The rapid heartbeat. The prickling of sweat on the palms. The pump of adrenaline to the chest. The sinking in the gut. We all know the physical feelings associated with sudden stressful situations. And we know it’s not good for us; we feel bad for a reason.
In an acutely stressful situation, our bodies are doing something primal: getting us ready for fight or flight. Our heart rate increases; our stress hormones – adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol – fire up and our blood pressure shoots up. Once the episode causing the stress is over, our bodies calm and eventually resume normal service. 

Chronic, low-level stress, though, is a different beast. It can have long-term negative effects on us, and is more difficult to deal with.

Workplace stress is on the rise

In the most recent Workplace Wellness Report commissioned by Business NZ and Southern Cross, stress and anxiety had risen by a net 26 percent across businesses in the previous two years. Workload, change in the workplace, long hours, and relationships at work were top reasons given for stress at work. In the same survey, mental wellbeing/stress was the fifth most common reason for workplace absence.  

The mental-health consequences of chronic stress are well documented. In research using data from the famous long-running Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study of more than a thousand people born in the city in 1972-73, participants exposed to high psychological work demands (such as excessive workload and extreme time pressures) were found to have a twofold increase in the risk of major depression or generalised anxiety disorder compared to those with lower job demands.   

“Control is one of the biggest mediators of stress,” says Paula O’Kane, a senior lecturer at Otago University’s department of management. “So, the more control you have over your immediate work – such as when and how you do your work, how you manage your routine, and the level of trust your manager has in you – the less stressed you will feel.”

Helena Cooper-Thomas, professor of organisational behaviour in the faculty of business at AUT, says stress can have a trickle-down effect if senior people in a business are showing signs of it. 

“We are such mimics,” she says. “We will role-model what we see. So if our leaders are snappy, short-tempered, unavailable, that is how their direct reports will be. Whereas if they take the time to check in with people, if they are supportive, if they create a good environment, then that’s what they will create below them.” 

Paula O'Kane, senior lecturer at Otago University's department of management


Stress and the body

Being under chronic stress is linked to inflammation in multiple systems in the body. Ongoing chronic stress may contribute to inflammation in the coronary arteries, leading to an increased risk of heart attack. Prolonged stress messes with our body’s sensitivity to cortisol and its ability to regulate our inflammatory and immune responses, which in turn can lower our resistance to infections and viruses and increase the risk of anxiety and depression. And stress can have an impact on our health via the gut-brain axis, altering gut bacteria and causing everything from stomach upsets and indigestion to chronic irritable bowel syndrome and pain. 

Stress affects us differently as we age, too. Not only does chronic stress accelerate premature ageing by shortening DNA telomeres – just look at photos of Barack Obama pre- and post-presidency to see that scenario in action – but we also tend to lose our ability to cope well with stress as our cells age; this is especially true if we’re sedentary. We’re simply less able to handle stress the way we did when we were younger. 

There’s an added burden for women. It seems the hormone oestrogen helps their blood vessels to function well and cope better with stress; during menopause, however, their oestrogen level drops and this coping mechanism is reduced, along with the protection the hormone gives from stress-induced heart disease and other health issues. 

And men don’t get a free pass. Excess cortisol can affect the normal biochemical functioning of the reproductive system; chronic stress can affect testosterone production, causing a decline in libido, erectile dysfunction and impotence.

Helena Cooper-Thomas, professor of organisational behaviour at AUT's business faculty


Stress-busting strategies

So it’s in our interests for short- and long-term health and happiness to find ways to deal with chronic stress. Here are six habits that are worth focusing on to make a real difference to your stress levels, if you practise them regularly. “This isn’t rocket science,” says Cooper-Thomas. “But don’t underestimate how hard it can be to put these things in place; I know the research really well and even I find it difficult to do”. 

I’ve lost count of the number of times scientists in different fields have told me that if they had a pill that could give the benefits exercise does, their job would be done. Regular exercise in almost any form can act as a potent stress reliever by bumping up production of your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, endorphins. It also tends to create focus and mindfulness, increasing feelings of calm. This is particularly true for more-intense exercise such as high-intensity interval training, where you’re working so hard that you can’t focus on anything else. Regular exercise has also been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Blocking out regular times in your diary for exercise may be tricky, but it’s likely to pay off long term in increased focus and clarity. If you can, make it a short, hard workout at the start of the day. But if you can’t, don’t rule out the benefits of even a short, brisk walk around the block during the working day. 

Breathing exercises may sound airy-fairy, but they’re a science-backed power move that can have you feeling calmer in a couple of minutes. Evidence is growing that so-called diaphragmatic breathing – where we focus on breathing deep into the belly – can lower your cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure. What’s more, it breaks us out of shallow ‘chest breathing’, which we tend to do more when we’re stressed and can increase tension and anxiety. There are some useful breathing apps, such as Breath Ball and Calm, that are worth trying to help with breathing techniques. But simply taking a couple of minutes a few times a day to take 10 deep belly breaths can go a long way towards squashing your stress. 

Take micro-breaks
“There’s lots of research to show that if you do take a break from your work, when you come back you’re actually much more productive,” says Cooper-Thomas. “So, rather than eight hours of full-on slog, do two hours and take a 20-minute break. It will improve the quality of your work over the day.” 

Even if you feel you’re so busy with back-to-back meetings that you can’t stop, skipping meals is a recipe for long-term poor health and, in a snowball effect, more stress. Reaching for junk food compounds the issue; there’s emerging evidence that stress hormones mess with our metabolism, on top of everything else, with one study finding the high-calorie snacks we tend to grab when we’re busy and stressed may cause more weight gain than they would if we ate them in a non-stressed state.
There’s no such thing as a magic food, and certainly no one food that’s going to beat stress. But there is good evidence to show a healthy pattern of eating along the lines of the Mediterranean diet is good for heart and brain and is associated with lower levels of anxiety. Think nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits; whole grains; lean protein, and healthy fats. Do whatever you need to make it easy for yourself to eat well at work: set up an emergency snack drawer; order in from healthy outlets; block out even 15 minutes to sit down and eat lunch or schedule working (healthy) lunch meetings. 

Do something different
Finding activities outside of work to replenish the brain is important. Cooper-Thomas describes this as a kind of cognitive break – “something that’s very cognitively different from the everyday,” like learning a language. “Or it might be something that works with your hands which is very creative – doing woodwork or drawing or calligraphy or knitting. Think of what the activities are for you that help you to recover and replenish your resources for the next day, so you’ve really taken your mind off the day’s work.”

It’s a no-brainer. We all know that if sleep is compromised, it affects almost every other aspect of life and sets up a vicious cycle of stress. “We’re not doing anything to the best of our ability if we haven’t slept enough,” says Cooper-Thomas.  But sleep is an easy one to let slide. It’s worth noting that the individual who thrives on four or five hours of sleep is rare; most of us need between seven and nine hours to perform at our peak. People who regularly get less than six hours’ sleep are at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cognitive decline, and death from any cause. On the other hand, getting great sleep can make you feel super-human. Achieving it means practising good sleep ‘hygiene’: stepping away from blue light and screens before bed (and shutting them off overnight); laying off the caffeine and alcohol later in the day (both of these affect sleep quality); sleeping in a cool room; not exercising close to bedtime. 

Stress doesn’t just make us feel bad and affect our performance. It is being increasingly understood as a risk factor in many diseases. Finding ways to deal with it may be the secret weapon you need to not only prosper, but also live long.