Studies have revealed that approximately 42 percent of office professionals work in environments in which yelling and verbal abuse occur frequently. A hostile work environment is a major source of stress; just ask the estimated one million workers who miss work each day due to stress-related ailments!
Don't Stress It
Why stress isn't always all that bad for you.
You know the feeling: Your heart is pounding as if it's going to jump out of your chest, your limbs seem to freeze, and you feel a trickle of sweat in your armpits. The experience of being under stress, and the complex cascade of physiological and psychological processes that it unleashes, involves some of the most primitive parts of our brains, and is something that the human species has been experiencing since the days when our ancestors had to contend with saber-toothed cats and mastodons instead of freeway traffic and work deadlines.
You’re not the only one. A two year survey, published in 2011, commissioned by the American Psychological Association found that 25 percent of Americans report that they’re experiencing high levels of stress, which translates to a score of eight or more on a 10-point scale). Another 50 percent report at least moderate levels, which was indicated by a score of four to seven.
Many of the seemingly disconcerting sensations of stress actually are signs of our bodies kicking into high gear to deal with a threat. One problem is that while the stresses we face in the modern world are different, our brains still react to the overload of less-threatening stimuli around us as if they were serious dangers, and those false starts can have all sorts of detrimental effects upon our mood, health and even our memories. But even so, our stress response remains an essential tool for survival that we wouldn't want to be without. And if we learn to manage it, stress can even enable us to improve our performance at various tasks.
Getting Stressed Out Has Helped Humans to Survive
The little danger gauge inside your head is the amygdala, a primitive area buried deep in your brain. When your senses spot some stress-inducing stimuli, whether it’s a saber-tooth cat or an Internal Revenue Service auditor, the amygdala breaks the glass and pulls the alarm lever, alerting another nearby part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The latter region controls your body’s autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary body functions such as blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of blood vessels. It also controls the adrenal glands, which make the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), which stomps on your body’s accelerator, jacking up your heart rate and rushing blood to your muscles, heart and other vital organs. Epinephrine causes you to breathe more rapidly, and opens the small airways in the lungs, enabling you to take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. It also causes extra oxygen to go to your brain, increasing alertness, and releases glucose, or blood sugar, and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. Those nutrients flood into the bloodstream, giving you more energy to fight or flee. All of this happens in an instant, so quickly that you don’t realize it is happening. That’s why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming bus, without having to take the time to contemplate the action.
After that initial surge, your stress response system kicks into second gear. If your senses continue to perceive a threat, the hypothalamus triggers the release of more chemicals-- corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)—which keep your body on high alert until the danger subsides.
Your body kicks into mental, sensory and physical overdrive for a pretty good reason: It’s trying to keep you alive. The stress response jacks up your strength and stamina, speeds your reaction time, and gives you a seemingly miraculous ability to screen out distractions and focus upon whatever it is that your brain has decided is a threat.
In a 2007 interview, Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, who has spent his career studying stress, explained that stress hormones are "brilliantly adapted" to help you survive an unexpected threat. "You mobilize energy in your thigh muscles, you increase your blood pressure and you turn off everything that's not essential to surviving, such as digestion, growth and reproduction," he said. "You think more clearly, and certain aspects of learning and memory are enhanced. All of that is spectacularly adapted if you're dealing with an acute physical stressor—a real one."
While you might expect that a stressful stimulus would cause you to look at things negatively, instead it causes you to discount negative information and focus upon upbeat feedback and a positive outcome, according to a study by University of Southern California researchers Mara Mather and Nichole R. Lighthall, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2012. ("Stress seems to help people learn from positive feedback and impairs their learning from negative feedback," psychologist Mather explained in a ScienceDaily release.)
That sort of resilience can come in handy, whether you’re rushing to finish a last minute paper or trying to stay alive after a shipwreck, because it helps ease the way for you to make potentially life-saving decisions in a flash.
You may be surprised to learn that your brain started learning how to do this a long time ago, perhaps even before you were born. A study by University of Warwick researchers, published in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in 2012, found that stressed-out pregnant women produced hormones that influenced their unborn offspring, who reacted more visibly to stressful situations than other children, who were more likely to be bullied as a result.
But even if your mother was calm and collected, your youthful brain began training itself on how to feel stressed out, every time you were confronted with a snap spelling quiz or had to play dodge-ball. In a study published in Nature Neuroscience in 2013, University of Calgary researchers found that the brain’s stress circuits, rather than being hardwired, are highly adaptable, and capable of self-tuning after a single exposure to a stressful stimulus.
Researchers say that gender influences our reaction to stress, with men more inclined toward fight-or-flight and women feeling an increased drive to bond more and improve their relationships. If you’re a guy, stress makes you psychologically more inclined to take chances. Women, in contrast, tend to become more conservative.
But Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Really, Really Bad
But there’s a problem. Our stress response evolved a long, long time ago, when humans were hunter-gatherers who continually were in dire straits, and spent much of their time either trying to kill animals or avoid being killed by them. But since then, we’ve spent thousands of years trying to figure out how to make our existences easier and safer, and at least in the most developed and prosperous parts of the planet, we’ve largely succeeded.
Your amygdala, though, doesn’t know that you live in a comfortable suburban house with locks on the door and a big refrigerator full of grass-fed steaks from the local supermarket, and that the biggest struggle you face every day is trying to get through the line to pick up your medium soy milk latte at the local coffee shop before your 9 a.m. staff meeting. In the deep recesses of your brain, you’re still the equivalent of those fur-clad, spear-brandishing brutes from the natural history museum diorama. It’s still looking for startling sensations that may be life-and-death threats—even if they’re only car horns during rush hour, or a baby crying in the seat next to you in an airliner.
Why worry about stress? You’ve probably heard the old truism, first proposed by philosopher Nietzsche in 1888, that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. When it comes to repeated exposure to stress, though, it might be more accurate to say that what doesn’t kill you may eventually kill you, or may cause you serious harm.
Think about this: If you race around in your car and subject it to a lot of jack-rabbit starts and hairpin turns, you’re going to spend a lot of time in the repair shop. Your brain is the same way. If it’s repeatedly subjected to stress, it takes a toll upon your mental machinery. The hormones released by your stress response affect the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that controls high-level executive functions such as working memory and decision-making, and too much of it can wreak havoc upon your mental flexibility and attention span. Apparently, this happens because stress causes a loss of receptors in your brain for a neurotransmitter called glutamate, according to a study by Dr. Zhen Yan and colleagues at State University of New York at Buffalo researchers, published in 2012 in the journal Neuron.
If you’ve been stressed out, you’re more likely to wake up in the morning wishing that you could crawl back under the covers. And it’s not just that you’re a laggard. A study by Clayton Sleep Institute research director Eric Powell, presented at an annual meeting of sleep researchers in 2009, also indicates that people under chronic stress sleep really badly, with shorter duration and worse quality, and as a result their mental function during the day suffers.
And although the stress response is designed to jack up your physical abilities, too much of it for too long can wear out your body. You’ve probably noticed, for example, that people who are under a lot of stress start to look run down, with blotchy, messed up skin. Canadian researchers have discovered that stress causes an increase in mature white blood cells—the immune system’s defenders — in the skin. In their aggressiveness to kill off what they perceive as some infectious threat, those cells trigger nasty inflammatory skin diseases such as atopic dermatitis and psoriasis.
Animal research indicates that stress may increase the development of coronary artery disease, and also may make you more vulnerable to cancer by weakening your body’s antiviral defenses and DNA repair, and by causing your cells to age more rapidly, according to a 2007 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
And the ways that we cope with stress can make the problem even worse. A study, presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior, found that early exposure to stress and the resulting increased stress response can make us more prone to pig out on comfort food as an adult, which can lead to obesity. Conversely, stress symptoms in midlife are a good predictor of ailments that can disable people in old age, according to a study published in 2013 by Finnish scientists.
There’s reason to believe that stress — for the same reason that it makes you think more positively — makes you more vulnerable to becoming a substance abuser. "The compulsion to get that reward comes stronger and they're less able to resist it," psychologist Mara Mather told ScienceDaily. “So a person who's under stress might think only about the good feelings they'll get from a drug, while the downsides shrink into the distance.”
Some Brains Deal With Stress Better Than Others
When you start messing up under pressure, it seems natural to excuse your poor performance by complaining that you’re stressed out. But when it comes to performance, stress doesn’t necessarily affect everybody in a negative way. Yale researchers who’ve studied elite Special Forces soldiers and paratroopers at the U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg — have found that even before they start training, individuals who are drawn to that sort of dangerous occupation tend to release a higher amount of a steroid called DHEA than do most mere mortals. In a separate study researchers found that their brains also contain a chemical called neuropeptide Y, which seems to act as a natural tranquillizer, controlling whatever jitters that they might feel before a stressful task.
To a certain degree, those soldiers’ advantage in dealing with stress may be the result of their genes. A study of twins by University of Notre Dame management professor Timothy Judge, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in 2012, found that genes seemed to be about four times as important as environmental influences in determining subjects’ ability to cope with work-related stresses. Animal researchers have also found that some mice seem relatively resilient to stress, while others exposed to it develop depression-like symptoms. The difference seems to be that the depressed mice have a lower level of gene expression for glial cell-derived neurotrophic factor, a chemical that influences the brain’s plasticity, or ability to adapt.
Genes may help determine how well your brain’s mechanisms are able to compensate for the effects of stress as well. There’s a gene, for example, that can tell your body to release an enzyme called fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks down a naturally-occurring brain chemical that is similar to cannabis, and dials down your fear and anxiety levels. That said, we also have some degree of control over how we react to stress. A study by Concordia University psychologists, published in 2013 in the journal Health Psychology, found that individuals who have positive outlooks tend to be more stable in their release of the stress-related hormone cortisol. That enables them to feel less stressed-out than negative people, even if they’re encountering similar problems.
- Commercial Airline Pilot
- Enlisted Military Personnel
- Corporate Senior Executive
- Photo Journalist
- Answer: Enlisted Military Personnel
- Dark Chocolate
- Light Beer
- Mixed Greens Salad
- Answer: Dark Chocolate
- Answer: 1,000,000
How to Cope With Stress
Everyday tips to keep your head cool under pressure.
As you learned in the Brain Games episode "Stress Test," your brain’s stress response can gear up your body and mind to save you from life-threatening dangers, but its inability to distinguish and filter out less menacing stimuli can leave you feeling stressed out, and even impair your health. Fortunately, experts say there’s much you can do to avoid stress and improve your ability to cope with it — and to repair some of the damage it causes. Here are some tips.
Learn how to relax.
We’re not talking about taking a nap in the backyard hammock, but rather utilizing mind-body techniques such as deep abdominal breathing, focus on a soothing word such as “peace” or “calm,” and visualization of tranquil scenes. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, in a study of 122 patients aged 55 and older who suffered from hypertension, that practicing the techniques often lowered their blood pressure so much that they were able to get off medication.
Drink more tea.
The beverage contains theanine, a chemical that not only improves cognition but also has a calming effect. A study published in 1999 found that brains of subjects who were given the chemical showed more of a type of wave associated with relaxation.
Take a walk every day.
Any sort of physical activity increases your body’s production of endorphins, a type of neurotransmitter that helps to reduce anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association.
Stop and smell the flowers.
Okay, that might sound corny, but it actually works. In a study published in 2009, Japanese researchers found that the scent of lemon, mango, lavender, and other fragrant plants alters gene activity and blood chemistry in ways that reduce stress levels.