Understanding Stress

The Economic Burden of Stress

Chronic stress underlies billions of dollars in lost productivity in the workplace. It is also a major trigger in the onset of mood disorders including major depression and anxiety disorders, which cost our economy up to $50 billion in lost productivity alone (http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/canada-economy-depression-anixety-1.3744300 ), not to mention the huge associated social and health costs.  

The HPA Stress Response System

When we perceive a threat, this triggers the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal system (HPA), or the “fight or flight” system. Activation of the HPA system leads to increased levels of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. This system has evolved to help us deal with acute stress by suppressing anything not needed to deal with the stress (for example, our immune system) and increasing systems to fight or flee (for example, heart rate and lung capacity). This response is meant to be temporary, to go back to normal once the perceived threat is gone. 

Strategies for Managing Chronic Stress

There is good news! First, the brain damage associated with chronically elevated stress is reversible. Second, we all have the ability to manage our stress, and essentially reprogram our brain to perceive everyday events as non-threatening. Mindfulness strategies including yoga and meditation are well known to be associated with reduced stress, which could lead to improvements in work and personal life. Regular mindfulness helps your brain to turn off the HPA system, so cortisol levels return to normal. 

The Biology of Stress

The term "I'm stressed" is used so much it has almost lost meaning. However, stress is actually a physiological response initiated by the perception of a threat to our well-being. Saber toothed tiger bearing down on you? Stressful! We definitely want our body to optimize resources to escape imminent harm. But 100 emails? The hell of a rush hour commute? A missed deadline? Unpleasant co-workers? These are some of the perceived threats to our well-being that bombard us on a daily basis. There is no way to eliminate these factors, that are not going anywhere soon. But you can learn to control your response to them. 

Chronic Stress

The problem for humans in our daily lives is chronic stress, which is associated with a HPA system that never quite returns to normal. The physiological consequence is elevated cortisol, which contributes to measurable health deficits including heart problems, sleep disorders and cognitive dysfunction. Cortisol is neurotoxic. That is a fancy word for “kills stuff in your brain”. This may be one of the most important but underestimated impacts of productivity at work – the chronically stressed brain is less efficient than the non-stressed brain.

Want to learn more?

We could go on and on about this topic :) Send an email today to start a discussion or set up a workshop at your workplace. We can provide education, tools and resources that will promote a healthier staff and hopefully a more productive workplace!