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Married to the Job?

Get a handle on work-related stress

In today's demanding, fast-paced world, people can potentially be working 24/7. If your work email is synced to your smart phone, it's easy to check your email on the way home from work, in the middle of the night, at your child's soccer practice.

Even if you’re not checking email, when work is stressful to you, chances are good it stays on your mind, perhaps worming its way into your sleep. The end result: you never truly get away from work.

Is there anything wrong with this preoccupation? "Of course," says Patricia Normand, MD, a psychiatrist who directs Rush University Medical Center's Mindful Life Program. "Your brain can't be on all the time. You need down time and time for yourself. If you're a workaholic, you can't be giving yourself – and perhaps your family – attention."

Work stress = bad news

The effects of self-neglect can pile up: You might not have time to go shopping or prepare dinner, leaving you less healthy dining options. No time for yourself can also mean not exercising, which can lead to weight gain, which can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes.

Stress can also give you anxiety; contribute to depression; cause problems with your sleep; and create feelings of helplessness, says Normand.

When you're stressed, your body pumps out stress hormones: epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. You need those hormones in acute situations, like the fabled saber-tooth tiger our ancestors fought off. But today, our stresses are frequent and multiple; yet our bodies are still putting out these acute-response chemicals that, over time, can be harmful to your body.

What you can do

Although it might feel like just one more thing on your to-do list, you can get a handle on work-related stress.

  1. Identify the problem: The first step is to notice how much you're working and how little time you have for yourself, according to Normand. Plot out your day, all 24 hours of it. How much are you sleeping? When are you working? In addition to your office time, are you logging hours at home or during your commute by checking and responding to emails? "Plot out how much time you're at work and all the times that you're doing work," says Normand. "See how much time you have left. Is that adequate?"
  2. Learn – and regularly practice – relaxation strategies: If work is constantly on your mind, and you are dissatisfied with that, there are things you can do, says Normand. For instance, if you’'e anxious about work, practice relaxation and mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing or guided imagery. For example, in guided imagery you might use a CD or book to guide your imagination to a relaxed, focused state by helping you imagine yourself in a peaceful setting.
  3. In the moment, breathe: Mindfulness experts such as Normand give people simple techniques to use in stressful moments: "We teach people to focus on just one or two breaths, and that relaxes them," she says. "A good way to know if you're stressed is to check your belly; if it's tight, you can relax it. Then you may notice that not just your belly but your whole body is clenched. When you notice that, consider: can you release that tension for a moment?"
  4. Make use of the silver bullet, exercise: Make sure you exercise regularly; research has shown that in addition to its physical benefits, exercise improves your mood and decreases your anxiety. Aim for 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.
  5. Seek a professional's perspective: If getting a handle on your work stress is proving harder than you anticipated, you may need to talk to a counselor about other factors at the root, like anxiety or the depression.
  6. Look within: "The biggest question is, do your circumstances allow for a change, and you're just not changing?" asks Normand. "Or, if the circumstances don't allow for any change, is it possible you could change the circumstance?"

Normand recommends changing jobs as a last resort. Instead, ask yourself, do you generally react to stress in this way? If you're fine outside of work, and you're able to relax, then it's likely some aspect of work may be the culprit. But it may not always be your demanding boss: It could still be you.

"Is your stress something you're putting on to work, for instance, your expectations and your hopes for this job that are causing you to get stressed out?" asks Normand. If so, consider relaxation techniques or talk therapy.

But if the answer is objectively an external source like the amount of work, your supervisor or your coworkers, then it might be time to think about another job — one that will give you the work-life balance you need to be happy and healthy.

September 2013