April is Stress Awareness Month. In just three days, we will have to say that it “was” Stress Awareness Month. Where the heck did April go? I meant to discuss it but got so busy on other things I simply forgot about it, which is too bad for me. Stress Awareness Month, which has been recognized every April since 1992, is, according to the American Institute of Stress, designed to remind people to focus on learning to cope with stressful feelings and symptoms and find healthy ways to deal with stressful situations. Doing so can go a long way in helping folks live a “healthy and positive life,” they say.
This year, acquiring such skills to cope with stress seems especially important.
Bryan Robinson is a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a psychotherapist and co-founder of ComfortZones Digital, a company that helps people deal with work stress. Writing for Forbes, he notes that an American Psychiatric Association survey reveals “26% of respondents anticipate they will be more stressed in 2023 and their mental health will be worse.”
According to the job search engine Zippia, their research shows that between December 2020 and July 2021, employees reported “an overall 21% increase in burnout.” In addition, “40% report that their job is ‘extremely stressful,’ and 25% say their job is the #1 stressor in their lives.” The report goes on say that “physical fatigue is the most common symptom” and that employees also experience “cognitive weariness (36%), emotional exhaustion (32%), lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%), and lack of effort at work (19%).”
Stress is a reaction to a situation where a person feels anxious or threatened. It affects more than your mind, warns the AIS. “From headaches to stomach disorders to depression (to) very serious issues like stroke and heart disease can come as a result of stress,” they write.
When your body encounters stress, your brain secretes hormones that alert the rest of your body that it’s time to “fight or flight,” says Delaney Nothaft, a neuroscience student and contributing writer for USA Today. Explains a Cleveland Clinic report, “During the fight-or-flight response, your body is trying to prioritize, so anything it doesn’t need for immediate survival is placed on the back burner. This means that digestion, reproductive and growth hormone production, and tissue repair are all temporarily halted. Instead, your body is using all of its energy on the most crucial priorities and functions.”
Our bodies and minds are well equipped to handle an occasional acute stress situation, but what if the stressful feelings don’t go away? “While it’s normal to have incident-specific activation of ‘fight-or-flight’ response,” writes Nothaft, “chronic stress is not natural or healthy.”
Says Dr. Jessi Gold, psychiatrist and assistant professor and director of wellness at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, “Unlike acute stress, which is a reaction to a specific event, chronic stress is a consistent feeling of being pressured or overwhelmed for a long period of time … Treating chronic stress requires a holistic approach. As hard as it is to do, trying to find time, even five minutes for yourself and doing something you like, can make a difference.”
“A max of five minutes of chill a day can have mental and physical benefits to keep you engaged, calm and energized on the job,” adds Robinson. “These short work breaks lead to higher job engagement and performance as well as better sleep, increased immunity, lower blood pressure, improved digestion and increased emotional well-being.” It is what he refers to as “Microchillers.” He believes that short breaks “of five minutes or less” can be an effective energy management strategy and can be comprised of something as simple as “stretching, walking up and down stairs, gazing out a window at nature, snacking or having a five minute mindful meditation.”
He suggests looking at implementing such a strategy as a “work stress awareness plan” that “enlarges your perspective and helps you see “the water you’re swimming in.” It allows a person “to take a bird’s-eye view of stress that’s building that you might not (otherwise) be aware of.”
“There are 1440 minutes in a day,” he says. A five-minute work stress awareness plan still leaves you 1,435 minutes to prepare for the rest of it “in a calmer, more enjoyable and productive way.”
“Part of your work stress awareness plan can be learning to look for the upside of a downside situation; underscore positive feedback instead of letting it roll over your head; focus on the solution instead of the problem; pinpoint the opportunity in a difficulty, instead of the difficulty in the opportunity; refuse to let one bad outcome rule your future outlook; and take chances instead of letting fear hold the cards,” he says.
“It is also important that things like routine, sleep and eating are emphasized,” notes Gold. “This includes learning to have stricter boundaries between work and home and saying no, or setting limits, more often. No doesn’t mean you are a mean person; it just means you are prioritizing yourself and your well-being.”
In other possibly related news, “a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) tracking U.S. suicide rates from 2001 to 2021, researchers report that suicide rates in the United States increased in 2021 after a two-year decline,” says Time magazine reporter Alice Park. Also cited were what were described by Sally Curtin, statistician and co-author of the report, as “nearly across-the-board increases.”
“While the pandemic provided its own stressors, the increasing rates in 2021 could point to the return of old stressors that were suppressed by the unusual circumstances of lockdowns and remote schooling and work, including social media,” Park writes.