Killer Stress: The Extra Burden of Business

By: Janine De Nysschen

The cleaner found him early on a Friday morning, slumped over his desk, his head pressed at an awkward angle against a pile of files, his arms hanging lifeless, and his eyes staring vacantly out of his Accra office window. The midtown banker who’d served his industry for over twenty years, working his way through the ranks to the prestigious office corner, was dead of indeterminate causes. Urban legend or not, this story is one that is becoming far too often repeated as we hear of business colleagues who have died of heart attacks and other chronic diseases that are all accelerated by increasing levels of stress.

In simple terms, stress is defined as the response that your body has to any kind of demands that are placed on it. Stress can, therefore, be caused by good and bad experiences. Our responses can be both – physical and psychological – in other words, stress affects both our minds and our bodies. Good stress can jumpstart your hormones and kick you into action to meet a deadline or achieve a goal. A stress jolt can speed up your reaction time, intensify your focus and make you feel energised. But bad stress can help to kill you.

Unfortunately, many people don’t take stress seriously when they think about their health. Stress is a recognised medical term and a condition that was identified as far back as 1936, by Hans Selye. In his research, he could show that patients displayed physical effects that were not caused by their disease or by their medical condition. In other words, stress happens over and above the symptoms of whatever illness you have. You get sick, you add the stress factor -you multiply the effect of whatever is causing your illness.

Janine De Nysschen
Janine De Nysschen

The stress syndrome that Selye investigated has three phases. First, the body has an alarm reaction – and this provokes a fight or flight response. The second phase is adaptation, where the body engages its defensive countermeasures to deal with whatever is causing stress. The third phase is exhaustion, where the body begins to run out of its defenses.

To understand stress better, let’s look at what happens when we are faced with stressful situations. You have to remember; our bodies are designed to protect us against threats. Imagine this: you are driving on Spintex Road and cars are choked in the other direction, when suddenly a taxi veers into your oncoming lane and he is headed straight towards you but there’s no place for you to go because the trotros are squeezed against the road edge already…

At that moment your brain goes PING and sets off your body’s alarm system, where your nerve endings and hormonal signals activate your adrenal glands on top of your kidneys to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. What does adrenaline do? It boosts your heart rate, it raises your blood pressure, and gives you an energy jolt. At the same time, cortisol – which is our primary stress hormone boosts the glucose in our bloodstream, helps your brain process the extra sugar rush faster, and aids the release of substances that repair tissues in the body. That’s a pretty neat body power-aid pack when you need it.

Normally, our stress reaction – the body alarm – turns off when it is no longer needed. Unfortunately, when your body constantly feels under threat, your stress-response system, and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones, can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. Cortisol, in particular, affects the body in other ways: it alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. Just as good stress gives you a boost, bad stress can do bad things to your body – mostly in an invisible way.

When stress gets out of control, it affects our state of mind as well as our physical health. Our complex natural alarm system talks to regions of our brain that control our mood, motivation and fear. Stress puts you at greater risk for many kinds of illnesses. Stress has been linked to heart disease, stroke, digestive problems, headaches, anxiety, sleep problems, weight gain and a host of illnesses that get exacerbated under stressful conditions.

One of the challenges in our African business environment is that we tend to see and measure infectious diseases as illnesses that affect our work and productivity. Gradually we are becoming more conscious of lifestyle diseases such as blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease – and we’re paying more attention to preventive measures. But few people talk about the impact of stress in the African business place.

Perhaps there’s a misperception of an African work culture that is slow-paced and laid back being an antidote to the kinds of stresses that are prevalent in Western economies.  It’s more likely though, that along with West Africa’s burgeoning business skyline, we will begin to see the effects of accumulated stress in the workplace.

Photo Credit: Del Immune V

Take this quick checklist and see how many of these stress-indicators are already evident in your life:

  • Are you overwhelmed by work? Do you routinely work overtime or take work home with you?
  • Do you have trouble falling asleep at night, or sleeping through the night to feel rested?
  • Is your immune system strong or are you picking up office colds and other ailments more easily? When you get ill, are you taking longer and longer to recover?
  • Do you have frequent headaches and backpain that leave you feeling fatigued and depressed?
  • Are you short-tempered and irritable with your work colleagues and family? Do you feel over sensitive to criticism?
  • Do you have trouble concentrating and staying focused? Are you struggling to remember things?
  • Are you spending long hours in traffic? What impact is your daily commute having on your work and family life?
  • Have you lost someone close to you – experienced the death of a family member or close relative?

Given that we will all continue to face stress at work and at home, especially as Africa embraces a more demanding future for business growth and success, you may ask, what’s the antidote to stress?

Surprisingly, it’s not exercise. Although exercise will certainly help you cope with the effects of stress and will strengthen your mind and body. But even thinking about when to fit exercise into an already overwhelming schedule may cause more stress. So, let’s look at natural stress beaters.

Your first natural antidote to stress is mindfulness

Being mindful means that you take time to be conscious in the moment about your emotional and physical wellbeing. You pay attention, on purpose, to what is going on in your life – and you compel yourself to stand still in the midst of the ongoing chaos and pressure. You become aware of your feelings, your thoughts and your body’s responses to what is happening around you. Mindfulness is the state in which you can be prayerful, where you can meditate and intentionally turn off your body’s stress-alarm system.

Your second natural antidote to stress is breathing

Yes, you’re breathing all the time, but how you breathe can affect your whole body. Morning breathing – when you get out of bed and spend a few minutes taking deep breaths, then stretching, bending and exhaling – that’s a good way to start your day. There’s also a technique called “roll breathing” where you place your left hand on your abdomen and your right hand on your chest. Then you breathe in using your abdominal muscles, and you breathe out from the top of your lungs. Breathing exercises are a great way to feel relaxed, to ease tension and to counter stress.

Your third natural antidote to stress is as simple as getting a hug from someone.

Research shows that when we hug another person, our body reduces cortisol and releases oxytocin. This, in turn, lowers your blood pressure and stress response to anxiety-inducing moments. Most hugs take about ten seconds, and the average person spends an hour a month hugging. Touch gives a reciprocal health benefit. Shake a hand, pat someone on the back – reach out and touch someone to activate your oxytocin levels. A twenty-second hug and ten minutes of hand-holding will certainly reduce the harmful physical effects of stress.

Our dead banker at his desk no doubt had a fitting funeral and rousing eulogy about being dedicated to his business. In Africa, we are good at overloading – we keep piling things on until the axle finally breaks. But don’t let stress rob you of life’s best. Understand that you are not immune to burn out, and that your business is only as healthy as you are. Guard against reaching that point where your body runs out of its good defenses. As Lou Holtz says: “It’s not the load that breaks you down; it’s the way you carry it.”


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