You know that something has gone wrong when the ability to maintain high levels of stress, over long periods of time, becomes a source of admiration from friends, family, and coworkers. The worst part is when we start questioning ourselves when we’re NOT busy and stressed out.
In our world, especially when we are working with a client that is in the process of winning a very strategic piece of business, it is important to both recognize and understand how stress is impacting the overall health and performance of the team. Keeping stress levels manageable during the sales cycle is crucial. Accepting temporary, high levels of stress to drive peak performance is the best antidote to what often gets written off as nerves.
But Stress Makes Me More Productive!!!! It’s AWESOME!
That’s true. Stress does make people stronger, smarter, and more productive—in doses. Once you hit the 48-hour mark, returns start to diminish. At 72 hours, you begin destroying yourself.
“Stress” is a layperson’s catchall term for a variety of physiological processes, but usually refers to the fight-or-flight mechanism that was so useful for our ancestors. The minute you realized a tiger was stalking you, the stress response kicked in and you became temporarily faster and cleverer. If your mind and body couldn’t handle the stress, you’d be out of the gene pool a few minutes later.
Hello, four-minute mile.
When a modern, office-working human is suddenly hit with an unusual amount of stress—say, an important speech, an impossible deadline, or managing both while your son’s school called to report that he’s just come down with a stomach virus—at this point, failure is not an option and your body revs itself up to take on the temporary challenge. (Emphasis on temporary.) We’ve always relied on stress to survive, and some scientists think that the brain would not develop to its full potential without it.
First, your body begins producing cortisol, a steroid that slows or shuts down non-essential processes like digestion and reproduction. It then releases extra sugar into the bloodstream, and this enriched blood is diverted to tensing muscles.
As you become hyper-alert, time seems to slow, increasing your reaction time and making you more productive.
Next, you pump adrenaline into your system, which override several self-preservation mechanisms. For example, your body normally considers some items “too heavy,” so you don’t even try to lift them. Add adrenaline, and a 90lb woman will tear her muscles into shreds lifting a burning car off her trapped child.
“Underneath our mild-mannered exteriors, we are all capable of being superheroes. Temporarily.”
That’s just for starters. Depending on the cause, duration, and type of stress, your body initiates a whole suite of biochemical reactions that help you survive a bear attack, or make a game-changing decision for your company.
For example, there’s an enzyme called MMP-9 that inhibits your desire to socialize, so you can focus on the stressful task. Vasopressin temporarily narrows arteries, allowing the heart to pump blood faster and harder. There are dozens of others.
Finally, once the stressful situation has passed, your body almost immediately returns to normal. The cortisol and adrenaline break down and are flushed from your body within hours. Your arteries relax, your blood sugar goes down, and those “non-essential” systems come back online, so you can finally digest whatever was sitting in stomach like a rock for the past several hours.
That’s how stress is supposed to work, anyway.
What Happens When You’re Suffering from Chronic, Long-Term Stress?
Chronic stress starts off the same way, with an event that catalyzes the overproduction of cortisol, adrenalin, and an appropriate selection of other hormones and chemicals. The difference is that your body doesn’t shut it all down within 48 hours. So those temporarily beneficial substances begin to damage your body.
Suddenly, even normal problems seem incredibly stressful. Which compounds your stress. And then, you’ve got a feedback loop that can last for weeks or months, perhaps even permanently damaging your body.
Can you please stop crying until mommy makes partner? Please?
The same chemicals that transform a mild-mannered worker into a stressed-out super-producer take an enormous toll on your body, beginning at around the 72-hour mark.
Cortisol, for example, diverts sugar away from part of your brain responsible for memory, mood regulation, and balance. You become slower, clumsier, moodier, more anxious, and more forgetful. In particular, you may notice that your short-term memory is shot (one of the first signs that you’re experiencing chronic stress).
Adrenaline eventually undermines your body’s ability to heal itself. Your immune system blows itself out, leaving you vulnerable to disease.
Some doctors believe that 75-percent to 90-percent of all healthcare visits are, at least in part, due to stress. The list of diseases related to chronic stress includes: peptic ulcers, atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, depression, chronic fatigue, suppression of the immune system, asthma, acid reflux, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine headaches, and cancer.
What Do I Do about My Chronic Stress?
That’s the subject of another article (and enormous body of literature). Happily, there are scores of bloggers writing about stress management, from purely medical perspectives to less serious listicles.
Now that I’ve earned my PhD in Aerospace Engineering, I’m finally taking that gap year. Hope it’s not too late!
First, however, you need to know that it is easy to move from temporary, positive levels of stress into the danger zone. Recognizing that you need to manage your stress is just as important as acknowledging that it’s there.
Here’s a checklist of common symptoms associated with chronic stress, followed by a quick quiz to see how you’re doing. Does it look pretty bad? Don’t stress—plenty of people have managed to come back from the edge. No matter how much you’ve put yourself through, the brain remains plastic throughout life, and most long-term physical affects can also be reversed.
The best part? It all starts with a vacation, perhaps somewhere tropical, where you can relax, get your body out of that destructive feedback loop, and start fresh when you get back to the office. You’re going to be fine.