Did watching the Presidential address and the response last night spike your stress level?
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, exposure to the government shut-down, economic pressures, and legislative uncertainty can elevate your stress level. In my research on job stress, uncertainty was the second most common source of stress (following overwhelm).
Why should we be concerned about the stress caused by uncertainty?
Stress of any kind causes a natural physical reaction. We can’t alleviate all stress, and we wouldn’t want to even if we could. Some stress is natural and necessary; it is what gives us the zing of energy to get things done. The zing is the result of the hormone cortisol flooding the system when the body detects danger or stress. Cortisol quickens reactions, increases pulse and blood pressure, and even thickens the blood (to prevent bleeding to death in case of injury). Trouble comes when that zing becomes a constant thrum, continually triggering the cortisol response rather than allowing it to ebb and flow as we need it. Thicker blood, higher blood pressure, and increased pulse all make the heart work harder, which is why prolonged high stress doubles the risk of heart attack and stroke. Chronic high cortisol levels also result in unpleasant physical symptoms including weight gain (especially in the face and belly), muscle weakness, and mood swings, depression, or irritability.
Stress caused by uncertainty, however, is even more concerning. Uncertainty keeps us up at night with worry, and this emotional trigger continues pumping cortisol into the system. Emotional stress triggers are hard to turn off and can cause dangerously high cortisol levels.
How can we reduce stress caused by uncertainty?
Even in uncertain times we can limit the effects of cortisol and reduce the impact of stress by combining three strategies:
- Limit External Triggers: Our 24-hour consistently draws attention to uncertainty. Limiting your exposure to online, television, and radio commentary to one or two sessions per day rather than having constant alerts or playing in the background allows your brain to refocus on other, hopefully, more positive, activities. Our brains are hard-wired to react to our environment, and even if we think we aren’t processing information — our brains go ahead and do it anyway.
- Process Cortisol Out of the Body: Physical activity, sleep, and laughter are three of the most effective ways to reset your cortisol levels. A 20-minute walk or a funny puppy video can be beneficial in not only lowering stress but also increasing your ability to work creatively and think critically. Seven to eight hours of sleep is the most efficient way to reduce cortisol levels, but ina evil twist — high cortisol levels can make it difficult to get to sleep. Using the first strategy and limiting external triggers especially in the 2 to 3 hours before bedtime can be very useful in changing your sleep patterns.
- Shut Off the Cortisol Pump: When we worry, cortisol flows. Shutting down that process can be difficult. One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in my research is that addressing the emotional side of stress is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. We all have different needs for distraction, contemplation, engagement, and solitude when it comes to stress recovery. I encourage you to take the free “Are You An Iguana or A Border Collie?” Quiz to determine your Stress Recovery Personality and the types of activities which will shut off the cortisol pump and allow you to reduce stress.
Using these three strategies is key to reducing stress in uncertain times.