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Performing Under Stress

Armen Hareyan's picture

Thousands of years ago, 'pressure at work' meant fleeing from invading marauders or battling woolly mammoths. Stress prepared cave men and women for 'fight or flight' situations, and helped them survive such trials.

So stress isn't a new problem. However, today it is office politics, traffic jams, overwork and late nights that cause our levels to rise. Whereas cave dwellers burnt off the stress through that eventual fight or flight, we don't reach that final stage. As a result, we are increasingly all wound up with nowhere to go.

Neil Shah from the Stress Management Society has some advice on methods of managing the age old problem of stress.
Look after your body

When stressed, we reach for quick fixes " stimulants like coffee, or foods high in fat or sugar. But this diet compounds the problem. Chocolate gives an initial sugar and caffeine buzz, but leaves you weary. Salty crisps dehydrate the body and brain and bring on fatigue. High fat meals raise stress hormones and keep them high.

Boost your immune system
To beat stress, you need a strong body. And that means a powerful immune system boosted by plenty of vitamins B, C and E and minerals magnesium and zinc.

The best source of nutrients is from food, rather than supplements. So eat a balanced diet of meat, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables and oily fish.

If you need to snack during the day, try pumpkin seeds, fruit or sunflower seeds. Fresh organic food is the best source of nutrients.

If you can't get fresh, frozen vegetables are a reasonable alternative as much of their nutritional content is retained.

Eat a 'rainbow'
There are 350,000 different forms of edible plants on this planet. How many do you eat in a week?

A variety is essential as different types and colours of food contain different vitamins and minerals. And your body can actually get stressed by trying to break down the same food time and time again. So eat 'a rainbow' of food colours instead.

Drink water
If you want to deal with stress, drink water. It hydrates every part of the body and brain and helps you better cope with stressful situations.

A good rule is to take a few sips every 15 minutes. The best source is room-temperature still water bought in glass bottles (some plastic bottles can leach chemicals into the water inside) or use a jug filter system that you fill from the tap.

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Avoid stimulants
Drink a cup of coffee and your body is on high alert for a long time. Caffeine stays in the body for six hours before it starts to deplete, all the time triggering the release of the stress hormone cortisol, preparing you for fight or flight and compounding your stress problem.

Caffeine also speeds up the digestive processes in the body. So no matter how well you are eating, your body may not have enough time to absorb the nutrients in your diet.

If you want to keep your blood pressure low, avoid salt. Sugar, nicotine and alcohol also stimulate adrenaline in the body, another hormone released to prepare you for fight or flight. Chocolate contains sugar and caffeine " a double hit. Such stimulants can trigger a stress reaction even when no major external stress is present.

For more information about good diet, consult a nutritionalist who will be able to pinpoint the best approach for you.
Use a stress management technique

Once you have a healthy body, stress management techniques really start to work well. And here new methods are coming to the fore.

Human beings were designed to move, not sit on chairs. Exercise is essential to manage stress. It keep the heart healthy, gets oxygen into the system, helps deplete stress hormones and releases mood-enhancing endorphins, which help us cope with stress better.

Many companies are now launching travel plans encouraging staff to walk or cycle to work or use public transport (which usually involves a walk somewhere along the route). Others are launching lunchtime walking groups. Both are great ways of introducing a little exercise for chair-bound staff.

Breathing and stretching
Yoga has been used for centuries to induce a state of calm. Many companies run yoga sessions at lunchtime or after work. However now there is another type of yoga which can be used at home or at work. 'Desk' yoga centres around rebalancing the body in simple ways that are unobtrusive enough to do even at work. One example is alternate nostril breathing which balances the levels of serotonin in the brain, helping promote feelings of happiness.

Relaxation techniques
An excellent way to relax is through meditation, creative visualisation and self hypnosis. A few minutes in a deeply relaxed state induced by self-hypnosis is the equivalent of several hours sleep, and can be used practically anywhere, from sitting at a desk to riding the bus home. Any qualified hypnotherapist can teach the technique.

Stress monitoring tools and awareness days
Science is making stress measurement increasingly easy. One product now available is a 1cm square LCD thermometer. Press your finger to the square for a few seconds, and it changes colour depending on how stressed you are. The science behind the stress square is simple. When we are relaxed, blood flows freely through the body. However, when we are ready for fight or flight, then blood is diverted to the muscles and essential organs, which means that our fingers cool.

Such devices can be stuck on mouse mats, desks or fridges and can be used again and again. As such many companies are using them as part of stress awareness campaigns within companies. Such campaigns might include awareness days with speakers, practical sessions on self-hypnosis or visits from therapists.

For more information on tackling stress, see www.stress.org.uk or email [email protected] for a free 10-point guide to stress management.

Neil Shah, the Stress Management Society.

Page updated on Sept. 26, 2013.