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Cumulative stress? Who, me?

Cumulative stress could be affecting you more than you think

For almost two years, we have all been in the grips of a health, environmental and economic rollercoaster. As a result, here are a few signs of cumulative stress you might be experiencing:

  • Increased irritability, anger or sadness
  • Brain fog and inability to make decisions or to focus
  • Fear and anxiety about the future
  • Inflammation - stomach issues, headaches, swollen joints, eye fatigue, unexpected aches
  • Mistakes, missteps or accidents
  • Increased use of addictive substances, weight gain, eating disorders

Over time these symptoms, if not dealt with on an emotional level, will change the neural pathways in your brain, moving you from your normal ability to respond to various situations appropriately to a state of ongoing paranoia and freeze/fight/flight/ reactions. This actually makes you less intelligent because you don’t have normal blood flow into your brain to use the thinking powers you should have access to. It also makes you susceptible to chronic health issues like heart disease, diabetes, and kidney problems to name just a few.

From your body's perspective, imposing discomfort, pain and anxiety are the only ways your body can get your mind to pay attention! As long as you don’t listen, your body will continue to provide pain until you become so incapacitated you have to listen. 

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So what’s the answer? Learn to name and regulate your emotions

All physical illnesses are either caused or exacerbated by emotions. Emotions are key to having a healthy, functional body and clear thinking. As children we never learned to name or regulate our emotions, the nuances of our nervous system are only recently coming from the scientific community into public awareness. I can’t emphasize enough the important  ole of emotions to your work, family and personal life. But how do you use this information?

One of the best ways to deal with cumulative stress is to take an action that is just for you and your own wellbeing. It is taking charge of some aspect of your life that brings a sense of calm and control you would otherwise not have and begins the internal regulatory process.

Practically, here are some simple actions you can take on your own to bring calm and focus to any situation. You can:

  1. Start practicing awareness of your emotions as you go through the day. Name them to yourself "I am feeling frustrated right now" or "I feel so enthusiastic after meeting that client."
  2. Another technique is to practice consciously slowing down your breathing when you are in a stressful situation. This brings more blood flow to your brain and stops or slows down any triggering reactions.
  3. When in a tense conversation or situation, tell yourself, "I'm feeling nervous/anxious/scared/irritated/defensive right now. I accept that I'm feeling that in this moment. It's just a moment, I feel and accept that feeling."

As you become more aware of your feelings throughout the day, it is important not to judge or criticize them, or to act on them. Just name and recognize the emotion in the moment to allow it to pass. Then take a few slow breaths in and out. Your nervous system will calm down and your thinking skills will sharpen.

Habit becomes an anchor

These are simple things but they take some practice. If you haven't made them a habit, they won't kick in when you need them suddenly. I suggest starting your day with a five-minute reflection to practice the breathing and to focus yourself for the day. A few sticky notes in strategic places can remind you to practice the steps throughout the day.

Personally, I know that I could not be as focused and calm without regular help from others. That’s why I am particularly grateful for my coach who helps me see the forest for the trees. In fact, every time I meet with her, something great happens for my business, or I get an unexpected compliment from someone I thought had forgotten about me. That is one of the interesting things about coaching. When someone else really “sees” you , that acknowledgement opens up possibilities that may have been just under your nose earlier.

In conclusion, whether or not you are conscious about it, if you have been alive for the past few years on this planet, cumulative stress is affecting your ability to make decisions. And you can't fix cumulative stress by saying "It isn't really an issue for me, I just power through". You make things worse by "forcing" and "controlling" yourself and others around you. Eventually those thoughts, feelings and actions combined with fatigue, aches and pains, and irritability will either squeeze out, explode out or shut you down.

The solution to cumulative stress is two-fold

  • First learn to take simple emotional regulation actions until they become habit and are available to you under stress.
  • Second find a qualified coach to work with you to do a couple of important things: use body-informed modalities to help you become more integrated internally and bring you to successful and happy outcomes in your life.

How will I know it is working?

You will know it is working when you feel happier and observe that you are more frequently calm and effective at work. In fact, the symptoms of body distress I mentioned earlier, like inflammation, fear and brain fog, will start to disappear on their own will start to disappear on their own as your nervous system experiences more safety. When you have awareness of your emotional regulation ability and a great mentor or coach in your corner, it is possible to stop being held hostage to cumulative stress and to live your life with more joy no matter what the surrounding circumstances.

About the author

Dr. Marie Gervais is the author of The Spirit of Work: Timeless Wisdom, Current Realities. She holds a PhD in Culture and Learning in the Workplace. Through her work in leadership training, she has coached more than 500 supervisors, managers and business owners for career and business success, mostly in technical professions such as engineering, IT, and finance. She hosts the Culture and Leadership Connections podcast, which features interviews with diverse leaders in a variety of professions. Her publications span industry and academic journals on topics including the future of work, workplace communication, productivity and psychological safety in the workplace. Her online courses and products are used by managers and career developers around the world.