How to make work stress work for you
Harnessing the energy from nature's 'fight or flight' response can yield a winning formula in our work lives. Professor Ian Robertson tells Victoria Lambert how we can turn office anxiety into excitement
Another Wednesday, another work day spent shooting glances at the clock as we count down the hours til we're over the hump. If you are silently screaming "argh" at your PC, take comfort; you are not alone.
Yet new research published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience shows that stress can be good for us in unexpected ways. The report from the University of Vienna last month found that stress is an essential psychobiological mechanism, without which we could not survive, as it helps us to manage threatening situations.
But its added benefit is that it can lead to an increase in pro-social behaviour. Perhaps that explains the humanitarian instinct that we all so admire, when some rush towards danger in a terrorist attack or natural disaster, being driven to help.
The possibility that stress can be beneficial is explored in The Stress Test by Professor Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity College, Dublin and one of the world's leading researchers in neuropsychology, which has just been published in paperback. In the book, Robertson examines Nietzsche's proposition: "What doesn't kill me, makes me stronger" - the idea that individuals can learn to harness their own power, as opposed to being subjects of forces outside their control.
"We experience stress when we believe the demands upon us exceed our ability to cope with them," says Prof Robertson. "That perception leads to feelings of anxiety and threat, which triggers the 'fight or flight' response.
"This is the activation of the peripheral autonomic nervous system, which releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to increase our heart rate and send more oxygen to muscles, so we can fight or run away.
"Meanwhile, our stomachs go into turmoil because digestion is not a priority, leading to gastro-intestinal problems. Skin may feel sweaty as the body cools down in anticipation of overheating from sudden activity," he adds.
"It is a kind of energy to prepare us for action, and it can be harnessed in different ways."
So, if your stress is brought on by the thought of dealing with a bullying boss or series of tricky meetings and presentations - rather than an actual tiger - how can you use those feelings to work for you?
According to Prof Robertson, it's all down to our hormone systems.
"Too little of the hormone and we underperform, too much and we overperform. The secret is finding the sweet spot in the middle for optimal performance."
So that's what you are aiming for as you push through the work day - and here are eight ways Prof Robertson says will get you there.
Achieve the challenge mindset
"Turn the 'threat' mindset into a 'challenge' mindset," says Prof Robertson. He explains that symptoms of stress, such as beating heart, dry mouth and churning stomach are as much symptoms of excitement as anxiety. So you might experience them when you feel anxious about a meeting, but also if your football team is scoring.
Prof Robertson says there is scientific evidence that if performers are told to say out loud: "I am excited" rather than "I feel anxious" it will help them perform better.
In an office, set a goal for yourself that the meeting is going to be an opportunity to practice your skills, not to get upset or angry.
Breathe your mind calm
You can control the chemistry of your own brain via your hormones, says the professor.
"Noradrenaline is a critical part of your stress response, switched on whether you are frightened or attracted or surprised via a general alerting response," Prof Robertson says. To reduce the amount of noradrenaline produced, take a long, slow breath in for five counts and out for five, and repeat for a few breaths until you feel calm.
Set small goals
Sometimes we feel understimulated and undermotivated - which means we are not stressed enough to power ourselves through the day. To beat this, set small, achievable goals, says the professor.
"If you achieve it, the brain will respond by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is part of the brain's reward network."
Fertilise your brain
Physical exercise chemically changes your brain as well - whether you are feeling jaded, bored, anxious or stressed. Prof Robertson recommends going for a 10-minute brisk outdoor walk. This will release the brain-derived neurotrophic facto (BDNF) protein. "It's like a fertiliser for the brain which will increase noradrenaline levels," he says. "Meanwhile, having set and met an exercise goal will give you a rewarding dopamine boost, too."
The brain's limitations mean that it can only handle a certain amount of information front and centre at any one time. This means attention is a limited resource and the brain will get frazzled from multitasking, he says. This is why you should switch off alerts for your phone and emails, concentrating on one thing at a time.
Sit up straight
Watch out if you are slumping at the desk or stooping as you walk along the road. Posture affects the blood flow to the frontal lobes of the brain. Good posture will keep you alert.
Squeeze your hand
If you have to make a presentation or a phone call which is making you feel anxious, squeeze your right hand for 45 seconds.
This will increase the firing of brain cells on the left side of your brain, giving the "challenge" system a tiny boost.
Meditate between tasks
Train your attention by stopping between tasks to do a five-minute work break meditation. An app such as Buddhify may help with this.
It will help you control your attention, breathing, and, ultimately, brain chemistry.
Professor Ian Robertson is the author of The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper (Bloomsbury, €15.99), which is out now