In a National Geographic video documentary, “Stress: Portrait of a Killer,” Stanford University neurobiologist Dr. Robert Sapolsky shows us the effect of stress on our bodies. The stress response is critical to our survival, as for example when we run away from a physical danger. What is interesting is that we turn on the exact same stress response for purely psychological states: thinking about our job, the taxes we have to pay, or a 30-year mortgage.
“The key difference,” says Dr. Sapolski, “is we are not doing it for a real physiological reason and we are doing it non-stop.” So by not turning off the stress response for “life’s traffic jams,” we secrete the same corrosive hormones, and after a while, the stress response is more damaging than the stress itself. Chronic stress undermines our immune system, clogs our arteries, restricts blood flow and kills brain cells which affects learning and memory. If you have ever doubted the effects of stress on your body, this documentary will dispel them.
In studying wild baboons for the past 30 years, Dr. Sapolsky reports that these primates organize themselves into distinct social hierarchies and subject one another to social stress. The stress increases blood pressure, damaging artery walls in low-ranking baboons. The research also discovered that the same applies to humans.
Our standing in the social hierarchy can produce high stress hormones—subordinates, for example, are more subject to the harmful effects of stress. “Feeling” low-ranking is also detrimental to our health. This is tied primarily to a lack of control and predictability the lower we are in the corporate food chain.
New findings also show that stress shortens the genetic structures, called telomeres, which protect the ends of our chromosomes from fraying. The shortening of the telomeres accelerates the aging process in low ranking baboons, and the same happens in humans who are chronically stressed.
While we cannot eliminate stress from our lives, there is a lot we can do to minimize its effects. Here are some tips to help you:
1. Pursue interests outside your job
If your job provides you with little control, consider involving yourself in outside interests where you can thrive and be in control. You can be the captain of a soccer team, the president of a Toastmasters club, the organizer of a volunteer group, or the strata council chairman. Your job description does not define who you are as a human being. You are infinitely greater than that.
2. Practice a relaxation method on a regular basis
We all have in our power the ability to lower our stress level by choosing a stress management technique such as mindful reflection or a favorite hobby. An example of a relaxation response that is considered highly effective is the method developed by Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School. The important thing to remember is that whatever method you choose, it needs to be done on a regular basis.
3. Abandon the notion that being super-busy is cool
We have evolved into a society that sees multi-tasking with an ever-increasing number of gadgets, a packed calendar and popularity based on number of responses to our blog as an indication of status. Valuing more serenity and a less frenetic approach, is, in fact, the smarter choice for our brain and our heart.
4. Strengthen social bonds
We build a reserve when we forge positive relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. The same also applies to our online networks. Don’t solely focus on your closest circle of friends; cast a wide net of friendly and supportive relationships. Consider, for example, using LinkedIn to reconnect with former colleagues or even classmates. Join a special interest group where you bond with others in a common interest. These ties strengthen us and replenish our emotional bank accounts.
5. Work on developing a calm demeanor
Stress doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. Science has proven that some personalities are more prone to the devastating effects of stress. As this video,“Dealing with Stress” by the BBC shows, a baboon or human who is a Type A personality is more susceptible to illness and premature death.
If you are not sure whether or not you are a Type A, take this test from Psychology Today. If you are a Type A, work on being more patient and consider tempering your approach to perfectionism and to being a workaholic to the point of excess. This is not a suggestion to do poor quality work; it is a suggestion to use wisdom in deciphering what truly matters and to use moderation so that you can thrive for the long haul.
6. Be an empowering leader
If you lead a team, consider the health effects of micro-managing subordinates. Share important information, give latitude and control, give people a say in what goes on and show appreciation. We all know this, but approaching these leadership practices from the point of view of the employee’s physical health makes empowerment more imperative.
Empowering employees also makes business sense. For example, customers today have a great deal of power in their hands thanks to technologies such as social media, mobile devices and cloud computing. The way we do business is changing. You need empowered employees who can respond and interact with these empowered customers. In their book, Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business, Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler dub these new breed of employees as HEROS, which is an acronym for “Highly Empowered Resourceful Operatives.” The book will give you a roadmap and tools on how to create an organizational culture that nurtures and takes advantage of the value that HEROs bring to your business.
7. Take responsibility for your team’s mental well-being
Studies show that working for a bad boss can increase our risk of stroke by 33 percent. Evaluate the leadership skills of the people you put in charge of others, and if there are some that don’t encourage the heart, help them improve this aspect of their leadership. If you team has an aggressive, non-caring office “baboon,” don’t allow that person to control the stress thermostat for everyone else in the team.
8. Maintain a hopeful perspective
Expect a positive personal future. As Warren Buffet recently said: “We take our body blows from time to time, but this country always comes through.” When we maintain hope, we are more prone to put forth a greater effort which raises the odds that we will be successful. Hope is an energizing tonic and an anti-dote to stressful thoughts.
If each one of us, on a daily basis, works to minimize the harmful effects of stress not only for ourselves, but for those who come in contact with us, we would be creating a better world—one that is characterized by civility and kindness. “Kindness,” said Goethe, “is the golden chain by which society is bound together.” This is one great differentiator between us and the baboons.