The last year and a half have been… stressful. We have all been expected to rapidly adapt to totally new ways of working, socializing and living. There’s no aspect of our day-to-day lives that hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic. And while some of us have embraced the small joys of working from home — logging onto virtual meetings from the comfort of our athleisure and getting laundry done on company time — this is not the case across all industries.
For many, including our healthcare professionals, teachers and other essential workers, the pandemic exponentially increased work-related stress. While millions of people were asked to stay home and protect themselves in March of 2020, millions more were asked to continue showing up daily, knowingly putting their own health at risk. Additional PPE requirements, navigating virtual classrooms for the first time, managing overcrowded hospitals, mandatory overtime and adhering to amped-up sanitation standards are just a few ways that essential workers have been challenged every day.
These new stresses, on top of the already stressful day-to-day of many of these industries pre-pandemic, have very real impacts on physical health. So, whether you are still trying to juggle new demands in your field, heading back to the office or still battling COVID-19 surges on the front line, here is what you need to know about how the stress of work impacts your health and some tools you can use to combat it.
First, it’s important to know that feeling stressed out isn’t all in your head. Our stress response is accompanied by an increase in certain hormones in the body, most notably cortisol. Cortisol plays many important roles in the body like influencing our sleep and wake cycles and protecting us when we are faced with danger. However, when enduring high stress levels for prolonged periods of time, cortisol stays elevated.
Elevated cortisol levels have been linked to a decline in cognitive function and memory, disrupted sleep cycles, weight gain, increased anxiety and other negative impacts on physical health. In order to stay happy, healthy and thriving — both at work and home — it is important to have tools to manage stress and effectively bring cortisol levels back into balance.
A popular buzzword, meditation is something many people are intimidated to try or don’t quite understand. If this sounds like you, it’s time to give this practice a try, especially when you are experiencing increased stress (which, let’s be honest, who isn’t these days?). Studies have shown that meditation effectively decreases blood cortisol levels. The best part is this practice can take as little as two minutes. No matter how busy you are, you owe it to yourself to carve out a couple of minutes in your day to protect yourself against the negative effects of stress. Don’t know how to get started? Headspace and other meditation apps have guided meditations that walk you through the whole process, whether you have two minutes or fifteen.
Believe it or not, the foods you eat can either help or hurt your body to handle work stress. Many foods that we eat can actually trigger a stress response in the body, contributing to our overall stress level. Foods like dairy, gluten and sugar can be hard to digest for many and can contribute to inflammation in the body. Avoiding foods that put stress on the digestive system can help reduce the load in your stress bucket, allowing your body to better handle the inevitable stresses of work.
Gentle movement, like walking, stretching and yoga are great ways to reduce stress levels. Not only do these activities help lower chronically raised cortisol levels due to stress, but they also encourage the release of endorphins and “feel-good” chemicals that help you feel relaxed and happy. Bonus points for taking your movement into nature as walking or hiking in nature has been proven to decrease cortisol levels even more than taking a walk around your block or neighborhood. Even if you have an active job and spend most of the day on your feet, setting aside 15 to 30 uninterrupted minutes a day to walk is a free and enjoyable way to reduce cortisol levels, improve sleep and boost mood.
We all owe ourselves a round of applause for just making it through the chaos of the last year and a half. And essential workers deserve an extra helping of gratitude. As we all adjust to the post-pandemic new normal, it’s time to re-prioritize our health. Life and work will always throw us curve balls and create stress, but with these foundations in your toolbox, you’ll be able to roll with the punches and protect your health and longevity.
About the Author
Megan Wiley is a nutritional therapy practitioner and certified yoga teacher. She founded Wiley Wellness to empower people to take charge of their health through a full mind-body approach. By addressing the root cause of symptoms, she helps clients reclaim their physical and energetic health. For more great nutrition and mindset resources, find her on Instagram @wileywellness.