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High Anxiety

by Jayne Jacova Feld
If you’ve got a knot in your stomach and a pounding in your chest—and it’s only 10 a.m.—you could be experiencing an unhealthy level of stress. Here’s how to marshal your inner Zen master and conquer workplace tension.

In a shaky economy, the most certain aspect of your job can be uncertainty. As layoffs and increased workloads have become office norms, the pressure to perform takes its toll both physically and mentally. Symptoms of stress range from a racing heart to insomnia or irritability.

While your body typically bounces back after a moment of stress has passed, experts say prolonged stress may lead to lower productivity, avoidable errors and even serious chronic health problems, including colds, depression, obesity and digestive disorders. You can’t always control the work that comes your way, but there are a variety of steps you can take to reduce stress and positively influence those around you.

“Stress in itself is neutral,” explains Risa Swell, a licensed clinical social worker and the director of Cooper University Hospital’s Employee Assistance Program, which helps employees of Cooper and 25 other local organizations with both work-related and personal issues. “It’s how we respond to situations that creates the stress reaction, whether it be positive or negative. We all have control over how much we allow the stress to impact us in a negative way.”

Swell and other South Jersey health experts say there are multiple approaches to decreasing stress reactions, from recognizing signs of creeping anxiety to improving gen¬eral health.

Sometimes, in moments of stress, even simple steps could improve the situation, says Sarah Seabrook-DeJong, director of staff development at South Jersey Health Care. For instance, instead of obsessing over all the work that has to be done, it can help to keep an updated to-do list that sets realistic timelines for accomplishing tasks. She suggests tackling the hardest jobs in the morn¬ing—when you tend to have the most mental clarity—and, after an hour or so of sustained mental effort, taking a quick break.

“While removing yourself from the effort is not always possible or realistic, try doing a different task,” says Sea¬brook-DeJong. “To keep on doing something when you’re frustrated can distort the work.”

The key to overcoming and managing stress is practicing “emotional intelligence,” a four-pronged skill set that mental health professionals consider vital.

The first skill is self-awareness. “It’s about knowing how you’re acting in a stressful situation,” explains Swell. “Is it written all over my face, am I turning red, gritting my teeth, raising my voice?” Self-management, the second tenet, is about learning techniques to control these emotions and behaviors. For instance, if your blood pressure is climbing as a reaction to an adverse situation, taking a quick break, a walk around the office or even a few deep breathes may help. Third is social awareness, the ability to sense, understand and react to others’ emotions and body language, and use the information to head off misunderstandings. Relationship management, the final factor, is about being aware that the delivery of a message will affect how others react to it. Showing empathy and respect, even when relaying bad news, could head off potential conflict, Swell says.

Reducing the effects of stress isn’t just an emotional process; there are plenty of physical changes you can make as well. Improving eating habits is an important path to successfully dealing with work challenges.

“You can actually make very specific food choices that affect your ability to handle stress,” says Kathryn Friedman, a nutritionist with the Our Lady of Lourdes Wellness Center in Collingswood.

To start, every meal should include a healthy form of fat, a lean protein and a complex carbohydrate, Friedman says. For breakfast, the most important meal of the day, this could be whole-grain cereal with strawberries and a sprinkling of nuts. For lunch, a meal that includes fish and brown rice will make those tight deadlines easier to tackle.

To reduce tension, she suggests foods rich in vitamins and minerals, including green leafy vegetables, salmon, avocados, bananas and sweet potatoes. Foods high in vitamin C—such as oranges, blueberries and strawberries—can enhance immunity. Choices rich in Omega-3 fatty acids—including fish and some fortified foods like eggs and orange juice—are heart-healthy and could help lower blood pressure. With such foods coursing through the body, workers may react more reasonably and concentrate better, Friedman suggests.

At the same time, physical activity is a proven tension reliever. For some, that can mean a cleansing 10-mile run; for others, it could just be taking the stairs instead of the elevator, says Dr. Renee Bullock-Palmer, director of the Women’s Heart Center at Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills.

While stress is not considered an initiating factor in causing cardiovascular disease—the worldwide leading cause of death among women—she says it is a concern because stressed people tend to neglect their health. “One of the issues that comes about because of increased stress is a lack of time people take to care for themselves,” says Bullock-Palmer. Overwhelmed patients, particularly women, are more likely to skip follow-up appointments, eat poorly and forget to take all-important medications.

“While it’s easier said than done, one needs to realize that they can’t do everything in one day and that health is of primary importance,” she adds.

Ultimately, stress is a vicious cycle, says Coleen Naylor, a holistic nurse with the Lourdes Wellness Center. The more negative stress you feel, the more it adversely affects your health and psyche. But taking life as it comes—one moment at a time—can work wonders.

“It’s when we try to see too far into the future that we get into fear mode,” notes Naylor. “If we live in the moment, every moment, we start building up our own positive energy.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 1 (January, 2011).