Understand stress, manage it and be proactive

You are a high-achieving, hard-working professional living and working in South Africa. You would be crazy not to feel a certain amount of stress.

As integrative Medical Practitioner Dr Ela Manga, author of Breathe: Strategising Energy in the Age of Burnout says, “We would not be alive if we did not have the stress response.” The trick is to know and understand stress and be proactive in managing it when it becomes unhealthy.

Biggest health concerns for SA professionals
Profmed Medial Scheme conducts an annual Stress Index, and last year’s results point to work, health and finances as our biggest sources of unhealthy stress. Profmed CEO, Craig Comrie says, “If the Stress Index has taught us anything over the years, it’s that work-related stress remains one of the biggest health concerns for South African professionals.”

More than half of Profmed’s polled professionals list lack of sleep and short-temperedness as signs they are stressed, followed by not eating well, working too many hours, and drinking more alcohol than usual.

If you’re back at work and already feeling the symptoms of bad stress seeping into your life, you can start by “coding” your stress into green, orange or red zones, says Dr Manga.

In the optimum green zone, you are focused and motivated, emotionally connected but with solid boundaries. You breathe, sleep and eat well and your immune system is strong.

In the orange or danger zone, where she says you feel “more wired than tired”, you might feel that you struggle to switch off or focus on one thing at a time. Your breathing may be shallow, you may be feeling anxious or irritable, have muscle tension, your blood pressure may be rising, or you could have trouble sleeping.

Signs you have crossed into the red burnout zone are constant fatigue, weight gain or loss, apathy, loss of memory or concentration, a feeling of disconnection, depression and meaninglessness, and a lack of passion and direction.

Yes, rest is a skill
It’s realistic to expect to spend at least some of your time in the orange zone, but you can and should learn how to relax as efficiently as you conduct the rest of your life’s tasks. And no, this does not mean kicking back and binge-watching Netflix, says Dr Manga. That’s leisure, not conscious, deep relaxation. Similarly, she says many driven people use exercise as a way to tune out, so they over-exercise instead of tuning in, and mindfully becoming aware of their bodies.

Dr Manga says the effect of technology and digital addiction, economic, political and social uncertainty, hypervigilance due to crime. “All of these factors cause us to live on ‘adrenalised’ energy, where the body gets locked into a stress response and stress becomes almost addictive. When we are in this state, we are unable to deeply rest and recover our energy resources.”

Deep rest is a skill we have to re-learn. Dr Manga advocates the ABC approach.

Dr Manga’s ABC formula
• A = Awareness: Notice the places where your body is holding stress and tension. Notice your thoughts. Ask yourself: What is the story I’m telling myself right now?

• B = Breathing: Shift your posture. Deepen and slow down your breathing. Breathe into the area that you are holding tension in your body. Take conscious deep breaths between your tasks throughout the day.
• C = Conscious choices: What practical action needs to be taken? Ask yourself what support you need in your life to make and sustain lifestyle changes.

Taking good care of yourself will limit your time in the orange zone. Self-care is the watchword here. To further relearn how to connect with yourself and relax deeply, Dr Manga suggests some more reassuringly practical steps:

1. Spend time in nature.
2. Find at least one creative pursuit.
3. Write down your thoughts in a journal.
4. Learn breathwork. Dr Manga offers a conscious breathing exercise here.

When trauma happens
The red zone is where you want to spend the least of your time. If you are here, please seek help by speaking to a healthcare professional, your friends and family urgently about a treatment plan.

You may find yourself in this space after a traumatic event, in which case it is also crucial to get short- to medium-term trauma response treatment.

Craig Comrie