Burnout: What does stress have to do with it?

June 15, 2024

A stressed out person in a cubicle

Have you ever heard of a little thing called stress?

Imagine this:

A conflict has erupted at work. You’re not directly involved, but your cubicle is caught in the awkward space between two feuding colleagues and, whether you like it or not, you’re forced into the role of bystander. Daryl has been whispering to you in hushed tones about being bullied and intimidated by another co-worker, Jamie. Jamie suspects that you’re on Daryl’s side (even though you’ve never actually said anything) and walks by with an aggressive look on their face, which nonverbally says, “Watch out – you’re next.” Your hands stop typing mid-sentence as your breath tightens. You clamp your jaw shut, to avoid saying something that will land you in the Human Resources office. Jamie disappears from view but, unable to sit still and focus on your work, the agitation sticks with you the rest of the week.

Stress is prevalent in every relational aspect of our lives, including work situations like the one imagined above. In a bustling office filled with interpersonal conflicts and workplace stressors, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the constant barrage of stress. In the short term, it can derail both focus and productivity. If it becomes chronic, it can lead to more serious health conditions such as depression, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Clearly, stress is a big deal. Also, it’s unavoidable. So how can we prevent its ill effects from piling up unhealthily in ourselves?

First, we need to make a clear distinction: stress is not the same as a stressor.

Stressors are what activate the stress response in our bodies. They can be from external sources like work demands, personal relationships, time constraints, financial pressures, cultural norms and expectations, or the busyness of daily life. Stressors can also be internal: self-criticism, identity, and memories to name a few.

Stress, on the other hand, is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in the body when we perceive a stressor. This evolutionary adaptive response causes a cascade of changes throughout the body. To illustrate this, let’s imagine one of our ancestors taking a stroll through the savannah. All of a sudden, they see a massive hippo rising out of its hiding spot underwater. The body’s stress response kicks into action: the heart beats faster so that the legs can get ready to run. The eyes narrow as one’s attention focuses on survival in the immediate moment. Hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and glycogen course through the body to get primed for full action mode. Energy is drawn away from the digestive, immune, and reproductive systems to maximize efficiency in this state. Both body and mind change in response to the perceived threat – all in the service of survival.

Stressors are the circumstance; stress is the physiological response to stressors.

Our adaptive stress response is an incredibly efficient and effective part of our evolution that has kept us alive for thousands of years. However, our modern-day environs – from the cramped cubicle farm to the rolling lawns of suburbia – are nothing like the spacious savannah and our biology has not fully realized this change.

A hippo peeks out of water with a caption of 'insert menacing music here'

The brain is constantly scanning for risks to protect against and, since its number one priority is to stay alive, it tends to err on the side of identifying many things as potential threats. A workplace bully like Jamie might never be a threat to our lives, but there still is a stress response in our bodies.

Further, our modern culture and social norms mean that we don’t necessarily deal with office dangers in the survivalist way we would have eons ago in the wide open wild. We don’t really have the option to drop our laptops and run out the door every time there is a workplace conflict. Instead, the ideal is to avoid unnecessary escalation, schedule a meeting with the relevant parties to discuss rational ways to deal with the issue directly, and call in various supports to help mediate as needed. After all, conflict is rarely one person’s fault.

We act with courage and maturity to deal with the stressor as best we can. Yet, even after resolution is reached, we can still feel wound up and irritated. What is going on?

Remember the important distinction between stressor and stress: even when there is resolution, sometimes we can’t relax because we haven’t addressed the physiological impact of stress itself. When we do not discharge the stress, it accumulates in the body and can show up as tight muscles, high blood pressure, being easily startled, poor immune function…the symptoms continue.

In our modern world, the actions we take to deal with a stressor aren’t necessarily the same actions we take to deal with stress. Put another way: talking about things at a team meeting doesn’t always calm our threatened nervous systems.

The buildup of chronic stress increases wear and tear on every organ system in our bodies and negatively impacts our health over time. Sure we need to deal with the stressor, but we also need to deal with the stress itself. Just like it’s essential for our bodies to breathe, eat, and sleep, it’s essential for our bodies that we do something to deactivate the stress response.

One of the most efficient strategies for deactivating the stress response is to physically move the body. Yes, move – in any which way you can!

While a part of our brain understands dealing with interpersonal conflict through rational problem-solving, another part of us operates beyond thought and has no idea what that means. This part can get stuck “on” after we are exposed to stressors. By moving, we send the message to this part of ourselves that we have run away from the threat, whether it’s a hippo or a Jamie, and that it’s safe to slow down and relax.

Physical activity doesn’t have to look a certain way or be a special kind of fancy – it just has to be something. It could be as simple as standing up right now from your chair and reaching your arms overhead for a big stretch. It could be squeezing your shoulders to your ears for a few seconds, and then taking a full exhale as you relax and shake out your arms. It could be fitting in a workout to separate your work day from the evening.

There are other ways to deactivate the stress response (social interaction, time spent in nature, mindfulness meditation, creative expression, etc), but movement is an effective one that is always literally at our fingertips. Experiment for yourself and make a note of what works for you.

At Mediation Services, we take pride in offering practical education and resources for addressing conflict resolution. While most of our work centres on addressing stressors, we know that it is important to recognize a different kind of restoration: stress reduction and self-care. Addressing both stressors and the stress makes for a greater chance of having positive outcomes in the long run.

So, all of that said, how will you take care of yourself today?

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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