Stress and burnout are sneaky little enemies; you’re only ever aware of them when it’s already too late. The effects of stress worldwide, however, are far from subtle. The World Health Organization reports that stress costs American businesses $300 billion a year. The UK government released statistics for 2014 showing that close to half a million work-related illnesses were caused by stress.
Our success-celebrating culture does little to help; a person’s value and worth is gauged by one’s level of productivity. Being a workaholic is rewarded with a badge of honor.
Little do we realize stress drastically lowers levels of productivity, increases feelings of irritability and depression, and damages personal relationships. In addition, neuroscientists from UC Berkeley confirmed that chronic stress damages brain structure and connectivity.
Prevention is absolutely better than curing when it comes to handling stress. Here are three important strategies to help you avoid stress and burnout.
1. Mental and Emotional ‘Hacking’
Fascinating studies were highlighted by Kelly McGonigal in her Ted Talk that covered stress. She explained that a simple change in your perception of a ‘stressful’ situation actually changes your physiological response.
Research subjects, who identified as suffering from stage fright, were primed before giving a speech in front of panel of strangers; they were told that typical stress reactions such as increased breathing and heart rate were in fact positive signals from the body getting them ready to master the difficult task. Tests showed that this simple reappraisal lowered the amounts of cortisol released, and as such, participants were able to perform much better.
The cognitive behavioral technique is also effective when applied to negative emotions. Indeed what was once considered groundless “positive thinking” is now being supported by science. Of course, it is in no way a call to become delusional about adverse experiences, but constantly reframing negatives in a way that seeks out a silver lining has been shown to have real benefits.
The next time you experience frustration and mild anxiety, consider these feelings allies urging you forward rather than enemies holding you back.
2. Mindful Eating
That old adage “You are what you eat” only rings with more truth as science continues to demonstrate the profound effects that food has on our mental and physical health. A poor diet will only elevate existing levels of stress. Start with removing preservatives and artificial from your diet, check the labels on your products and switch to all natural and organic where possible. Spending a little extra on groceries now may save you thousands in medical bills and lost work days later on.
The Stress Management Society in the UK provides a comprehensive guide for avoiding toxin-loaded, chemically-constituted foods.
Simply having a plan in place means you’re far ahead of the game. Overindulging and overeating only creates feelings of guilt and makes you more prone to stress. Another effective strategy is to move away from restrictive language and habits to more empowering ones—this means that rather than focus on what you are not allowed to eat, think of the foods that you love to eat, and replace the less healthy options.
3. Exercise (With Pre-commitment and Accountability)
Exercise is key for reducing stress levels. The brain releases endorphins and dopamine with exercise, improving overall wellbeing. Companies that have implemented wellness programs have seen significant improvement in employee performance. If you are prone to injury, less physically strenuous practices such as yoga and tai chi have also been shown to be highly effective in reducing stress levels.
But, wanting to exercise is only a small step. Consistently doing so makes all the difference. And that’s where making “pre-commitments” and having accountability makes all the difference. Intentionally carve out specific times for exercise, and share your fitness goals with close friends who will keep tabs on your progress.