From the Heart and Stroke Foundation

If a co-worker isn't doing his or her share on a project, or you're behind on a deadline, what are you going to reach for when you get home? The ice cream or the grapes? The remote control or the running shoes? If you're like most people, the remote control and the ice cream will probably win out. “When stressed, people tend to drink alcohol, smoke, have poorer diets and be much more sedentary,” says Dr. Kenneth Prkachin, clinical psychologist and Heart and Stroke Foundation researcher. “When carrying this tremendous emotional load, people tend to become obsessed, sort of brooding about everything that's wrong. It makes it hard to think of buying a gym membership, or calling a friend when you are that mentally and physically drained by stress.” Although the relationship between stress and heart disease is still being investigated, the longer the stress lasts, the more likely you are to see an increase in heart disease risk from unhealthy habits.

But it's not just long-term stress that wreaks havoc on your body. Even short bouts can be damaging. Dr. Prkachin says stress used to be helpful, but in today's society it does more harm than good. “When you're under stress your body mobilizes itself to prepare for something vigorous. This is called the fight or flight response.” Your blood pressure goes up, your body releases excess amounts of glucose for energy, “bad” cholesterol releases into the bloodstream, and inflammatory substances and hormones like cortisol are secreted into your body, he explains. Normally, running away or physically fighting would alleviate these responses. Instead, your body stays in a state of physical distress, recovering over a longer-than natural period of time. “You have to be aware that these things are happening to you and that they are not natural – life was not meant to be like this.” But by taking action on a few simple things, Dr. Prkachin says, you can start to turn it around.

When you're on the job and you feel tense or anxious, get a headache, stomach ache or start to feel ill, note that you may be feeling stressed. Then, take action by following this list of tips from Dr. Prkachin to see what you can do to get over it and on to a healthier, happier day.

  1. One of the leading causes of job stress is feeling powerless over projects, work or your environment. Do what you can to take control. Ask for extensions or initiate a project that you can manage. Decorate your space with items that soothe you – a photo of your favourite vacation spot? Exchanging the neon lighting for a lamp?

  2. Take your breaks and holidays. “Don't feel guilty about taking break time that is due to you. Come to the understanding that your performance on the job is probably better if you take enough time to clear your head.” Also, avoid constantly working overtime and missing out on your family and social life. A recent study from California found that consistently working long hours – between 41 and 51 hours a week – at your job can increase your risk of being diagnosed with high blood pressure, 14% to 29% respectively. If you fit into this category, have your doctor take your blood pressure readings. About 42% of Canadians don't even know they have high blood pressure.

  3. Talk to your co-workers. “A lot of our protection against stress comes from the comfort and support of those around us. If you've had a bad day at work and you have the option of going to talk to a colleague for a few minutes – that can reduce your stress level.”

  4. Be physically active during the workday. It forces you to get out of your workspace and to clear your head. Also, when you are physically active, your body releases endorphins, naturally occurring chemicals that will make you feel better. “Physical activity is an indirect but active way of controlling stress.”

  5. Don't sweat the small stuff. Remember that you don't have to respond the second you get an e-mail or a request from a co-worker. Prioritize your tasks so you don't spend extra energy (and stress) where it isn't necessary.

  6. Look at your benefits plan. If your company offers health benefits such as massage or counseling, take advantage of them. If not, talk to co-workers about taking a relaxing yoga or meditation class together, as some businesses will offer discounts to large groups.

Few jobs in this world are completely stress-free. Dealing with the occasional fluster at work won't necessarily up your heart attack risk, but every day shouldn't feel like a struggle for your sanity. Many people derive great self-esteem and sense of accomplishment from their jobs, says Dr. Prkachin, but recognize that you may be paying a high price for it.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation Connection
Heart and Stroke Foundation researcher Dr. Kenneth Prkachin investigates the link between the brain and cardiovascular health. As a member of the Foundation's Scientific Review Committee, he reviews research applications to ensure the Foundation funds research which meets the highest standards of scientific excellence. He is past chair of the HSFC review committee on behavioural research, population health, rehabilitation, and nursing research.

Heart and Stroke Foundation


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