Stress is any strain or force on the body or mind; a power that deforms the shape of the body subjected to it. It is a dis-harmony or instability of a once-balanced state. Dr. Hans Selye, the most renowned authority and researcher on stress, defines it simply as the rate of wear and tear on the body. Each time we are stressed, specific bodily responses occur.
An impulse is relayed to the brain, which sends out signals to the glands and organs to secret over 1,000 hormones into the bloodstream. Immediately, muscles tense, breath rate increases, heartbeat quickens, blood pressure rises and blood is shunted from the skin and organs to the muscles; the brain and the digestive system is disrupted.
We are prepared to respond to the stressor. This preparation for danger is the fight or flight response, a term coined by Harvard physiologist, Walter Cannon, in the 1930's. The fight or flight response is an instinctual response, a survival mechanism which enabled us to survive as a species.
However, now it is often an inappropriate response as our bodies tend to react as if our lives are being threatened when they are not. Today, threats are mostly emotional rather than physical, yet we habitually respond via the fight or flight response as if we are in constant danger.
Deadlines, unrealistic self-explanations, job and home pressure, credit card debt, unpaid bills, traffic, and the rapid, subtle stresses of modern times creates prolonged stress. This type of stress can cause both psychological and physical health problems.
The Problem of Stress
Prolonged stress interferes with the body's natural ability to return to homeostasis (a balanced state). Our bodies have a mechanism for reacting to stress, but then needs to return to this balanced state for optimum health. Normally, after a stressful event, the body automatically returns to homeostasis.
Researchers have shown that chronic prolonged stress speeds up the shriveling of the tips of the bundles of genes inside the cells. This not only shortens the life span of the cells, but also deteriorates them. Symptoms from this stress related accelerated aging emerges in the form of skin wrinkles, weakened muscles, diminished hearing, eyesight, cognitive processes and even organ failure.
Today almost everyone's anxiety level is elevated because of individual and global stressful times, which affects most aspects of our daily life. As many as 80 percent of Americans are stressed about their personal finances and the economy, according to the annual survey conducted by the American Psychological Association.
All we have to do is read the newspaper, turn on the radio or talk to friends. To add insult to injury we have road rage, desk rage, gone postal, and a new term called techno-stress that is the incessant intensification and infusion of new information. One-hundred years ago, there were no jet planes, hardly any automobiles, certainly no cell phones, Blackberry's, computers, internet or fax machines.
More than 80% of the world's technological inventions have occurred since 1900. There was more information produced in the 30 years from 1965-1995 than was produced in the entire 5,000-year period from 300BC to 1965. We have experienced more change in the past 20 years than the world encountered in the previous 2,000 years. Never before in our history has our life's changed so rapidly.
The World Health Organization described stress as a worldwide epidemic and a United Nations report called job stress, "The disease of the century". The cost of uncontrolled stress to American business exceeds over 300 billion dollars each year. Stress can be very subtle and builds up like the steam in a pressure cooker.
It's extremely important to be aware of ones stress level and continually release it, letting out some of the steam. It would take hours to describe the many physical and emotional problems prolonged stress can cause. Suffice to know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Louis Pasteur stated that disease was not caused by bacteria alone but the condition of the host's body.
According to the American Academy of Family Practice, two thirds of the people who visit family doctors suffer from stress related illness. Statistics, from the NHS Information Centre, show that the number of outpatient appointments for patients diagnosed with anxiety disorders and panic attacks rose from 3,754 to 17,470 between 2006/2007 and 2010/11.
Working conditions such as excessive workload, increasing demands and conflicting expectations play a primary role in causing job stress, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Over-stressed employees affect the company's bottom line.
Stressful working conditions are associated with increased tardiness, absenteeism, illness, injury and disability. Healthcare expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress. According to Northwestern National Life a fourth of all U.S., employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.
Princeton Survey Research Associates report that three-fourths of employees believe worker's have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago. Other research has found that 34 percent of American worker's loose sleep; 11 percent drink heavily and 16 percent smoke excessively.
A survey of 1,305 U.S. workers shows that one in ten workers say employees have come to blows because of stress at work. Forty-two percent say there's yelling and verbal abuse in their offices. One in five had quit a job because of stress.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics documented 1.5 million instances of simple assault and 396,000 cases of aggravated assault per year at the workplace. The National Safety Council estimates that 1 million employees are absent on an average workday because of stress related problems.
A certain amount of stress is beneficial for employees to feel creative, energetic and productive. It's only when stress becomes overwhelming and prolonged that we have to compensate by increasing those things that give us stress release.
The Solution to Stress
Learning how to manage stress is not only a cost-effective business decision, but fulfills a humanistic need, which builds loyalty and commitment toward the organization. Employees are being asked to do more, work longer hours and take on more responsibility. They are not taught how to prepare for and handle these additional responsibilities and stressors.
With the on set of new technology including cell phones, I phones, beepers, faxes, and laptops, employees have less away time that makes it very important to learn how to let go disconnect and relax. Becoming aware of your thoughts will help manage stress. Recognize what things trigger your stress response and then plan a coping strategy.
For instance I will ask, "How many people in this seminar get up- tight in traffic." Everyone raises their hand. Then I say, "Is there anyone who can do anything about traffic?" No one raises their hand. So if you can't do anything about traffic, why continue to let it bother you?
Instead, enjoy listening to music or an audio book or use the time to take deep breaths and release stress. Get back in control and don't allow situations to take away your power and peace of mind. A two-year study of 1,300 employees at Northwestern National Life Insurance Company showed that illness resulting job burnout can be reduced.
It was also learned that by providing stress management programs to employees it is perceived that the company cares about them which will reduce turnover as employees rate work environment more important than financial rewards. Northumbria Healthcare's wellness accomplishments include a reduction in staff turnover, a 5-7% decrease in sickness and absence, a lower level of staff stress, a decrease in bullying and harassment, and an increase in preventive actions through early referrals to Occupational Health.
Equitable Life Assurance of New York estimated they saved $5.52 for every $ 1.00 invested in stress management. A study at SCI Insurance Group found that relaxation training lowered health care costs by 50% to 68%. According to the University of Michigan Health Management Research Center, healthy people cost an average of $4,000 less each year in healthcare costs than unhealthy employees.
Researchers have found that meditation benefits the body, mind and spirit by lowering blood pressure, drug dependency, cholesterol, stress and anxiety levels, risk of stroke and heart disease asthma and other psychosomatic diseases; while increasing stress resilience, happiness, ability to fall asleep, brain hemisphere synchronicity, creativity, alertness, self-awareness, self acceptance and a deeper sense of spirituality and meaning.
Brain research is beginning to produce concrete evidence for something that Buddhist practitioners of meditation have maintained for centuries. Mental discipline and meditative practice can change the workings of the brain and allow practitioners to achieve different levels of focus and awareness.
That is why a handful of executive MBA programs around the country from Harvard to Michigan's Ross School of Business are teaching students meditation techniques.
Much of the stress we deal with today is self-generated by our mind in the form of worry, anger, fear of the future, thoughts about negative experiences, relationship problems, money problems, traffic and on and on.
By realizing that our thoughts create the stress response we can develop awareness and learn not to focus on and be controlled by stress-producing thoughts. We can also make the time each day to relax, let go of stress, lighten up, feel peaceful and create the balance we need for a healthy and productive live.
For over 30 years I have been designing stress management programs and coaching individuals in business, industry, government agencies, the military, educational institutions, law enforcement and non-profit organizations. I have given one-hour lectures, half day, one day and two-day programs.
I have found the most effective way to teach a stress management program is over a period of time which gives participants the opportunity to set goals, plan change, work with new ideas and receive the support they need for success.
An important part of the program is creating the time to practice daily relaxation by listening to my instructional CD. After one week, we return in order to evaluate progress and set new goals. The key to success in this program is a combination of education, motivation, follow up and support.
The Relaxation and Revitalization Room
There is a paradigm shift slowly occurring where organizations are realizing that periodic relaxation breaks the stress cycle and makes employees more productive over the long term. Progressive companies like Acacia Life Insurance of Bethesda, Md. and PT&C, a public relations firm in New York, provide a meditation room for employees to use.
I would like to see more organizations designate a room where employees can go to relax and revitalize. The R&R room has calming images, zero gravity lounges, music playing at a largo speed which is in accord with a relaxed heart beat, objects of beauty, full spectrum lighting and a variety of other relaxation inducing and energizing systems.
The room should be designed in accordance with the culture of the organization. Other activities that will help reduce stress in the workplace are meeting with employees to discuss manageability of workload, give employees a sense of control, acknowledge work well done, management encourages wellness and creates activities to have fun and build a sense of team.
About the Author
Dr. Jeffery Gero is a pioneer in the field of stress management and the creator of the Success Over Stress System. For over 30 years, Dr. Gero has worked with many organizations and individuals dealing with a variety of stressors.
He delivered the first stress management program for the California Department of Corrections at San Quentin Prison. He assisted the Los Angeles Times with the stress surrounding the 1984 Olympics and helped JPL (NASA) deal with the stress after the failure of the Mars Project. Several of his clients include General Motors, Sheraton Hotels, Dept of the Army, Xerox, Amgen and Dole.
Dr. Gero coaches athletes and individuals to enhance their performance. He is also former director of the Health Awareness Institute and the Stress Management Institute of California.
Dr. Gero co-wrote and co-produced a relaxation and stress management video hosted by Dennis Weaver, has produced a variety of stress management and peak-performance CDs and has authored a manual for individuals to implement his Success Over Stress system.
He has appeared on many TV and radio programs, has co-written two screenplays and recently completed writing a book entitled Secrets to Success at Work. Several years ago, Jeff was granted a United States patent for a computer biofeedback mouse that helps reduce stress while enhancing productivity.