD, NIMH news release: “Stress System Malfunction Could Lead to Serious, Life Threatening Disease,”

http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/sep2002/nichd-09.htm NIMH Depression,

http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans

http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/adultguide/default.aspx

Your Guide to a Healthy Heart

http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/other/your_guide/healthyheart.htm

Your Guide to Physical Activity and Your Heart http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/phy_active.htm

About the Author

Rachel Permuth-Levine, PhD, MSPH, is a public health practitioner and an expert in worksite health promotion. As a health behavior theorist, she strives to use evidence-based programs that produce the best results for her employees. Rachel is also a yoga and fitness instructor.