Stress is a killer, costing the world economy over $1 trillion a year in lost productivity and billions more in healthcare costs. It’s the single biggest reason for workplace absence and despite a great deal of attention from governments, health professionals and the media, year on year, it’s only getting worse. Except it’s not. You see, stress isn’t actually the problem, in fact, stress isn’t even a thing. It’s not a disease but a symptom. Just like a sneeze, it’s your body’s response to an external trigger that our brain wasn’t prepared for. It’s an ancient early warning system that hypes our heart rate and gets us ready to deal with a threat. What we think of as stress – working too hard, spiralling energy bills, Covid-19, the war in Ukraine – are stressors, things that may trigger our stress response. And, of course, they affect each of us differently – ask Joe & Jess Thwaite, who recently won £186m on the Euromillions, how worried they are now by the hike in energy prices compared to you or me? Although, when all their long-lost distant cousins come out of the woodwork, they may have a very different kind of stressor to deal with!
The problem with stress
You see the problem with stressors is that they are both ever-present and necessary for us to achieve anything in our lives. If we want to pass an exam, make a sale, go from couch to 5k, be successful at anything, or even get out of bed every morning, we must have stress. This is the real problem, this is the real killer – it’s our ability to cope with the stressors we encounter. And the way we can tackle this challenge effectively is to improve our management of whatever stress we experience by boosting our resilience.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing the difficulty of a horrible boss, an ageing parent, or soaring petrol and food prices, BUT these things are simply not in our control. What we have almost total control over however is the amount of stress response that these events trigger in us. And it’s when this automatic, internal reaction gets out of hand that seriously damages our mental and physical health. We can improve our resilience to the impact of these stressors both physically – through relatively simple lifestyle changes (like getting more sleep, eating more nutritiously and being more active), which all strengthen our resistance to the negative effects of stress – and mentally, through a better understanding of stress, what it is (and isn’t) and how by adjusting our mindset to see it as a challenge to overcome rather than a threat, we can counter its impact.
The truth about stress
The media would have you believe that stress has never been higher, that the pandemic massively elevated levels of stress and we’re all doomed to suffer. But while it is true that if you ask people if they are stressed they will almost invariably say yes, actual physiological data – measures of heart rate and heart rate variability (key indicators of our bodies’ response to stressors) – show a reduction in the stress response during Covid-19. In our research with a leading healthcare provider, 70% of those who took part said that they were most stressed when at work, but the reality was the opposite with 70% more stressed when not working! Here lies the root of the problem. Because our stress response is triggered unconsciously – often by things we’re not immediately aware of, like changes in temperature, unusual noises, etc. – our conscious brains are left to fill in the gap as to why it has occurred. This is often the root of anxiety where everyday occurrences like someone looking at you in the street, appear much more sinister than they are. And, if you’re hungry, tired or unwell at the same time, your resilience is further compromised and the negative effect of stress amplified.
The need for objective data
To tackle stress and stressors, we must go beyond simply asking people if they’re stressed. We need an objective, real-time measure of stress that tells us when it occurs and how much it affects us. This will allow us to identify how we can improve both our resilience, which will help us cope with unforeseen events, and our stress management. If we could know what was making us stressed we could start to address it – either by avoiding it or mitigating its effect through remedial strategies. By measuring stress accurately we would also begin to understand its positive effects too! How, by controlling our response and directing the extra focus, energy and purpose it gives, we can rise to the challenges we face and overcome them successfully. As well as recognising what we need to do to recover from the challenge, ready to face the next.
Ok, I can sense you’re sceptical. I’m fighting against years of misuse of the term stress since it was first ‘invented’ in the 1930s, including by many scientists and doctors, so let me give you a simple analogy. Our resilience is like an elastic band. As soon as we wake up in the morning it starts stretching as the day’s load increases – getting the kids to school, that Zoom call at 10.30, finishing the report, calling your sister, checking up on your Mum, ringing up about that unpaid bill – it seems relentless. If you try to do too much, at some point that band is going to break! But there are two ways to improve your resilience – the first is simply to take that weight off: chill out, relax, have a nap, and do something for yourself. That’s why good overnight sleep is so important – it allows the elastic band to return to normal. The second is to train your resilience to cope with more weight. This is where activity and the mental reframing of stress come in – if your body is physically more adapted to stress, it can cope with it better, and if your mind is not constantly threatened, this will also help. The key here is personal experience – stressors are far worse when they are novel. As we get used to events, they trigger less response. Think about your second baby. The stressors of having a new baby are the same as the first, but your ability to cope, and your resilience, are far greater because you’ve done it all before.
New developments in biometric ‘wear and forget’ devices and advances in the science of stress allow us to unobtrusively measure various physiological indicators and provide objective data on which we can evidence stress management improvements. We can use these as the catalyst for individual change because we are looking at real data about how stress is affecting us and what we can do about it – empowering us to identify what will work for each of us. And, by combining the data from hundreds of people, anonymously and super securely, we can better understand how stress affects groups, both positively and negatively. This will mean we can identify where the unnecessary stressors are happening at work and how they can be addressed to improve employee engagement, well-being AND productivity.
We need to change the narrative on stress. We need to measure it objectively so we have the evidence-based data we need to tackle its debilitating effects and recognise where it can galvanise us and manage both accordingly. We need to work on improving our resilience to foster greater well-being, reduce physical and mental ill health, boosting the economy and cutting the burden on the NHS. We need to stop stress being a killer and to do that we must all start by reframing it as a challenge we can rise to meet rather than a threat we can’t control.