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  • Kirsty Rowlinson

Science-backed ways to help break the stress cycle

Stressed? You're not alone. The 2021 APA Work and Well-being Survey of adult U.S. workers found 79% experiencing workplace stress, and nearly 3 out of 5 reporting negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy and lack of effort at work. A third also reported cognitive weariness, emotional exhaustion and physical fatigue which are key characteristics of psychological burnout.

There are a myriad of issues that cost your workers and your business if worker stress festers uncontrolled. Some affect shorter-term costs like productivity and turnover (note how burnout is associated with energy depletion and exhaustion, mental distancing from work, and feelings or negativity or cynicism related to one's job), while others affect costs in other longer term ways through increased disease and healthcare costs (check out this recent NYT article summarizing how stress is an independent risk factor for chronic disease).

So stress is a problem, no doubt. But what do we do about it? The problem with stress is that it's highly personal and situational. What one person perceives as stressful is different to another and something that might not affect you one day might totally stress you under different circumstances. Too often we're led to believe we can either just get over it or push through it, or we're told generic strategies like "just breath"... which in the moment seem about as useful as a spoon when you need to tool to shovel snow from your driveway. Too often we're not given solid science-back reasoning to add credibility or purpose to the techniques we're being told. Unless you know the mechanism behind why a strategy is helpful, not only might you be less inclined to do it, but you might not use the technique correctly for it to achieve its purpose.

A great example of this is mindfulness and meditation. Touted as the "it" thing to be doing to beat stress, most people don't understand the neuroscience behind it, and without that context, their attempts to embrace it are often shallow, ineffective, and therefore unsatisfying and unsustainable. What could be an incredibly enlightening tool gets cast aside as something that "doesn't work for me."

That's why understanding how stress works, in your brain, and specifically how simple techniques that can break the psychological and physiological loops can be game-changing for individuals, and by extension, organizations.

The basic physiological and psychological coupling of perceived and realized stress.

When you get nervous, a collection of physiological changes occurs in your body. Your heart rate increases, your muscles tense up, you start sweating, and you feel hyperaware of your surroundings. Your brain also names this collection of behaviors as a specific emotion: fear. You know this process as the “fight or flight” response – your body is getting ready to either fight or flee from a stressful situation.

What is currently unknown in neuroscience is which step in the fight or flight process comes first – does your brain identify the emotion of fear, which causes your body to initiate the fight or flight response? Or instead, does your body undergo the fight or flight response, which is then interpreted by your brain as fear? What is most likely the answer is a mixture of both - a positive feedback system wherein the brain influences the body and the body influences the brain.

Something else that can be confusing is the phenomenon that many emotions labelled by the brain can be expressed physically in the same way. For example, where fear elicits an increased heart rate and muscle tension, so does excitement. This means that the automatic mental interpretation of a physical response can be overruled by a conscious interpretation instead. Reinterpreting what initially might be fear as instead excitement may help you achieve better control over your own nervous system.

A large body of research suggests that even the understanding of this fact can help you handle your stress towards an event. However, the implications of this neurological process run further – just as you can consciously control your mental interpretation of your body, you can consciously control your body to influence your mental interpretation. To put it another way, physical behaviors can change your brain chemistry which makes it easier to regulate your psychological narrative, while your psychological narrative can also regulate your physical symptoms.

This is where many people fall short. Most people try to reduce their stress from only one side, that is, they either try to use an internal narrative to will themselves out of it, or they attempt a physiological relaxation technique while allowing their mind to continue to run wild. Each undermines the effectiveness. Understanding even the basics of the interplay between your thoughts and your physical arousal, and learning to address both sides in unison can be far more profound for managing stress and building resilience.

Learning to control your thoughts, focus, and internal narrative can take some practice, but it can be easier if you learn to calm the physiological response first. And it's some of those physiological responses where relaxation techniques can be used to hack your nervous system, giving you a better chance of subsequently calming your thoughts: calm your body, remove the sensations of panic, and then focus on resetting the narrative.

This is WHY or HOW some of those relaxation techniques you've always be told can actually be used to break the stress cycle.

A key player involved in our perception of being relaxed is the vagus nerve – a large nerve that begins in your brain and runs throughout your body. When we take a deep breath and our heart rate slows, that’s the vagus nerve in action.

Research by Dr. Dacher Keltner has suggested that people with stronger vagal nerve responses have better connections with others and experience more positive emotions than those with weaker vagal nerve responses. Not only is the vagus nerve responsible for feeling relaxed, it also helps us communicate and empathize with others, counteracts inflammation, improves memory, and bolsters your body’s immune function...isn't it interesting that these are all things that can enhance your health and workplace performance?

Learning to stimulate the vagus nerve can be powerful in counteracting the fight or flight stress response. Scientifically supported techniques for stimulating the vagus nerve includes:

  • Deep breaths: breath slowly and deeply from the belly. Exhale longer than you inhale – the exhale is what triggers the relaxation response

  • Loud gargling: gargling with water activates our vocal cords which is connected to the vagus nerve, so is in turn stimulated

  • Humming: when you hum you create an extended exhale which releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter acts on the vagus nerve and helps you become more relaxed

  • Cold water face immersion: immerse your forehead, eyes, and cheeks into cold water. This elicits the vagus nerve through what’s known as the “Mammalian Dive Reflex” – when your body is submerged underwater, it will decrease the heart rate to conserve oxygen

  • Laughter: having a good laugh lifts your mood, boosts your immune system, and stimulates the vagus nerve

These are often recommended strategies to decrease stress. But most people don't understand the neuroscience behind them, and without the the scientific explanation they're easy to dismiss or ignore. The beauty of these evidence-based strategies is that most take next to no time. On their own they won't completely solve your stress issues - but even breaking that internal stress cycle for a little bit can help give your brain and body a break, and that can start to help you reduce some of the negative things associated with stress and the constant "activation" of our stress response.

Properly helping employees learn about their stress responses along with practical personal strategies to recognize and break their own stress cycles, or to balance addressing stress from both the psychological and physiological sides together can significantly reduce the impact stress has on our collective health and performance.

If you want to improve stress management and unlock the potential of your team, contact us to learn how HBD uses the science of individual brain chemistry to develop one-of-a-kind executive health or team health and high-performance programs.


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