Its Sunday afternoon and already your mood is dropping. The weekend is all but over and its back to the grind on Monday……does workplace stress spoil your downtime?
You don’t sleep well on Sunday nights as your mind is busy thinking of where last week left off and what’s to come.
You always wake up with that little knot, just under your ribcage. Maybe you’ve always got a niggling back ache, headaches are more frequent, but that’s from peering at a screen all day, right?
Maybe you have been trying for a baby and it just isn’t happening?
The evolutionary advantage of stress
The mental health charity Mind defines stress as being how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened. It usually occurs in a situation we don’t feel we can manage or control.
Our bodies and brains evolved with stress and anxiety as a short-term survival mechanism. Our caveman forbears would hear the distant roar of a lion, or hostile tribesmen marauding, and would feel threatened perceiving there to be a risk and danger.
The hypothalamus, the part of the brain that governs the chemical response in the body and brain, floods the system with adrenaline and cortisol. The physical effect of this is rapid breathing to increase oxygen to the blood, a racing heart to increase blood flow to the organs and muscles, and tensing of the muscles, ready for action to run or fight. Your stomach might churn, or, if you really are in a life-or-death situation, evacuate to make you lighter and conserve the energy digestion takes. Interestingly another by product is tunnel vision. as we need to be focused on our exit route or concentrate on the movements of our adversary, without being distracted by things in our periphery.
And here’s the thing: these threats were almost always physical, threats to our very survival, life or death.
So, why could the very mechanism that was designed to keep us alive, make you unhappy and possibly shorten your life?
A brief look at the physical toll prolonged stress has on our bodies
The idea of this quite extreme state was that it was temporary. When the danger was gone, maybe within an hour, the fight was won. We were physically safe again, we could let it go, with a big outbreath, our muscles would loosen and we could slump down, slow our breathing, and relax, and return to normal.
In an extreme state of stress, your heart rate elevates pushing blood around your body faster, working your heart harder, your blood vessels come under great pressure, constricting from tension in your muscles and tissues. This is all very well for an hour, but constantly for years? The human body is not designed for prolonged periods in an extreme state of stress, so it may lead to high blood pressure, cardio vascular disease, kidney damage and heart disease. Eventually a blood vessel may give out and cause a stroke or a heart attack.
The liver pumps out more glucose to feed those action ready muscles which, because you are not fleeing anything, doesn’t get burned up, and the result is type 2 diabetes. Prolonged periods of stress also accelerate the production of cortisol and adrenaline, excessive levels of which can lead to heartburn, ulcers, and other digestive problems, including weight gain around the belly.
Sufferers from long term stress also experience insomnia. This prevents them from getting the maintenance their body needs to maintain a healthy immune system. Their immune system is weakened leaving them susceptible to colds and flu. Worse, the chemical and hormonal imbalance increases the risk of most cancers . Offices where everyone gets sick all the time are often stressful places.
Sensibly, mammalian bodies are designed not to reproduce in times of danger. The whole family is vulnerable when we are pregnant or have young about, so our fertility, male and female, drops as does our libido when we are in a state of stress.
For those going through menopause – where the body’s chemical imbalances are already causing havoc, how can we expect them to find equilibrium when we add stress into the mix? Adrenaline and cortisol cause weight gain and can change testosterone to oestrogen. Cortisol also impairs cognitive function (brain fog) , exacerbates depression anxiety and panic attacks, causing a vicious cycle of suffering.
What about the mental toll?
On top of it all, stress leads to anxiety which exacerbates other mental health issues such as depression, OCD, fears, phobias, inappropriate eating, alcohol and substance abuse, and smoking.
Do you remember I mentioned tunnel vision? When you are in this stressed state, the path ahead – the route your brain thinks you must take to survive, is the only thing you see . So the drudgery of the to-do list, the obligations, the very things that are making you anxious, are all you can focus on. Fun and relaxation are in the periphery and it may be why friends have fallen by the wayside, because you only focus on the chores and the long hours of work. Try it. Try seeing as far into you peripheral vision as you can while staring straight ahead. Now think of something that is scary – a polar bear is chasing you! See how your focus narrows?
Do you feel friends have cooled towards you a little?
It’s a harsh truth, but we evolved to gravitate towards friendly, relaxed, happy people. The reason is, again, survival. As early men and women, if we encountered people who seemed edgy, nervous or watchful, we would assume it was because this was not a safe place. There was danger around. The happy relaxed people are obviously not aware of any threat so we naturally gravitate towards them, perceiving their environment to be safer.
This stress response is designed to help us respond to real dangers that could kill us, it is supposed to last for minutes, not years.
The very same mechanisms are being used now, not for survival, but where it might be remotely possible we could be embarrassed, someone might humiliate us in front of a client, it might make us confront things we do not want to hear. We might have to adjust our living standards to adjust to some adversity. I am addressing insidious low-grade work and lifestyle stress here – ill health is different. In some ways it is logical for our brains to see that as a threat to our survival, as well as life shocks such as bereavement, loss, and even and childbirth. We can still overcome those stresses but that is not the focus of this article.
However some stress is useful
Before that big speech, competition, or winning shot. It sharpens us up. When we are fighting a deadline, the tunnel vision of the adrenaline helps us focus and block out distractions. But we cannot live with it permanently and expect to come out unscathed.
Why do we live in this state of anxiety?
There is a mistaken belief stress and anxiety are cause by the events in our lives. If that were the case everyone in the same situation would feel similarly stressed, but we know this is not always the case. It therefore has to be our thoughts surrounding the events that create the stress.
Think of a meeting you always dread, maybe your 1-2-1. You see the calendar invitation. You breathe in sharply and get a feeling in your stomach. Then you start thinking about all the ways it could be unpleasant. All the criticisms, lack of appreciation, the fact you thought you were doing a good job but maybe your line manager doesn’t? How many times before the meeting do you have these thoughts? 50? You have the meeting. It goes well. You have had 51 meetings and only one of them was a success. The other 50 were disasters. The success rate of meetings is 1 in 50. Not good odds.
Meetings have become dreaded. Now every 1-2-1 you see in your diary makes you anxious. Even though they have only ever been positive. In fact you may dread them more… because your brain tells you, you got away with that one, so the odds are now even stronger it will be bad next time.
That is why exposing yourself to fears does not necessarily eradicate them. You have to stop creating them in your brain first.
Every time we project forward negatively, we create a bank of anxiety.
Every. Single. Time.
You might be thinking:
- “I’ll never be promoted” !
- “We won’t be able to afford the mortgage” or
- “I’ll make an idiot of myself in that meeting”,
- “that client thinks I’m incompetent”
- “they will all think this presentation is really bad”.
The reason for this is – what your brain imagines, your brain thinks has happened.
Does that sound far-fetched? It is the premise on which sports people use visualisation to train. Its proven neuroscience. There have been lots of experiments using fMRI to prove it. Its where Déjà vu comes from. Its why we say things become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Are you are living a life that is 50 times more stressful and unfulfilling than it needs to be?
Enough of the doom. How do you get off this scary ride?
The liberating fact is that if we can control our thoughts, we have no need for the stress. If we can use the logical, intellectual part of the brain we can work out strategies to control the events. Let’s look at that 1-2-1. Its stressful because you assume you will be ambushed and unprepared. Your fear makes you hide from it.
But what if you were to write down all the things you had excelled in, and then were brutally honest, listing those things where you could have done better, noting what you learned from those cases and how you would tackle them differently next time?
, There would be no surprises as you would control the narrative of the conversation. You might have a moment of stress before you walk into the meeting but that ’s would be good stress, helping you focus. The likely outcome would be that your line manager would know you are in control of your own performance and have more confidence in you.
This is where Solution Focused Hypnotherapy excels.
As the name implies, we help you train your brain to use the vast intellectual resource, the subconscious brain, to identify what is holding you back, and focus, not on that problem, but the solutions. We work by setting the scene to ask what could make this situation incrementally better. It’s not a counselling service that addresses today’s issue. It is brain training, a skill for life.
The brain is like a muscle. The most frequently used neurons get stronger and grow into surrounding brain tissue, becoming the most dominant. If we constantly think negatively, the neurons linking events to anxiety cause this negative circuitry to become dominant. It can even signal for tags left on your DNA to make your brain behave differently in the way that it accesses it. There is a whole new field called Epigenetics that shows how our envronment, diet, development, drug use, aging etc can case changes at cellular level.
in the gym, we can re-train the mental muscles in our brain so that, when a problem arises, positive problem-solving neurons are automatically activated instead of negative ones. It is how we successfully treat people with depression, OCD, fears and phobias, to stop smoking and control their weight. But it is also how we help competitive sportsmen and women and those in the business world to improve performance.
It has also shown that these can change after just one session of hypnotherapy.
Remember that Mind definition. Stress is how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened. It usually occurs in a situation we don’t feel we can manage or control.
Solution Focused Hypnotherapy can give you back control.
There are a few things we encourage you to do to make a difference.
- Look after your sleep. Sleep is essential to process the events of the day and repair your body and mind. If we don’t sleep, today’s stress will still there tomorrow. In REM sleep we process the events of the day and strip away the emotions, storing the event as a factual narrative memory in our subconscious brain, where we have control over it. REM sleep is only about 20% of our sleep.
- Leave your phone where you cannot reach it. Don’t look at bright light between 10pm and when you get up in the morning. We are programmed to sleep as darkness falls and wake when it gets light. Bright light interferes with this process.
- Do not drink alcohol within 4 hours of going to bed, better still, avoid it completely in the evening as it reduces the amount of efficacy of REM sleep.
- Before you go to bed, list all the lovely moments in your day (details below).
- Listen to a hypnosis recording. (The link to mine is below). If its good enough for elite sportsmen and women, you can do it too! Just try it for a week and see what a difference it makes.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. There is still much we do not know about it and recently psychiatric reports have been published stating the link between the lack of serotinin and cause of depression is unproven. This is interesting as neuroscientists have never made such a claim for causation, and the case for serotonin as a mood enhancer is very well established.
Serotonin cannot be effectively supplemented. We get it from the sun, and there are foods that contain it. We create most of our bodily supply in our gut. However, research is being conducted which suggests it cannot cross the blood/brain barrier, so the thinking is that our brains rely solely on what they generate. We evolved to be motivated by serotonin when we did evolutionarily necessary things, like providing for our families. It rewarded us for being good citizens and for mixing with our tribe as we were safer in a tribe than we were individually. That’s why giving a loved one a gift or a good time spent with friends and family makes us feel so happy.
It rewarded our good beneficial thoughts because we had to remain optimistic and motivated to believe our search for water and food sources would be successful. We had to have a sense of purpose. It helped early humans cope with day-to-day life, it made them braver and even helped control pain.
Serotonin is created through “The 3 Ps”.
- Positive Actions and Purpose
- Positive Interactions
- Positive Thoughts
Positive actions are not “I paid the car tax”. That didn’t make you feel good, did it? But think about a time when you made something or cleaned out that kitchen drawer. Every time you saw it, you felt a little fuzzy glow. It made you feel good. Try to think of something right now, just quickly. It could even be something you made at school and brought home as a gift or when you cleaned out the garage. It could be when you helped an elderly person. Shut your eyes and just picture the moment, the object, just for a second. How do you feel? A tiny bit more relaxed, calmer?
That was serotonin in your brain.
Recall going out with people or to an event of some sort. You laughed and danced and had fun. And all the way home, you recalled moments. You told other people the next day. “It was brilliant! Such a laugh… there was this bit where….”. Think of time spent with a friend or family member; a wedding maybe. Just for a second. Recall it vividly; the smells or tastes of the food, the smell of someone’s aftershave or perfume. Or you favourite holiday. Think about the sun on your face, or the feel and the smell and sound of the sea or the feel of the snow under your skis. Think about it, see it, feel it.
The serotonin effect
What is startling is that each of these things, as soon as you think about them in detail, makes you feel a little bit more relaxed, a little more positive. If you do something and you are aware of how much you are enjoying it, you create serotonin in your brain. It is not just thinking “that was a nice meal” but going into the specifics and detail of why that meal was nice …“wasn’t that chocolate pudding divine! So gooey”, Then, when you recall the meal again, you form a picture in your mind, imagine and relive it, creating serotonin from the same meal again!
Remember, what the brain imagines is thinks you have done. It works with the good as well as the bad. By writing down those lovely experiences at the end of each day, you fill your brain with serotonin before you go to sleep. This will help your brain process the events of the day more efficiently by elevating it from the fight, flight, freeze (depression) part of the brain, to the intellectual cortex part.
If you combine this with stopping those negative forecasts that create such an abundance of stress, it will help you awaken fresh, and without that knot of anxiety. It will help you enjoy your whole weekend, and your working day too.
But life is not always a bed of roses.
Here’s the important point. You need to do this MORE on rough days. Lovely moments are always there. But your adrenaline fuelled tunnel vision makes you focus only on your problems, so you don’t see the lovely experiences so readily.
Remember – serotonin is a coping mechanism. It makes you braver.
If you get a cold, you take vitamin C, or you get a headache, you take paracetamol, and in the same way if your life is making your mood dip, you need to boost serotonin, and this is the way you can do it, quickly, without much effort.
Do this for a few days, and you will notice something. You will start to do it automatically.
Your brain evolved to seek serotonin. It is not a thought pattern you will need to work on for long because once your brain experiences it again, it will crave it and seek out opportunities for that lovely serotonin feeling.
These are the first steps you can take to make your life happier, reduce stress and begin to see the wood for the trees. You can value your down time and use it to influence your working week, rather than the other way around. And you might just find your enthusiasm for your job increases, now its so much less stressful.
This is a brief guide to improving your mental health. If you would like some one-to-one sessions to improve your outlook and productivity, work on entrenched anxiety linked issues or a corporate workshop as part of your company’s mental health program, please contact me below.
Lynn Mildner DFSH HPD is a member of the Association for Solution Focused Hypnotherapy and The National Council for Hypnotherapy and works with clients in person or remotely. Lynn previously held a management role in the insurance industry for many years and has completed the corporate ILM Train the Trainer and Training modules and run training programs for staff and clients.