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How to de-stress at work so you sleep better

career sleep stress wellbeing Mar 12, 2022

Work-related stress occurs when the perceived demands of your work exceed your belief that you are able and capable to meet them. It can be easy to under-estimate the impact of your daily work stress however beware as work-related stress is the second most common compensated illness/injury in Australia, after musculoskeletal disorders. You are experiencing stress when you feel frustrated, angry, nervous, or anxious. 


What is stress?

Stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stressors can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). Stress can initiate the ‘fight, flight, fawn or freeze' response leading to a change in metabolic and cardiac processes. Continuous stress without relief can result in a condition called distress—a negative stress reaction that can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, loss of appetite, increased blood pressure, chest pain, sexual dysfunction, and problems sleeping. Stress can also cause or influence a broad range of physical health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, poor healing, irritable bowel syndrome, and mental disorders such as depression or anxiety (Gouin & Kiecolt-Glaser 2011; NIMH 2019; Stöppler 2018).


The biology of stress

Good stress (eustress) can be helpful however it can also negative effects if it is continuous without relief (distress). When we experience stress, our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) is activated which leads to the release of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland. From here, through our blood, a message is sent to our adrenal glands to make and secrete cortisol because it cannot store it. When the perception of threat has gone away, cortisol then sends a negative feedback message that shuts down the production of cortisol and stops the stress response. However, there is a lag to cortisol production stopping because some cortisol is still in production.


Three stages of stress

Work-related stress can be caused by a variety of events. Researchers have identified three distinct stages of stress:

1. Alarm: This initial stage – commonly referred to as “fight, flight, freeze or fawn” – involves the production of cortisol, adrenaline, and other hormones that increase your alertness and prepare you to deal with the identified stressor. You may also experience spikes in your blood pressure, blood sugar, and heart rate.


Consider how you might be responding to a workplace conflict or a surprise decision that left you stressed. How do you respond when you have a workday packed full of meetings and they start to run late?  Personally, I don’t enjoy those days. These examples could all be enough to raise the alarm.


2. Adaptation: Some stressful situations can’t be resolved as quickly as others. Adaptation is the continuous release of stress hormones in response to an ongoing problem. Over time, this can lead to physical pain, mood swings, sleep problems, and other issues affecting your physical and mental health. Long-term adaptation can also lead to risky behaviours like smoking and drinking. Clients who have become dependent on a nightly tipple or sleeping pills often report how their sleep problems went away. They didn't really. Their stress got numbed and they had an alcoholic or pill induced sleep which is nowhere near as restorative as it needs to be.  


Remember how you responded to getting a new manager that you didn’t get along with or who wanted to change most processes that had been in place for a while and how you accommodated their perspective without voicing your concerns? Or perhaps a project that you are a part of is nearing a key deliverable which you are not confident will be delivered as the client expects? Or perhaps your work situation is less than ideal and you keep reminding yourself that it is a phase, and it'll be over soon. 


3. Recovery/Exhaustion: The situation in this third stage depends on how the situation unfolds. If your body’s response counteracts the stressor, then you’ll enter recovery, allowing your body and mind to self-replenish. However, since your body can only produce a finite amount of stress response hormones, you may experience exhaustion if the stressor is too powerful. Exhaustion puts people at risk for serious health problems.


Often this is the stage of job burnout. This may have happened to you if your organisational culture changed away from what you valued and you stayed optimistic that it wouldn’t get that bad for you. Round peg square hole comes to mind. Or you became exhausted from working and behaving in a way that was not aligned to your strengths or values.  


How workplace stress affects your sleep cycle

Day to day stressors are a part of everyday work life and if you are sleeping well naturally then your stress management skills are enough for the level of stress you are experiencing. That also means you don’t need a sleep aid to fall asleep at night. However, if you are starting to experience poor sleep, struggling to get to sleep or stay asleep then it could be a sign that you need more stress management strategies, or your strategies are no longer working for you. Like sleep. Sleep is an effective stress reliever.


When you experience a poor night of sleep, you will likely experience elevated cortisol the following night, irrespective of the day you've had. Cortisol is one of those hormones that adheres to the goldilocks principle, i.e., not too much or too little. Healthy sleep drops your cortisol levels to the right level and when cortisol levels are elevated, your body continues to produce cortisol further elevating your levels. Leaving you feeling more stressed and making it harder to sleep at night, exacerbating the problem.  


That is why it is important if your sleep/wake cycle is 'deal driven', that you will need a couple of days to get your sleep back on track. I often recommend to clients that they need to allow for this in their schedule so that they can start their next deal well resourced. 


Why does workplace stress cause sleep problems?

As you become more stressed at work, your nervous system responds by maintaining a heightened state of alertness, and increased cortisol, which can delay the onset of sleep and cause rapid, anxious thoughts to occur at night. Insufficient sleep can then cause further stress, setting up a vicious cycle.


According to a National Sleep Foundation survey, 43 percent of people aged 13–64 have reported lying awake at night due to stress at least once in the past month.


How to relieve stress and stop stress affecting sleep

The secret to a good night’s sleep, if stress is what is impacting it, is to learn how to relieve your stress across the day so that you leave the office with a manageable state of stress. You know it is manageable if you are able to lower your stress to a level which is conducive to sleep with your night-time routine. Sometimes this isn’t possible, and you may need to add additional strategies to help lower it, e.g., some form of exercise, calling a friend or reading a book.    


7 Stress relieving strategies that you can use across your day

  1. Take three natural breaths using one nostril and then three breaths with the other nostril.
  2. Squeeze your hands and feet and release the squeeze slowly.
  3. Take a mindful walk around the block.
  4. Sit outside and eat your lunch.
  5. Whistle, sing, or hum to yourself for a few minutes.
  6. Go for an active walk or run during your day.
  7. Effective diary management


If your stress is caused by more systemic issues, then you may also choose to address them as well as using the above strategies. If you choose to ignore the bigger issues and hope these strategies will get you through, they may not be enough. While they will work as additional relievers to your current strategies, they will render themselves less effective over time if you don't deal with the bigger issues.  


If you recognise you need support to deal with the underlying issue, then gift yourself the support whether that is with a friend, trusted colleague or trained professional. In my experience people often underestimate the impact of poor behaviour by colleagues, lack of clarity and inequality in the workplace on their own stress levels. 


If you would like to explore working with me on your sleep problem, please book in a confidential call where we can discuss working together. 


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