Perceived Stress at Work – An American Problem

Seeing how people were happier and healthier after shifting movement patterns to align with their natural structures, gave him the deepest sense of reward he’s felt professionally. Having built impactful and successful businesses in consumer health as well as clinical laboratory, his passion and mission have led him to founding Way. Check out his work and learn more here.

America has a big problem with Perceived Stress, and it affects almost every area of life.

80% of American workers report having Stress that impacts their work and more astonishingly, 62% of our workforce say they have “high stress” that leads to “extreme fatigue” (per Stress.org).

Perceived Stress and how you can adjust your Stress response.

Let’s stop for a second and think about that…

That means more than 152,000,000 people, everyday, are feeling not just a little fatigued, they’re feeling extreme fatigue

Part of me wonders if this is a symptom of the digital age, the status quo from generations past, or a lack of education and proper training to give people the tools to reduce the “high” stress they report feeling. Or, maybe all of the above.

If you’re an employer or an employee benefits leader, pay close attention to this area of your employees’ lives – it doesn’t just affect their Productivity (which should be worthy of your attention on its own), higher perceived stress levels could also be causing a higher rate of preventable chronic conditions (like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, MSK issues), so it’s impacting both your topline sales and your bottom-line health expenses, while likely deteriorating the human elements of your company culture.

How do we define “Stress”?

Stress is a physiological response, one of the oldest kinds and one that we share with every vertebrate creature in the animal kingdom. 

People have regarded stress as “bad”, only since about the mid-20th Century. Before that, no one really talked about being stressed to the point of overwhelm. Certainly not to the levels it’s discussed today. They didn’t really characterize being “overwhelmed” as being “stressed”.

However, the argument could be made that the modern world, with all of the advanced technologies that we’re surrounded with – which over stimulate, over saturate, and over communicate to every sense of our body – confound and confuse our minds and contribute to the feeling of excessive overwhelm.

Historically though, as more recent science is showing us, the stress response is a “good”, not a “bad” thing. At Way, you know we don’t like labeling anything as “good” or “bad”, but I felt compelled to shift the label around stress because of the stigma.

The issue with stress comes when stress happens highly frequently (aka very often, aka allll the time), and you don’t relax or come-down from the stress. Not just getting a massage, because you can still be playing thoughts in your mind that make you feel overwhelmed and cause your body to be stressed, but that spa day could be your thing. Walks in nature are great, too. Whatever truly makes you feel relaxed, truly calm. 

Because stress causes inflammation and chronic inflammation is connected to a whole host of preventable diseases (like heart disease, diabetes, etc.), we want to continually and habitually get the body down to the calm, relaxed state and make that the norm.

What does a modern day Stress response look like?

Great question. The psychological, emotional, and physical triggers to stress are very real. 

Sometimes, they blend together and it’s hard to understand what the cause of the stress is, from an anatomical or physiological perspective. Let’s look at one example and dive into the body’s physiological response in the next section.

For example, you can be at work and someone who’s been not just taking credit for your work (and maybe taking your dream promotion), but also trash talking you behind your back, all the sudden comes to the break area. 

You’ve been fantasizing about yelling at this person, ripping them to shreds verbally and bringing their selfishness down to a decimal point, because they make you so mad. If we’re honest, many of us have these sorts of fantasies. When they round the corner and brush right past you, you feel your blood boil, your hair stand up on the back of your neck, and you really get ready to fight or flight. 

Obeying your better judgment, of course you regulate, over power, or simply let go of your instinct to yell at or physically intimidate this person. However, was them walking by you a psychological trigger because of the fantasy you had about wanting to verbally decimate the trash talker, or a physical trigger because they brushed past you, just inches from your body? Or, was it an emotional trigger because you’re not sure what came over you, but there was clearly a deep feeling of anger and madness that came over you when they rounded the corner, before they even brushed past you for that single moment?

When a human stress response happens, what happens physically inside the body?

It’s hard to say precisely, but in that moment where your unfaithful coworker brushed past you, there’s almost a certainty of what came over your body physiologically. Your endocrine systems released adrenaline and cortisol which prepared your body to move quickly and be hyper aware. Your blood vessels constricted to move blood to muscles and internal organs faster. More sugar was released into your bloodstream to help your muscles move and react more quickly. Your pupils probably dilated, to allow more clarity of frontal vision and drowning your peripheral vision.

In this one example, we get a sense of what happens every time you receive an email from your boss that makes your stomach drop. When you are running late to a presentation that really affects whether you get that promotion (or, if you can tell you’re bombing it). When you are stuck in traffic and someone cuts you off right as traffic starts moving (or, anytime really). 

These may all feel like mere minor examples, but your body doesn’t know the difference. It still goes through the same process it did when you thought physical altercation was about to happen. Maybe it’s a lesser amount of reaction, but the reaction is very real. And, because it’s more subtle, you may not realize that you need to come off of that edge, that stress response. So, you stay in that place. Maybe, goodness forbid, you actually start to frame your mindset that you *like* that feeling, so you consciously and unconsciously do what you need to do to re-create the feeling, not knowing you’re perpetuating your own stress response. Thus, you don’t come out of it, thus the inflammation in your body start running wild for days, weeks, months, maybe even years on end.

Now that you’re aware of Stress, what can you do in the moment?

The simplest way to bring the stress response down is something you probably already know – to breathe. 

One way I have found works consistently and significantly better is to breathe for 30 seconds. With each breath, inhale and hold your breath at the top for a few seconds, then exhale and hold at the bottom for a few seconds. To add to that, whenever possible, there’s a massive difference I notice when you close your eyes. Eyes are deeply connected to our hindbrain (often a part of the brain active during a Stress response), so when you close them, you can increase the chances that your body calms down, turns off the stress response 

It’s that simple.

The difficulty comes in making this a practice. So, to make it easier, one thing you can do is to put a little talisman, a physical token in your pocket or hold it near you. Like James Clear talks about in “Atomic Habits”, make it easy to do the thing you know you need to do. Whether that’s a certain piece of soft fabric, a childhood picture on your phone, or a tropical island. Find what speaks to you and immediately makes you feel a sense of calm.

And lastly, like everything else we teach in Way, go easy on yourself. If you find that you’re pausing and reversing your stress response only 5% more of the time after the first week or first month, that’s great! That’s improvement. Use that momentum to focus on what you need to increase to 10%, or 20% (i.e. a better talisman/reminder, dedicated time every 2-3 hours to intentionally breathe, etc.). Every step of the way, remember to encourage yourself and give yourself grace and a feeling of accomplishment. 1% better, is better.

How can Intuitive Eating help with the Stress Response?

Intuitive Eating is something that a lot of people seem to be familiar with. According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC), there’s a 49% name recognition of the term “Intuitive Eating” amongstUS Adults aged 18-34 y/o – that’s 33,418,000 people. And, in 2022 the IFIC reported that the same percentage of people surveyed who did a Keto eating pattern (7%) did an Intuitive Eating pattern (7%).

The 10 principles of Intuitive Eating were defined by two Dietitians, over 28 years ago. Intuitive Eating has over 170 clinical studies supporting its effectiveness. 

In looking at these studies, many of them demonstrate how Intuitive Eating helps psychological and emotional health, contributing to improved Emotional Regulation, Emotional Intelligence, and Physical Intelligence. All of these can contribute to lower Perceived Stress, and it’s easy to see why.

When we are better at regulating our emotions, we can pacify and equilibrate stress-inducing emotions (i.e. not yelling at our coworker).

By having more emotional intelligence, we are better able to understand ourselves, to introspectively go inside and understand why we feel the way we feel. This skill can allow us to have more empathy when working with others, with friends or family, or just simply to make the experience of life more enjoyable.

And with the increase of physical intelligence, we’re better able to listen to our body, understand where our feelings come from, so we can start to move and create more peace with the mind-body connection.

All of these can contribute to reducing perceived Stress. Again, the key is perceived stress, which we’ll explore in the last section below.

Looking at Stress as a “healthy” instead of “harmful”

One of my more recent revelations came from our standard call with one of my favorite people, who happens to be an advisor, Dr. Mardoché Sidor, MD. Besides being an amazing human on pretty much every level, he’s been teaching me a lineage of thought that goes to the deepest depths of human understanding, with the purpose of healing.

In this particular conversation, I had told Mardoché how I had begun making connections between the Harvard Study of Adult Development, their most recent findings on the physiological underpinnings of loneliness (e.g. isolation causes an epigenetic stress response), and the body of evidence on how chronic inflammation is correlated or directly causes over 50% of the known diseases, including the biggest ones (Heart Disease and Diabetes). 

I kept on focusing on how we need to reduce Stress, bring the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) down into the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). He immediately corrected me with a key piece of information…

It’s not about Stress, it’s about the relationship with Stress.

See, there’s a very big study that researchers at the University of Wisconsin did – and I mean BIG, like 28,000 people in the sample population – where they compared peoples’ views of Stress to their mortality rates between the 1990s and 2000s. 

What they found was groundbreaking – people who viewed Stress as “harmful” to their health, had the highest rates of mortality.

People who viewed Stress as “healthy”, were the HEALTHIEST group – i.e. they had the lowest incidence of mortality within 10-15 years, even compared to the people who reported having low/no Stress.
What this means is that believing Stress is harmful, is the 15th leading cause of death in the US, as Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D so aptly reported in her TedTalk. (a must watch!!!)

So, how does one change their view on Stress?

As Kelly describes, Harvard researchers both validated the Wisconsin study and came up with a clear understanding of what those “healthy” stress people do. 

Basically, they view stress as some that’s natural, and they make a conscious decision and self-talk to say, “this is my body, and it is rising to the challenge that I am dealing with.” 

No matter what that challenge is, when you feel the stress response coming, try breathing calmly and saying that same thing to yourself. This is your body, and it is rising to the challenge that you are dealing with.

That’s it. Just change the way you look at Stress and stressful moments, greet the stress with acceptance, and notice the change. I’m not going to promise the change will happen overnight and not going to claim that your life will forever be better and you’ll never be hurt by stress again. 

But, I’m very confident that if you practice viewing stress in this way, you’ll see some positive changes in your decisions, how your body feels, and if you look over a long period of time (say, longer than a year or two), you may find some pretty major improvements in your life and health.

Final Thoughts:

Stress is a hugely important aspect of your mental health, emotional health, and especially your physical health. 

Doing little things to help you know when a stress response is happening, to view the stress response as “natural” and “healthy” instead of worrying about stress as “harmful”, can make a huge difference in helping you relax after the stress stimulus has passed.

Breathing, closing your eyes, and having a little reminder or talisman can be helpful to blunt a stress response that you’re finding hard to come off of. Just 30 seconds of closed-eye breathing can do wonders to get your mind back into Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS, “calm” mode) and be able to use your full mental faculties.

Being more mindful – having more of your mind available to operate with – can help you experience more joy, fulfillment, alignment with your values, and deep connection in your relationships.

Reflecting and adjusting your relationship with Stress can help all of these meaningful areas of life, and I hope you find them in abundance today and everyday.