Stress-related illness costs the economy £3.7 billion a year and affects an estimated one in five of us each year. Hilly Janes explains why stress makes us ill and runs through seven of the most common types of stress-related illness.
Fight or flight and stress-related illness
The “fight-or-flight response”, or simply the “stress response” is a physiological reaction to situations that we feel we can’t control – from taking an exam to losing a loved one. It evolved to help our ancestors deal with threats from predators or other dangers, by priming the body for either fighting or fleeing.
If we experience this stress response too often, however, it can cause stress-related illness. While some people dismiss feeling “stressed out” as being ”all in the mind”, the effects of stress on our health are now well researched by scientists, partly because stress-related illness causes high levels of work absenteeism at a huge economic cost.
The role of adrenaline
When faced with a perceived threat, whether physical or psychological – a car heading straight for us or else a bullying boss – our bodies produce “stress hormones” such as adrenaline. This speeds up our heart and breathing rates to help pump oxygen round our bodies in preparation either to fight the threat or run for the hills. It can also trigger sweating and a dry mouth. As the threat recedes, so does the adrenaline, but if it’s long term – “a chronic stressor” – and especially if it’s emotional, a high level of adrenaline may lead to stress-related illness.
This hormone is present in our bodies all the time and is vital for many functions, including regulating our blood sugar and metabolism. But levels increase as an effect of stress, when cortisol triggers short bursts of energy, heightened alertness and dampens down our pain response.
It makes hearts beat faster and muscles tense – helpful in dangerous situations, but if cortisol is continuously elevated, scientists believe, these responses can also cause stress-related illness. High cortisol can also reduce our sex drive and, in women, cause irregular periods, or stop them altogether.
Chronic overexposure to stress hormones has also been linked with both obesity and memory impairment.
7 kinds of stress-related illness
1. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) and heart problems
Increased heart rate and high blood pressure are two of the most serious health effects of stress. Several reputable studies have shown the link between higher reported stress levels at work and increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. If you think that stress is causing these symptoms, you should see a doctor. Left untreated, they can prove fatal.
2. Inflammation – of skin conditions and others
Research also suggests that raised levels of stress hormones can cause inflammation, aggravating conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, eczema, skin rash, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. This altered inflammatory response can also have an effect on our immune system, which kicks in when we try to fight off infections like colds. Even just dwelling on stressful events in the past can increase levels of inflammation, found a 2013 study at Ohio University. Speak to your doctor if you have the conditions just mentioned and think that stress might be causing or aggravating them. You can also use our stress tests find therapies to help cope with your symptoms.
3. Insomnia and sleep problems
One of the most common effects of stress is difficulty “switching off”, resulting in not being able to get off or back to sleep, and/or waking too early in the morning. A large study published in the European Heart Journal in 2013 made a link between insomnia and heart failure in people with these symptoms. Meanwhile, chronic sleep deprivation is likely not just to make you feel tired and irritable but can also cause accidents. Many people find hypnotherapy and meditation to be particularly effective in treating stress-related insomnia.
4. Physical tension and headaches
It’s not surprising that increased levels of hormones that cause our muscles to tense up in preparation for a fight can, in the long term, also cause pain, stiffness and tension headaches. In small doses, this may not cause problems and can be alleviated by exercise, breathing techniques or hands-on therapies like massage. In the longer term, however, they can be harmful.
5. Depression and anxiety
Feeling unable to cope and worrying a lot is another stress symptom that, left untreated, can lead to serious health problems such as depression and anxiety. Talking therapies like CBT can help, but you may need medication too. You should therefore see a doctor if these effects of stress are stopping you from functioning normally.
6. Digestive problems and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Tummy trouble such as nausea and stomach ache with no medical cause can often be stress related. In particular, IBS or irritable bowel syndrome – a cluster of symptoms including bloating, cramps, diarrhoea and constipation – is thought to be partly stress related and the anxiety caused by needing to rush to the toilet can make the problem worse. Nutrition can play an important part here and if your doctor can’t help, visiting a nutritionist might.
7. Self-medication – cigarettes, alcohol, food and drugs
Many of us cope with stress by reaching for cigarettes, alcohol, food or even drugs. Of course, a glass of wine can help us relax, and a bar of chocolate can cheer us up, but “self-medicating” excessively by consuming any of these things in excess can lead to health problems that in turn create more stress. This can be difficult to face up to, but it’s best to seek professional help – overindulging or even becoming addicted is often a greater health risk than many other stress-related conditions.
An ambitious initiative unveiled this week by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock may soon enable the country’s doctors to prescribe therapeutic art- or hobby-based treatments for ailments ranging from dementia to psychosis, lung conditions and mental health issues. Writing for the Times, Kat Lay explains that this unconventional strategy, described by the U.K. government as “social prescribing,” could find patients enrolled in dance classes and singing lessons, or perhaps enjoying a personalized music playlist.
“We’ve been fostering a culture that’s popping pills and Prozac, when what we should be doing is more prevention and perspiration,” Hancock said in a Tuesday speech at the King’s Fund health care think tank. “Social prescribing can help us combat over-medicalising people.”
According to theTelegraph’s Laura Donnelly, the proposal, which arrives on the heels of a larger preventative health scheme, provides for the creation of a National Academy for Social Prescribing that will ensure general practitioners, or GPs, across the country are equipped to guide patients to an array of hobbies, sports and arts groups.
The medical benefits of engaging with the arts are well-recorded: As Lay notes, a collaboration between the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and stroke survivors living in Hull, England, encouraged patients to play instruments, conduct and perform; 90 percent of these participants reported improvements in their physical and mental health. In Lambeth, dance lessons have been shown to improve concentration and communication skills amongst those displaying early signs of psychosis, and in Gloucestershire, hospitals have begun to refer individuals with lung conditions to singing sessions.
Why? Because you’re too busy. This post is probably one of more than a few tabs you have open on your browser or phone. Your to-do list is likely close by and packed with tasks.
Sometimes we know there’s a better way to do things, but we’re just so busy we don’t even think we have the time to find it—so we keep going like we always have.
That’s how I saw things, too. And then I discovered the power of taking breaks at work. They made me happier, more focused and more productive—and I bet they can do the same for you, whether you’re in the corner office or a cubicle.
Come along and discover the science of why we need breaks at work, how to create your own master schedule and what to do on your hard-earned break.
3 scientific reasons to prioritize breaks at work
1. Breaks keep us from getting bored (and thus, unfocused)
When you’re really in the groove of a task or project, the ideas are flowing and you feel great. But it doesn’t last forever—stretch yourself just a bit beyond that productivity zone and you might feel unfocused, zoned out or even irritable. What changes?
Basically, the human brain just wasn’t built for the extended focus we ask of it these days. Our brains are vigilant all the time because they evolved to detect tons of different changes to ensure our very survival. So focusing so hard on one thing for a long time isn’t something we’re ever going to be great at (at least for a few centuries).
The good news is that the fix for this unfocused condition is simple—all we need is a brief interruption (aka a break) to get back on track. University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras explains:
“…Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” he said. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”
2. Breaks help us retain information and make connections
Our brains have two modes: the “focused mode,” which we use when we’re doing things like learning something new, writing or working) and “diffuse mode,” which is our more relaxed, daydreamy mode when we’re not thinking so hard. You might think that the focused mode is the one to optimize for more productivity, but diffuse mode plays a big role, too.
In fact, although our brains were once thought to go dormant when we daydreamed, studies have shown that activity in many brain regions increases when our minds wander. Here’s a look at the brain scan of one daydreamer:
Some studies have shown that the mind solves its stickiest problems while daydreaming—something you may have experienced while driving or taking a shower. Breakthroughs that seem to come out of nowhere are often the product of diffuse mode thinking.
When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. It’s a practice that encourages us to stay mindful of our objectives…
How to stop feeling guilt about breaks
OK, so we know taking breaks is a scientifically proven method for regaining our focus, sharpness and motivation. But taking a walk or a reading break in the middle of a workday? Can we really get over how guilty that’ll make us feel?
A study of office workers and managers by Staples discovered that even though 66 percent of employees spend more than eight hours a day at work, more than a quarter of them don’t take a break other than lunch. One in five employee respondents said guilt was the reason they don’t step away from their workspaces.
And that’s with 90 percent of the bosses surveyed saying that they encouraged breaks and 86 percent of employees agreeing that taking breaks makes them more productive! It’s become normal to think that if you never take a break from work, you’ll get more done, get promoted and be more successful.
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets…It is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
If all that doesn’t convince you, then consider the clientele of the aforementioned Schwartz at The Energy Project, which is designed to help companies to help them find a better way to work—including breaks. He counts Google, Apple, Facebook, Coca-Cola, Green Mountain Coffee, Ford, Genentech and a wide range of Fortune 500 companies as clients. Sounds like good company!
Four break methods to try
Ready to try breaks at work but not sure how to implement your schedule? Here are a few methods you might consider.
1. Pomodoro method
One of the most common ways to implement a schedule with breaks—especially when you’re busy—is to work in small bursts. The Pomodoro Technique is perfect for this. Just set a timer for 25 minutes, and when it goes off, take a short break for 5 minutes. Stretch your legs, grab a drink, or just sit back and relax. After you’ve done four Pomodoro sessions, take a longer break of 30 minutes or so.
Working in such compact time periods helps you get rid of distractions and focus more intently. I found that having a finite beginning and end to each chunk of work gave me a little edge of urgency–I closed out tasks more quickly and made the “little decisions” faster because I knew the clock was counting down.
2. 90-minute work blocks
Want more time to dig in? Working in 90-minute intervals has long been a favorite method of maximizing productivity because it works with our bodies’ natural rhythms.
“To maximize gains from long-term practice,” Dr. Ericsson concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”
3. The 52-17 method
A third option: split the difference between Pomodoro and 90-minute blocks with what recent research indicates could be the most productive schedule of all.
Using time-tracking and productivity app DeskTime, the Draugiem Group studied the habits of the most productive employees and learned that the most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes before getting back to it. The bottom line, they discovered, was working with purpose:
The reason the most productive 10% of our users are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that their working times are treated as sprints. They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.
Pro tip: For any of these timed methods, I like to add Focus Booster, an unobtrusive and handy timer app, to keep me on track.
4. Two 15-minute breaks per day
If a time-blocked day doesn’t appeal to you or work with your job, consider a simpler but still quite effective solution: blocking out two planned, 15-minute intermissions in your day—one in the mid-morning and the other in the mid-afternoon. Around 3 p.m. is the least productive time of day, so definitely don’t skip that break!
16 productivity-boosting activities for your break
So you’ve realized the importance of breaks and added them into your day—hooray! Now: How to spend your well-deserved break? Here are a few suggestions, each with proven benefits!
Take a walk
A 20-minute stroll can increase blood flow to the brain, which can boost creative thought. Regular walks can enhance the connectivity of important brain circuits, combat age-related declines in brain function and improve memory and cognitive performance.
Daydreaming “leads to creativity, and creative activities teach us agency, the ability to change the world, to mold it to our liking, to have a positive effect on our environment.”
Read a (non-work) book–especially fiction. Studies have shown that individuals who frequently read fiction are better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.
Get a coffee
OK, you probably already thought of this break option. But are you timing your coffee breaks correctly? For people who wake up between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., the optimal times for consuming caffeine fall somewhere around 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
In one awesome study, participants performed better on a variety of tasks after looking at baby animal photos. Only baby animals will do the trick here–full-grown animal pics didn’t have the same effect.
When pilots were given a nap of 30 minutes on long flights, there was a 16 percent improvement in their reaction time. (Pilots who didn’t nap saw a a 34 percent decrease over the course of the flight.)
We’re big believers in naps at Buffer–you can catch a glimpse of the bunk beds for napping in Buffer’s office in this photo of Buffer founder Joel:
Yup, even hanging out with coworkers for a bit is a productive break! Research shows that talking with colleagues can increase your productivity. In a study of call center workers, those who talked to more co-workers were getting through calls faster, felt less stressed and had the same approval ratings as their peers.
One of the most powerful ways to relax your brain in a short amount of time is a session of meditation. In the image below you can see how the beta waves (shown in bright colors on the left) are dramatically reduced during meditation (on the right).
Meditation lowers stress levels and improves overall health as well as creativity. (We’ve got a virtual meditation room at Buffer).
Plan something fun
Like a future trip or vacation. Research shows that anticipating a trip often makes people happier than the trip itself.
Go outside and see some nature
On a nice day, spend some time outside during your break–and try to find more natural and less urban settings. Spending time in nature is good for your immune system and has been shown to improve focus and relieve stress.
Exercise your eyes
Especially if you look at a screen most of the day, your eyes could use a break. Use the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a break for at least 20 seconds and look at objects that are 20 feet away from you.
Mess around online
That’s right; go ahead and check your Facebook account or take that Buzzfeed quiz. Studies have shown that goofing off online for a few minutes can be just as productive a break as any other (and better than texting or sending emails) when it comes to refreshing your brain.
Do you take breaks regularly during the day? If so, what’s your schedule like and how do you use your break time? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Your calendar is probably full of things to do, but how often do you schedule in breaks? If it’s rare to find a blank space on your calendar, you should rethink your nonstop workflow. Taking regular timeouts can help you refresh your focus and get more done, productivity experts say. And how often you should break depends on your workload, energy level ,and the time of day.
“Don’t think of breaks in terms of taking a set number a day, such as 12 or five,” says Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours. “The real question is what is the appropriate time period of concentrated work you can do before taking break?”
EVERY 75 TO 90 MINUTES
Pozen suggests taking a break every 75 and 90 minutes. “That’s the period of time where you can concentrate and get a lot of work done, he says. “We know that because we have studied professional musicians, who are most productive when they practice for this amount of time. It’s also the amount of time of most college classes.”
Working for 75 to 90 minutes takes advantage of the brain’s two modes: learning or focusing and consolidation, says Pozen. “When people do a task and then take a break for 15 minutes they help their brain consolidate information and retain it better,” he says. “That’s what’s happening physiology during breaks.”
Tony Schwartz, founder of the Energy Project, calls this work-and-break pattern “pulse and pause,” expending energy and then renewing it. “His research shows that humans naturally move from full focus and energy to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes,” says Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management. If we pay attention, we’d realize that our body is sending us signals to rest and renew, says Kruse. “But we override them with coffee, energy drinks, and sugar… or just by tapping our own reserves until they’re depleted,” he says.
EVERY 52 MINUTES
Sometimes you don’t have an hour and a half to work, and the good news is you can work in shorter spurts and reap the benefits of breaks. An experiment by the software startup Draugiem Group using time-tracking app DeskTime found that the most productive workers took regular and frequent breaks, working in 52-minute sprints with 17-minute breaks. The employees got more done without working longer hours, and regular breaks made them more efficient.
“The reason the 10% most productive employees are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that they’re treated as sprints for which they’re well rested. They make the most of the 52 working minutes, in other words, they work with purpose,” the authors of the study write.
EVERY 25 MINUTES
Another option is using the Pomodoro Technique, breaking extended amounts of focus into short bursts of work. This pulse-and-pause technique involves working for 25 minutes and taking a five-minute break. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, who named it after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used, the Pomodoro Technique works well when a single task requires your full focus.
Figuring out the right amount of time for breaks can take trial and error. The important point isn’t the exact length of the sprint or the break; it’s figuring out what pulse-and-pause cycle works best for you, says Kruse. “Our cognitive capacity declines throughout the day; you must build in frequent mental breaks to recharge and maintain productivity,” he says.