Stress used to be really, really useful. Long ago, when we needed to run away from the tigers hiding in the bushes, stress gave us the valuable ability to "fight or flight." Hormones diverted energy from "non-essential" functions like digestion and reproduction, and fed our muscles and minds with the energy we needed to run or fight the tiger.
Then the world evolved. We now only see tigers in zoos. But, our bodies did not evolve as quickly. So, the very same chemicals that helped our bodies run from tigers now get triggered when our boss yells in a meeting or we have to make a presentation to a board.
If you just feel stress every now and then, you are one of the lucky ones that has their stress in check. On the other hand, if you are a "Type A" personality (a real thing) or a high-achiever, you may find yourself awash in stress hormones on a regular basis. And the long-term impact of chronic stress can be dramatic.
According to Mayo Clinic, long-term stress can result in
Memory & Concentration Impairment
So, not good.
And, long-term stress can also cause burnout, a state of being characterized by feelings of reduced accomplishment, emotional and physical exhaustion and depersonalization, or the feeling that you are just going through the motions.
If you think the impact of stress is bad, burnout is even worse and includes:
High blood pressure
Type 2 Diabetes
Sense of futility
Reduced career prospects
Burnout is caused when the demands of your job consistently exceed your personal resources. So, high-performing employees can usually tolerate short periods of craziness in the workplace, but long-term exposure to a lack of control, lack of support, unclear or unrealistic job expectations or a dysfunctional workplace usually leads to burnout.
So what to do if you are managing chronic stress or burnout? For chronic stress, I often recommend the following approach to my clients:
First, think about your best self. What does it look like when you are well-rested, well-fed and loving work? Are there people or places that drive your happiness? Are there things you are doing or not doing when you are at your best? What self-care are you doing for yourself? Jot all this down.
Second, think about the things you can do to invest in you. This is your Investment List. Think about: What are small ways that you can give back to yourself? Do you like to talk a walk at a local park or read a great book by your favorite mystery writer? Do you like to listen to a podcast or indulge in a massage? Make a list - the longer the better - of all the things you can do to invest in yourself.
Third, think about what stress feels like in YOUR body. This part is less fun. Really think about it. What are some of the ways your body and mind react to stress. Some examples may include:
Shoulder, neck or back pain
Quick to anger
Weight gain or loss
Binging on certain foods
Headache or Migraines
Irritability or blaming
Increase in fighting with your partner
Clenched stomach or other GI problems
Hair loss or skin problems
Use of alcohol or drugs to numb or relax
Withdrawal from others
Chronic sadness or depression
Now, you put it all together.
The next time you start to feel a stress response - or feel yourself moving away from your "best self," go to your list of personal investments. And then DO ONE.
So, when you get you second headache in a week or feel your stomach clench for more than an hour. Stop.
And do something from your Investment List.
Surprisingly, that is the hard part for most high-performers. They are used to pushing through. Stopping when you recognize stress and then doing something about it (investing in you to counteract the stress) is a new habit you have to develop.
One of the best ways you can move from just thinking about this work and actually doing it - ask a friend to hold you accountable. Find someone you trust and ask them to help you. (Or make it easy on yourself: forward them this link and tell them you need their help.)
I often speak to groups about stress and burnout - and how you can better manage your stress and reclaim the joy in your work. Reach out if you want to learn more.