Stress and work-life balance BY DR. SURITA RAO
Stress, especially everyday stress seems to be a background theme of our times, a constant thread that run through our lives. We have both become somewhat desensitized to it and fearfully accepting of itâs presence in our lives. Time crunches are a constant source of low grade anxiety everyday stress, work and school deadlines, attending all the work and home meetings and events on time. In addition, our modern day world is a place with a lot of ongoing stress: angry drivers on the road, juggling home and work responsibilities, multiple competing priorities at work.
Let us consider atypical day for many people. We may start checking e-mail on our way in to work, even before we get in while waiting for our coffee in the coffee shop. At work as we check e-mail or work on project or document emails and phone calls comes regarding something unrelated from a co-worker. This continues al day as we constantly try and multitask. Research now shows that the human brain is not wired for multitasking and even those of us who are good at it actually perform much better when we do one task at a time. An example is not answering the phone while also replying to e-mails or working on a document.
Consider replacing multi-tasking with âchunkingâ. In âchunkingâ you do one task at time and set aside a block of time , minimize interruptions as much as possible , then move on to the next task. The barriers to this are not always interruptions. Sometimes it is us trying to switch back and forth from one task to another, getting distracted as we remember yet another thing that needs to be done and switch attention to it, so as not to forget. However this can actually impede creativity and flow of thought, add a low grade level of stress in the brain, almost like listening to several different radio stations at once.
Technology in our lives today is definitely a double edged sword. It has so many benefits for many of us. We can now leave the office at a reasonable hour on many days and catch up on things later in the evening by remote access. This is valuable to many people, not just parents. On the other hand, we never switch off, since we have constant access and are reading and replying to work e-mails even on weekends and vacations. The work and home lives have merged for many people, each flowing into the other. It gives us a lot of freedom and eases some of those time driven pressures but now the boundaries have become fuzzy and we have to make a conscious effort to have true downtime.
Constant low grade levels of stress in our everyday lives are bad for our health human beings. Stress can lead to a variety of conditions: abdominal obesity, lowered immune response, high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety disorders, ulcers and depression and anxiety. There are illnesses and conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis or baronial asthma that can be very sensitive to stress and people can have a flare ups of symptoms in response to life stress.
Several hormones play a part in the effects of stress. These include cortisone, the âstress” hormone of the body. Chronically Higher circulating levels can lead to lowered immune response, abdominal obesity. Epinephrine/nor epinephrine [also known as adrenalin and nor-adrenaline]: these are the âflight or fight hormones of the body. In our prehistoric ancestors they flooded the body and brain when faced with a threat such as a tiger. The heart, rate, blood pressure and pulse go up. We are flooded with energy and an ability to run very fast. Today we are flooded with these with these hormones over and over with no real threat to life or limb. As a result women may develop hypertension, heart disease, anxiety disorders.
In general: Women process stress differently from men. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone; it is associated with lactation and breastfeeding. In women Oxytocin is released in response to stress at times to calm the body down. This can result in us trying to â make things betterâ by taking care of people around us at the expense of our own emotional and physical needs. Women tend to be verbal and want to process stress by talking about it with friends, family and co-workers. This is different from men who may want more alone time or sometimes may express stress with increased irritability. Both groups can incorporate some skills from each other. Sometimes talking things over can help but we have to be mindful that rehashing things too much may keep us in the emotions of the negative experience. Sometimes it is better
Some of the steps we can take to counter stress are universal and some are specific to each of us as unique human beings. Quite time and down time, for instance is different for each person. Some people may want time to themselves to read, listen to music or sit in silence. Others may want to sit in a crowded bookstore with the um of activity around them, reading or having a drink.
It is important to not schedule every moment of each day and to try and not be constantly over scheduled at work. Some of this is not in our control but we can try and change the parts that we do have control over. Connecting with nature is a way to calm the brain down. Exercise, even simply waking can be an excellent stress reliever. Spending time with family, friends, your children or a pet can be very relapsing for many people. Simple, unstructured time such as daydreaming or going to the bookstore to just browse or read and have a drink and a snack can do a lot to lower stress. It is important to be kind to other people and also take time to savor the small happy moments in life that balance out the sadder more anxious moments. Spirituality can be a support in life for those who take comfort in it and have beliefs that are helpful to them.
What we eat is important too. Stress can increase our appetites and also make us reach for sugar or refined carbohydrates, foods that cause immediate mood altering but may leave us crashing later on. It is helpful at times of stress and in general to reduce processed food and sugar in our diets. One way to do this is to add in things like vegetables, fruits and lean protein before trying to take things away.
Just being mindful of the stress in our lives can help as we try and build little ways to reduce everyday stress whenver possible for ourselves and those around us.
Surita Rao, M.D. is the physician leader of the Behavioral Health Services at Saint Francis Care. She completed medical school at Bankura Sammilani Medical College in India and did her psychiatry residency training at St.Vincentâs Hospital in Staten Island, New York and the Yale University School of Medicine. She did her addiction psychiatry fellowship at the Yale University School of Medicine. She has been on the faculty at both Yale and Emory Universities. She is an Assistant Clinical Professor with the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
Her clinical work has focused on addiction psychiatry, including both substance use disorders and dual diagnosis issues. She has worked with impaired physicians and other health care professionals.
Upon completing her fellowship training, she worked as the Medical Director of the methadone maintenance clinics at Yale University School of Medicine. She has been the Chair of Behavioral Health at Saint Francis since 2002 and is the President of the Saint Francis Behavioral Health Group.
Dr. Rao is on the Board of Directors for the American Society of Addiction Medicine and is co-chair of their national membership committee. She is also on the Executive Committee of the Connecticut Chapter.
Dr. Rao is chair of the physiciansâ health committee at Saint Francis. She also serves on the Board of the Saint Francis Foundation and has been appointed as a Corporator for Saint Francis Care.