THE BLOG

Job Stress? How to Keep Catastrophic Thoughts from Killing You

T-Bone Walker called it "Stormy Monday" in his electric blues masterpiece. ER physicians and hospital personnel know it as "Black Monday," the day of the week when more heart attack victims check in than any other day of the week. The prospect of another week of job pressures triggers a myocardial infarction and a trip to the emergency room. Monday is not the favorite day of the week for most of us. It means open season on our pulse rates for the next five days, courtesy of a silent killer we aid and abet: job stress.

Slide open the top desk drawer of a typical workstation today, and chances are good that you will stumble onto a mini-pharmacy. Tums, Tagamet, Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol. This is the rumbling underbelly of an epidemic of chronic stress. Inside the purses and briefcases, there are pharmaceutical reinforcements--Paxil to Xanax. A lawyer in Washington D.C. told me everyone she knows is on Paxil.

When I do work-life balance workshops for companies or government organizations, I invariably meet folks who take me aside to tick off a litany of meds and conditions--all due to chronic work stress. A manager at an aviation company told me about the heart attack he'd had five months earlier. A woman at a drug company listed seven meds she was on, for everything from depression to insomnia and gut issues. I met a woman in her twenties at one government agency who had the ailments of a 70-year-old.

It's a national health tragedy that is all but invisible, hidden behind the game face of workers who have been trained to take it in silence, part of the mettle-testing battleground of the bravado workplace. When we take the stress, though, we get taken--by any number of health problems, by the nonproductivity that comes from stress-addled brains, and by the staggering costs of a problem that we enable.

More than three-quarters of the 956 million visits to physicians every year are estimated to be the result of stress-related problems. Want to dramatically cut health care costs? Start here. Three-quarters of visits to doctor's offices at, conservatively, $100 a pop = $71 billion.

Job-related stress also costs American business $344 billion a year in everything from medical bills to recruiting and training, according to research at Middle Tennessee State. Chronic stress kills more people every year than traffic accidents, nicotine, or alcohol from the host of conditions it stokes, from heart disease to strokes, yet we hear next to nothing about it -- no anti-stress ad campaigns like the anti-smoking spots. In Britain, they take work stress seriously enough that the law requires that companies there undergo regular stress audits. Can you imagine that happening here?

A massive stress education program could go a long way toward addressing the problem, because the vast majority of us know next to nothing about stress--and how we hold the key to creating it or dumping it. Yes, there are plenty of stressors coming at us in a warp factor 9 workplace, but it's not the deadline, what a customer says, or the conflict with a colleague that's causing your stress. The reality is you are. It's the story you tell yourself about the negative event or the stressor that's causing the stress. We all have the ability to change the stories that create our stress, if we know how the dynamic works.

The problem is a design flaw in our brains that leaves us prone to false emergencies. We were designed for life-and-death struggles on African savannas, not overflowing in-boxes or sales quotas. That's especially true for the part of your brain that sets off the stress response, the amygdala, a hub of the emotional brain, the ancient limbic system, which ran operations before we evolved the higher brain organs that can make decisions based on reason and analysis, not raw emotion.

In times of perceived danger the amygdala hijacks the 21st century brain and takes the helm again. This ancient alarm system is as good at measuring threats in the workplace as a yardstick is at calculating the distance to the sun. A hundred and fifty emails a day is a hassle, but it's not life-or-death. But if an overloaded inbox makes you feel you can't cope, off goes the signal that sets off the stress response, which floods your body with hormones that suppress your immune system to help you fight or run ... away from your computer?

Researchers have discovered that there are a couple of keys to controlling the stress response (which can be shut off in three minutes, as soon as the brain can see the danger is over): increasing "latitude," such as the amount of control you have in your work -- possible through changes in how you do your tasks -- and the story you tell yourself about the problem. The first story you get when the stress response goes off is supplied by your caveman brain, the amygdala. Since it thinks those 150 emails will overload your coping ability, it interprets the matter as life-and-death, unleashing the stress response and the panicked thoughts that come with it. The initial thoughts of a panicked brain are exaggerated, catastrophic. We get swept away by a surge of emotion from these distortions, buy the false beliefs, and go down the irrational track, causing any number of consequences, all based on a fantasy.

Stress constricts your brain to the perceived crisis and inhibits all the things that can reduce the stress, such as relaxation, recreation and play. Active recreational experiences are one of the best stress buffers available, something I detail in my new book on the power of engaged experiences, "Don't Miss Your Life." But stress shuts off diversions from stewing and ruminating, leaving us to obsess about the perceived emergency. The more we stay caught up in a cycle of stress and rumination, the more we miss our lives.

We're never taught to contest the illusions of stress, so the hysterical stories stick. If we don't dispute these stories with the 21st century brain, the stress response spirals in intensity, locking in a false crisis mentality. Since the process suppresses the immune system, you become vulnerable to any number of health problems -- adrenal dysfunction, back pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypertension. The biochemical changes increase the bad cholesterol and decrease the good kind. The stress response steals from various body systems to pump more blood to your arms and legs to fight and run. It was intended to last for the minutes or perhaps hours it took to get out of harm's way, not to pump 24/7, day after day, month after month, as it does with modern chronic stress.

You can exit the trap of work stress by increasing your control over the work environment as best you can and changing the false story of the caveman brain to one based on the facts of the situation as soon as you feel the wave of emotions and irrational thoughts go off. There are a number of effective techniques that can help reframe the story, as well as relaxation tools that can reduce the anxiety so you can build in your rebuttal to the irrational thoughts.

Some processes, which involve deep breathing and reframing, are good for situational stress. They let you step back when the going gets tense and create counter-stories that can stop the stress spiral in its early stages, before the catastrophic thoughts get entrenched. The stress spiral is weakest at the very beginning of the cycle, so that's when you want to contest it. It takes time and effort to change reflex behaviors, but you can learn to reframe emotional panic with realistic appraisal of stressful situations.

Stress is by no means easy to deal with, since we react to stressors before we think. It's an automatic response, which is why we are so under its thumb. But we can build in the thinking and catch ourselves before we rush headlong down the irrational track and wind up with a dump truck of angst -- for nothing.

Real courage lies not in absorbing punishment but in managing reflex emotions and work tasks that set them off. As Lao Tzu put it, "He who is brave in daring will be killed. He who is brave in not daring will survive." Opting out of the stress reflex is the real home of the brave.

Joe Robinson is author of the new book, "Don't Miss Your Life," on the science, spirit, and missing skills of living the fullest life. He is a work-life balance and stress management speaker, trainer, coach and author at Work to Live.