Do we equate busy with being stressed, or does being stressed make us feel more productive?
Sometimes we relish it, and thrive in it. I have realized that I often do my best work when I am stressed, and when I am under pressure. And, the achievement of completing something feels even more sweeter when there is that added pressure. But, recently I am also realizing what a huge toll this takes on my life, on my relationships, on the people around me, as well as my physical health.
'Stress', 'Anxiety' and 'Worry' are sometimes used inter-changeably but are actually different things.
Worrying is a natural state of being. We worry more as we become more self-aware. Neurologically speaking, the emotional part of our brain takes over from the cognitive or reasoning side, and as the amygdala informs the cortex, stress hormones are released. So, if we can learn to control our emotions better, and recognise when worrying becomes excessive, then we can reduce the amount of stress hormones released in our brain.
Anxiety is what remains once the actual stressor is gone. Often when we say that we are stressed, it might be that we are feeling anxious, and that happens when our bodies produce an excess of stress hormone, and we are in a heightened state of alert.
What happens in our brain when we are stressed?
Stress has huge impact on our brain and bodies. So many of us are living with chronic stress, that releases stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. This can raise your blood pressure, increase adipose fat storage in the body, negatively affect the memory center of the brain, and cause high blood pressure.
The constant presence of cortisol can result in an excess of glutamate, another neurotransmitter. Glutamate also creates high levels of free radicals, which can kill brain cells and increase risk of memory loss and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Cortisol also stops the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which means that fewer new brain cells can form.
Also, when neural pathways are weakened through constant stress, we become more forgetful, and can rely more on emotions than on reason and rationale. Relying on emotions isn't necessarily bad, but in some situations, we need to use reason. This can lead into a vicious cycle of irrational worry, stress and anxiety. Serotonin and dopamine are the “happy” neurotransmitters, but levels of these critical chemicals drop when you are chronically stressed, meaning that depression, mood swings and addiction are far more likely.
We accept stress, and we assume that it's natural to be stressed, and so we are less likely to seek professional help when stressed.
However, if you are feeling the pressure, and find yourself worrying, not being able to sleep, feeling anxious and irritable or forgetful, then you are not alone.
Successful entrepreneurs, businesses and self-employed professionals are increasingly realising the value of self-care, and the stress and overwhelm that working for yourself can bring. Working alone from home can often be isolating, and the pressure to get the business off the ground and meet financial targets can be immense especially for recent start-ups.
Aga Nowicka, Co-founder of Langu, says that not "receiving enough feedback on my performance" and "being constantly anxious about the future of the business" has affected her mental well-being. She says that feedback needs to come from within, and realizing that not everyday is full of successes, as well as following the mantra go with the ride has helped her.
What can you do?
There are few things that you can do today:
1. Talk to someone. It is ok to acknowledge and talk to someone. Someone close to you, or a professional. Call up a helpline, such as MIND. They have excellent resources, and always a sympathetic ear. But, the first step is to to acknowledge that you are stressed, and that it is extremely important to do something about it. It is ok to ask for help when needed, and outsource. Talk to your GP. And, check out Anxiety UK.
2. Carve out time for yourself. Find 5-10 minutes everyday for yourself doing something that makes you happy, away from work, and away from all the chores and lists. It certainly helped me deal with anxiety and the fog of PND. Do something with your hands, create something, focus on the process rather than the end result, and allow yourself to make mistakes.
Exercise is something that many small business owners are recommending as a way of looking after their mental health, ranging from open water swimming, walking, running, and going regularly to yoga, pilates or the gym. When we exercise, endorphins are released that create a feeling of happiness. Connecting with nature also has a therapeutic effect.
3. Prioritize and Schedule.'Chunking' can help by structuring your day into work and leisure time. Running your own business can be all-consuming and so it becomes crucial to separate work from social and family life.
There are also several apps on the market now for meditation, journalling and scheduling. It is important to use these on your own terms, using them as support rather than something to completely rely upon.
4. Network. Working alone from home is one of the most commonly cited reason for stress and anxiety amongst small business owners. It is, therefore, good to connect physically or with online communities as a way of building collaboration and accountability. Such communities have also resulted in a positive effect on individual decision-making abilities.
Community engagement beyond the business can help too. Paula Hutchings at Marketing Vision says that "volunteering to support early readers in improving their reading skills has really helped my mental health, as I have no time to think about anything work-related. I am just completely in the moment with each child watching them develop."
5. Take a social media break. Social media allows us to network, connect with like-minded individuals and reach a global audience. However, it can also cause social media fatigue, characterised by the tendency to withdraw from social media, a feeling of anxiety and being overwhelmed at the thought of interacting online. Social media is rife with comparison, and psychological research has shown that such comparisons can lead to anxiety and acute stress. Therefore, keeping emails to a work computer, turning off the phone or tablet after a certain time, and taking regular breaks from being online is very helpful, not only for mental well-being but also for focus and productivity.
The most important thing is to be aware of the triggers for your own stress, recognize the signs, and adapt your lifestyle.