As I write this column, the holiday season has just begun, and its incumbent demands lie ahead. By the time this article reaches you, we will have outlasted the season and its associated stress. But it’s not just the holiday baking, gift-wrapping, and decorating that overwhelms us—we face enormous professional stress during this time of year, with its emphasis on home, family, good health, and harmony.
Stress is simply a part of human nature. And despite its bad rap, not all stress is problematic; it’s what motivates people to prepare or perform. Routine, “normal” stress that is temporary or short-lived can actually be beneficial. When placed in danger, the body prepares to either face the threat or flee to safety. During these times, your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity—all functions that aid in survival.1
But not every situation we encounter necessitates an increase in endorphin levels and blood pressure. Tell that to our stress levels, which are often persistently elevated! Chronic stress can cause the self-protective responses your body activates when threatened to suppress immune, digestive, sleep, and reproductive systems, leading them to cease normal functioning over time.1 This “bad” stress—or distress—can contribute to health problems such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Stress can elicit a variety of responses: behavioral, psychologic/emotional, physical, cognitive, and social.2 For many, consumption (of tobacco, alcohol, drugs, sugar, fat, or caffeine) is a coping mechanism. While many people look to food for comfort and stress relief, research suggests it may have undesired effects. Eating a high-fat meal when under stress can slow your metabolism and result in significant weight gain.3 Stress can also influence whether people undereat or overeat and affect neurohormonal activity—which leads to increased production of cortisol, which leads to weight gain (particularly in women).4 Let’s be honest: Gaining weight seldom lowers someone’s stress level.
Everyone has different triggers that cause their stress levels to spike, but the workplace has been found to top the list. Within the “work” category, commonly reported stressors include
- Heavy workload or too much responsibility
- Long hours
- Poor management, unclear expectations, or having no say in decision-making.5