Forget misfit teenagers or a rocky romantic life. The responsibilities of work are filling up the majority of space in the stress vacuum. That's according to a 2013 Consumer Health Mindset report by Aon Hewitt, a retirement and health solutions company. Of the 2,800 employees and their dependents surveyed, four of the top five reasons for stress were work-related: financial situation (46 percent), work changes (37 percent), work schedule (34 percent), work relationships (32 percent) and influence and control over how the employee did work (32 percent).
Stress has both emotional and physical consequences, according to Bob Rosen, psychologist and CEO and chairman of the consulting firm Healthy Companies International. "Stress is a condition we experience when our minds and bodies respond to changing conditions," he wrote in an email. "Too much stress creates excessive fear and anxiety, conflict and defensiveness, feelings of overwhelm and burnout, and chronic inflammation in the body."
If you're already in a demanding job, laboring under such conditions can only make it that much harder. Below are some issues you may face as well as steps you can take to alleviate some of your workplace stress.
Others feel your wrath. If you're bogged down in heaps of work each day, you may show little restraint in voicing your frustrations with colleagues. While the tongue-lashing of your boss and colleagues may provide some momentary relief, it can create a hostile and distrustful work environment. "This can affect relationships with co-workers in that we can snap at them more often, be more short-tempered, relate to them in a less positive way, which can create more stress not just for us and them, but that can permeate the workplace," says Elizabeth Scott, a stress expert for About.com and author of "Eight Keys to Stress Management."
Cure: Blow off steam by exercising. Let your frustrations boil out during your lunch workout in the company gym. If your workplace doesn't have a gym, walking up and down the office stairs or around a nearby park for 15 minutes are great substitutes. "Those who exercise regularly are less reactive to stress when they experience it," Scott says, adding that doing so unleashes an "influx of endorphins" and makes you "more resilient to stress."
Focusing is a struggle. Between fretting about your low salary and the high demands of your boss, your body may be overwhelmed by the emotional toll and release cortisol – a hormone unleashed as a result of stress. Scott explains that this can inhibit logical reasoning, reaction time and other areas of cognitive functioning.
Cure: Meditate. Give your brain a break from the multitasking nature of your job by stepping away from your desk and finding a private area for a few minutes of meditation. According to Rosen, meditation is one of the most effective ways to relieve stress. "It forces us to stop, sit quietly within ourselves, identify the sources of our excessive stress, and focuses us on calming ourselves down, living in the moment – not hijacked by the past or worrying about the future," he says.
There's also evidence that the practice can benefit your brain. In 2011, a team of Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital conducted an eight-week mindfulness meditation program. Meditating for 27 minutes each day, the 16 participants showed measurable changes in parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.
Lunchtime means a fast food trip. Along with altering your ability to think, the release of cortisol can also make you crave calorie-rich, sugary foods. "When we're stressed, we may not take care of our bodies nutritionally as well," Scott says. "We tend to crave sugary foods, junk foods and things that will affect how sharp we're thinking."
Cure: Commit to a healthier diet. Come lunchtime, you may crave a meal loaded with calories if you're feeling frazzled. "[But] making a conscious effort to cut down on unhealthy eating when stressed, and then actively engaging in healthier stress-relief habits, can help break the cycle," Scott says. She recommends reducing portions, snacking on nutritious options such as peanut butter and sliced apples, and resolving to eat only healthy food – and only when hungry