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When stress goes wrong and how to manage it at work

It was a crisp December day when I knocked on the door of the international editor of Time Magazine in the Brussels suburb of Tervuren. “I’m locked out of my house,” I explained. “Could I please use your toilet?” While I used the loo, the editor put in a call to NATO Headquarters and got […]

It was a crisp December day when I knocked on the door of the international editor of Time Magazine in the Brussels suburb of Tervuren.

“I’m locked out of my house,” I explained. “Could I please use your toilet?”

While I used the loo, the editor put in a call to NATO Headquarters and got through to an Air Force General who was the US Defense Advisor.

“Sir,” he said. “I have your daughter here. I think she’s on drugs.”

The Time editor convinced me to stick around and watch a movie in his fancy home cinema, while my dad whirled into action with an intervention plan.

This wasn’t the strangest thing that had happened to me that day in 1993. I had been all around Tervuren, following a golden retriever called Chessie, crawling through the hedges of the Count Von-Someone and desperately trying to work out the code hidden in the Flemish community paper. 

I wasn’t on drugs. Not at that moment anyway. I was a 19-year-old in the throws of acute psychosis. A few days later, I sat opposite Dr Vergouen, a Belgian psychiatrist who had  admitted me to his facility for observation.

“Some people respond to extreme stress with migraines or stomach ulcers. Your body’s response is psychosis,” he said.

My stress had come from a combination of poor diet, not enough sleep, too much alcohol and pot – and an impending D in Statistics. All things typical of a 19-year-old university student. Except I had a NATO General for a dad.

Psychosis messes with the message transmission in your brain. I thought the television was talking to me and that doors were opening themselves. I can’t imagine what it was like for my parents to take their only child into the mental health ward of a foreign hospital on Christmas Eve. When the doctors asked if I wanted to stay, my mum started to cry.

“Do the doors shut?” was my only question.

Most people don’t have such a dramatic start to managing their personal wellness. And it took me at least another decade to get it right.

Every time I went off the rails, chronic stress was the instigator. Here’s how stress works in your brain. Your hypothalamus responds to something it perceives as dangerous – a man-eating lion or an impending deadline – and sends out an order to activate the stress hormones. 

This order throws your body into “fight or flight” mode. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles ready for action. 

A little bit of stress helps us get things done. But when stress levels stay elevated for long periods of time, it starts to take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can cause everything from anxiety and depression to headaches and insomnia along with heartburn, a weakened immune system, high blood pressure and even fertility problems.

Chronic stress is also a factor in eating disorders, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.

The vast majority of our stress comes from work.

Last year, the World Health Organisation added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases as an “occupational phenomenon” and they estimate that burnout costs the global economy more than US$1 trillion in lost productivity. In all western countries, mental health is the primary cause of lost working days. Even worse than being absent is being present but ineffective because of poor mental health. This “presenteeism” is estimated to be 1.5 greater than the cost of absenteeism.

Jamie Bristow, Director of The Mindfulness Initiative says, “Endemic stress in knowledge-based industries accounts for a large proportion of workplace absence and represents a huge loss of productivity. Meanwhile, success in most organisations relies on the very things that unhappiness and stress erode – collaboration, creativity, cognitive flexibility and effective decision-making.”

It’s not all bad news, though. Mindfulness has been shown to change the way the brain functions to improve attention, creativity and emotional regulation, according to studies done by neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. 

Other research shows mindfulness reduces the levels of stress hormone cortisol in the brain. When cortisol drops, the mind is able to focus better. In fact, the list of benefits of mindfulness is so long it seems too good to be true. It includes improved immune system, better sleep, lower blood pressure, decreased anxiety, even lower levels of pain. 

So what’s the catch? Well, namely that you have to do it for it to work. And our brains resist change. But we can hack our daily habits to add mindfulness to the working day by taking regular breaks for mindfulness practices. This could be paying closer attention to your coffee at morning tea, or taking a 5-minute mindful walk around the block. You could count your breaths – in and out – for 10 breath cycles. All of these things help reprogramme the brain so that your body doesn’t reach its stress breaking point.

By New Year’s 1994, my wild ride with psychosis had finished. While others were out celebrating, I was drooling and walking stiffly through the Belgian psych ward under a heavy dose of antipsychotics. 

The doors were shutting again. And my belief that NATO and CIA were working to systematically rid the world of criminals with a complex plot centred around the Belgian capital had vanished.

The drugs worked, and by March I was flying off to Dublin to catch up with a friend – feeling almost normal.

A few years later, I started using mindfulness to control my ruminating mind and to learn to let go of the troubles that plagued it. 

Mindfulness is all about trying to focus your attention on the present moment – and it turns out the present is a good place to be.

Author and mindfulness teacher Eckhart Tolle writes in his book The Power of Now that happiness is only possible in the present moment. And most of the things that cause us worry are not in the present moment. 

I think Master Oogway said it best in Kung Fu Panda: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”

Wanderble Workplace helps companies fight burnout. Learn more at wanderble.com/workplace

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