Why we should Focus on Reducing Stress and not on Finding the ‘Perfect’ Work-Life Balance

Challenging the Term Work-Life Balance

Of course I understand what people mean when they talk about Work-Life balance, but for me this terminology does not really make sense, as I don’t view these two things as mutually exclusive. For most of us, work is part of our lives. We don’t stop living when we are working!

In fact, I believe the contrary is true, work is an extremely important, and if we are lucky rewarding, part of our lives.

However, for the sake of an argument about terminology, which should not be the basis of this article, I will accept ‘Life’ in the case of Work-Life balance to be our private time and as ‘the time we are not working’.


Work does not equal Work

I remember the initial years after founding my first company in Switzerland as very much filled with work, leaving little time for life. Nonetheless, they were some of the most rewarding, exciting and fulfilling years of my life. My work, my team, our clients, our projects gave me energy and working made me happy. I cannot remember a day in the 15 years that I ran this company, that I didn’t look forward to going to the office.

When think back even further, to my first job in England, it was a different story. I hated going to work. I worked for a terrible boss. All I wanted was the day to finish and to leave this toxic place. I worked only 8 hour days, but was exhausted and needless to say, I did not jump out of bed in the mornings, looking forward to going to work.

With these two examples, I want to illustrate that work does not equal work.

If your job brings you joy and gives you purpose, it will give you energy. If the opposite is true, it will likely suck the energy out of you.

Therefore, when we talk about Work-Life balance, there is no perfect equation, because it is so very individual how much work stresses vs. energizes us.


Life does not equal Life

The time that we are not working, is the time we spend with our family, our friends, doing sports, enjoying our hobbies, are on holiday, sleep, read, watch TV or enjoy doing nothing.

For most, this is the time that we relax, we refuel and do what is good for our bodies and mind.

Of course, this is in a perfect world. We don’t all have a happy private situation, a healthy body, a good financial position and a cozy home all the time. A suboptimal private life can also be stressful,  I know some people that feel happier at work than at home.

Nonetheless, it is clear that we need to have time off work and we need to find out what and which mix of these different activities give us energy.


Our Future - a Work-Life Blend

Technology is changing how we work and how we live and thus our Work-Life balance. Today, we can almost run our office with our mobile phone. A result of this, as well as our move into home-office, is that  work has even more so merged into our lives. It seems so easy and normal that in the evenings and at the weekends we ‘quickly check or answer our email’, do ‘some quick research online’ or ‘check what’s going on with our social media accounts’.

Whilst jogging or walking we can listen to podcasts, make phone calls or join teleconferences (yes, I have done this). Is that work time or private time?

It is indeed a fact that for most of us work is blending into our lives  - for good or for bad.


Stress and not Work is the Problem

When we talk about a Work-Life balance, it always seems that we talk about work as ‘the problem’.

For the reasons previously mentioned, I would like to counter this and say that work is not the problem, but stress is the problem.

Having said this, I am of course fully aware that for some, the cause of stress is their job.


Stress and the State of ‘Fight or Flight’

Stress has been singled out by the WHO as the number one risk factor that can negatively influence our health.

It has been proven that stress influences our lives negatively and that when it exists long-term, it will ultimately cause people to be unhappy, feel anxious and have burnouts.

When we are in the state of acute stress, also referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ modus, our bodies get ready to ‘get things done fast’, we are wide awake,  attentive and ready to go! Our bodies and brain are ready to be able to pick ourselves up to quickly escape from a dangerous situation.  

Although useful in extreme situations, this state of stress should NOT be constant; this is completely against our nature.

Unfortunately many people live under constant pressure - trying to balance a never-ending workload with family life, whilst also dealing with daily chores and hassles or financial worries.


The negative Effects of Stress

When we are in a state of ‘fight or flight’, our sympathetic nervous system releases the stress hormones cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenalin. Typically, when the stress subsides, our levels of these hormones normalize again.

In the state of ‘fight or flight’ or the situation of acute stress these hormones are great, they increase  our breathing, cause our heart to beat faster, tense up our muscles and dilate our pupils.

Simultaneously, the sympathetic nervous system slows or shuts down our bodily functions, which are not needed, such as digestion, immunity, peripheral vision, as well as specific brain functions.

Cortisol, adrenalin and nodrenalin are exactly what we need in a stress situation. However if due to constant stress, we are chronically over-exposed to these three hormones, it can lead to disruption of our bodily functions and can cause many different illnesses

What do we know about these hormones and what are some of the effects they have when our bodies are over-exposed to them?

  • Cortisol

A consistently elevated cortisol level affects people’s appetite. Most of us, when we have higher levels of cortisol, crave more high calorie foods, leading to weight gain. To me this makes perfect sense. Many of us have probably binge eaten cookies and ‘junk food’ in front of the computer or in between meetings. For others, the elevated cortisol levels have the opposite effect, they no longer feel any hunger cues and they stop eating.

Cortisol provides our bodies with glucose, which is useful when we need to be in ‘fight or flight’ modus. However, elevated cortisol levels over a long term period can lead to high blood sugar and potentially increase the risk of diabetes.

People with high cortisol levels, tend to have compromised digestion and thus nutrient absorption and their mucosal lining becomes irritated and inflamed. When this state remains, it can cause ulcers and lead to diseases such as IBD (irritable bowel syndrome) or colitis.

Cortisol constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure - both advantageous for fight-or-flight situations. However, if cortisol levels remain high over a long period of time, arterial constriction and high blood pressure can lead to vessel damage and build-up of plaque, which unfortunately creates the perfect situation that could lead up to a heart attack.

Several other conditions, such as infertility, chronic fatigue, depression and anxiety have been linked to constant elevated cortisol levels.

  • Adrenaline

Persistent surges of adrenaline can damage blood vessels and increase blood pressure, elevating the risk of heart attacks or stroke.

Adrenaline causes our muscles to tense up. If this happens chronically, muscles can become taut and tense for long periods of time, triggering muscle tension, musculoskeletal pain resulting in migraines and tension-type headaches and potentially cause insomnia.

  • Noradrenaline

Noradrenaline also increases our heart rate and blood pressure. Chronically high blood pressure and an increased heart rate are detrimental to our cardiovascular system and can cause strokes or heart attacks.

Noradrenaline plays an important role in our psychological wellbeing. Constant bursts can lead to rollercoaster emotions, ranging from euphoria and hyperactivity to panic attacks, depression and lethargy.

In summary, we should avoid chronic exposure to these hormones, which are caused by stress, to lead a healthier and longer life.


Reducing Stress Levels

So what’s the key to less stress?  How can we better manage it?

The opposite of being in a ‘fight or flight’ modus, when our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, is called the state of ‘rest and digest’. This is when our parasympathetic nervous system is activated to bring calm back to us, lowering our blood pressure, heart rate, regulating our breathing and bringing our digestive and immune system back in order.

When parasympathetic activity dominates, healing and regeneration can occur.

Physicians and researchers tend to agree that the following influences activate our parasympathetic nervous system and help to reduce stress.

  • Cardiac exercise and brisk walking

Exercise, in the form of cardio helps to relieve muscle tension, regulates our breathing and pulse. It also helps us sleep better.

  •  Relaxation practices

Yoga, meditation, praying, reading and actively listening to music supports mental focus and improves breathing. These practices activate our relaxation and induce calm

  •  Keeping healthy friendships

A good social network of family and friends as well as a close relationship with a spouse or life-companion has been proven to support our health and help us to better get through times of chronic stress and crisis.

  •  Getting sufficient sleep

Rest and sleep are extremely important for our bodies to regenerate. In fact, it is beneficial to sleep in total darkness, which is when our bodies biochemically best repair.

  •  Spend time in nature

Spending time in forests or parks decreases stress, lowers our blood pressure, and increases our immune system.

  •  Spend time with animals

Animals have a positive effect on our health. The stroking of a pet has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and even improve our cardiovascular health.

  •  Laughter

Yes, it is some of the best medicine.

  •  Live in the Moment

In our busy lives it is often difficult to be mindful or live in the moment. We are constantly prompted on deadlines, things to do and negative news, leading people to worry about things that are only in the future. Calming your mind, focusing on the ‘now’ and seeing solutions, rather than problems will help to ‘live in the moment’.

  •  Healthy Eating

Healthy nutrition is important to keep our bodies functioning well. In a stress situation, we tend to overeat or not eat at all, eat the wrong foods and often eat too fast. Focusing on what we eat, taking time to eat (remember ‘rest and digest’) is therefore of extreme importance.

As nutrition and receiving the right macro- and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) is vital for our long term health, I would like to spend a little more time and the next section specifically on this topic.


How can Nutrition help to Balance Stress

When our sympathetic nervous system dominates and we are predominantly in a state of stress, our organs, including our digestive system stalls, so we are unable to absorb nutrients from food.

It is therefore extremely important to focus on eating a diet extra-rich in some macro- and micronutrients, adding extra portions of fruit, vegetables and nuts to your diet and also consider supplementing with certain vitamins and minerals.

From a macronutrient perspective, it is particularly important to focus on:

Complex carbohydrates - Wholegrain bread and pasta, brown rice and cereals including oats are helpful in enhancing levels of serotonin, the so called ‘happy hormone’ that will help to relax and improve sleep.

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) – The essential fatty acids Omega 3 and 6 are found in oily fish, nuts and seeds and they are extremely important for brain function and reducing stress symptoms.

Water - All cells in the brain and body need adequate water to function. Water helps the long term detoxification process and is therefore very important to for people whose bodies are in a stress situation.

Although all micronutrients are important, extremely relevant in this situation is to obtain sufficient vitamin B, C, magnesium and calcium and focus on those foods, which contain these micronutrients.

B-vitamins - B-vitamins found in meat, fish and dairy products as well as in leafy greens, nuts and seeds are important to provide energy to the body and brain.

Vitamin C - Vitamin C is found in kiwis, berries, citrus fruit, leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes and peppers provides our adrenal glands, where most vitamin C is stored and which are responsible for the production of stress hormones, healthy.

Magnesium - Magnesium-rich are bananas, nuts, beans, lentils, whole grain and leafy greens help to relax muscles, improve our sleep and reduce anxiety.

Calcium - Calcium is found in milk, yoghurt, cheese, sesame seeds, leafy greens and broccoli and this micronutrient helps to reduce muscle tension and anxiety.


What to Avoid when already Stressed

Some foods and substances can additionally increase cortisol levels, which is of course detrimental if one already has elevated levels due to stress.

It is therefore advisable to avoid or significantly reduce the intake of:

Sugar - Increased amounts of sugar creates stress and can increase anxiety and depression as well as sleeplessness. Furthermore, it can induce inflammation causing joints to ache and the brain to ‘fog up’.

Alcohol - Although alcohol is often the ‘go-to’ to provide short-term relief from stress, it is only a short-term fix. Alcohol, when drunk regularly and in large amounts increases the cortisol levels in our bodies, suppressing the immune system, our digestive system and sabotaging our rest and sleep.

Coffee and caffeine drinks - Caffeine alters the effect of several hormones, including cortisol when drunk in large amounts, potentially causing sleeplessness, jitters, mood swings and anxiety.

Tobacco - Nicotine is also believed to trigger cortisol levels and increase blood pressure, cause osteoporosis and mood swings, depression and anxiety.


Finding a Healthy Balance between Work and Life

Yes, I have veered away from the original question of how we find a healthy balance between work and life. As far as I am concerned, there is no magic formula.

What I do believe is that one of the main keys to a happy and healthy life, is to reduce our levels of stress.

However you decide to balance your work with your life, if it makes you happy, fulfills and does not stress you in a negative way, it is probably good for you!

Written for and published by womenbiz.ch https://womenbiz.ch/magazin/wie-gehe-ich-richtig-mit-stress-um/

Photo: Linda Schier