“Why are we so haggard at the heart, So care-coiled, care-killed, so fagged, so cogged, so cumbered” – Gerard Manley Hopkins in “The Leaden-echo” and “The Golden-echo”
As a result of research carried out over the past few decades, scientists have reason to believe that people in high-stress jobs and those who have suffered some major setback or calamity in their lives are exposed to a high risk of disease. In several advanced countries, stress-related disorders among executives are estimated to cost industry, several hundreds of crores of rupees every year.
All of us are, of course, aware of the ill-effects of stress and naturally we regard it as a bad thing, but, in actual fact, research has revealed that stress can result in positive benefits.
When some people claim that their performance is better in conditions of stress, there is no reason to disbelieve them. Some scientists have found that up to a certain level, stress does result in increased performance and efficiency. But there is a limit beyond which performance and efficiency begin to suffer.
Whether stress plays a positive or negative role in our lives depends on how we deal with potentially stressful situations. Some people are able to do this better than others, but our response to stress can be modified—we can be taught to cope with it and this is precisely what ‘stress management courses’ are designed to do ( more of this later).
Stress is not something new to our age. Even prehistoric people seem to have suffered from it. Subjecting people to stress as part of a ritual execution or as punishment for crimes is an ancient practice which indicates that people have long realised the harmful effects of stress. But while stress has long been understood instinctively, no systematic study had been undertaken until the beginning of the twentieth century.
It was only in the last century, that a scientist named Hans Selye outlined what he described as the ‘general adaptation syndrome’, which explains body response to stress in terms of three distinct stages: alarm, resistance and exertion. In the alarm stage, the body responds by going through a whole series of specific biochemical changes. Then, as it adapts, it begins to resist. If the stress continues then exertion ensues. Selye and many others have since noted that prolonged bouts of stress can cause havoc to the human body and may even lead to death.
The physiological reactions to stress are quite specific.When confronted with a threat or challenge the hypothalamus a tiny portion of the brain, that contains a number of small nuclei with a variety of functions, swings into action.One of the most important functions of the hypothalamus is to link the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland. In this manner it immediately triggers off a series of biochemical responses.These responses include increased hormone production, a reduction of the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for relaxation and recuperative mechanisms), an increase in the activity of the systematic nervous system (responsible for mobilisation and exertion), a release of sugars and fats into the blood stream for extra energy, increase in respiration, heart beat rate and perspiration, a loosening of the bladder and bowel muscles in preparation for lightening the body for running and heightening of the senses.These involuntary responses help animals deal with threatening situations.
When faced with danger, animals either prepare to fight or they flee.
This phenomenon has been described as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. In threatening situations, we human beings, too, benefit from such responses. In fact, they are believed to be one of the reasons for our long-term survival.
But, unfortunately, today many of us also respond to non-life-threatening situations in this way. Our bodies are constantly being put into this heightened stage with biological changes that can be physically detrimental if they are prolonged.
Often, psychological stimuli such as a threat to our egos or self-esteem, a painful memory, or a disappointment elicits the fight-or-flight reaction. But since none of these factors are likely to be life- threatening the reaction is usually not appropriate. However, years of cultural conditioning teach us to respond in this manner.
Fortunately, though, we can also unlearn this by conditioning. For instance, it is extremely important that after the fight-or-flight response has been triggered off, you allow your body to return to its normal state so that it can recover.
If your body is subjected to constant stress with no recovery periods in between, then chronic stress can develop. While any one of these stresses, say, an unduly heavy schedule at work or a problem with relationships at home may not be damaging by itself, when lots of stresses are piled on top of each other, the result can be detrimental.
Considering the enormous loss to industry due to people not being able to cope with stress, it is hardly surprising to find that such stress management courses are multiplying. In different parts of the world, a growing number of business industries and government bodies are now providing this kind of service to their personnel.
The purpose of stress management courses is to teach people to recognise stress, to be aware of their own responses to it, and to learn how to deal with it. In other words, they teach people to cope with stress so that it works ‘for’ them, not ‘against’ them. Because the long-term effects of stress are so detrimental—stress-related disorders include high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and premature ageing—there is an increasing awareness among senior management personnel of the value and necessity of stress management.
In several advanced organisations in the world, such courses are being provided to their staff free of charge.
One must, however, realise that no course is going to change the way one lives, works or reacts to stress. One must have a positive and active commitment to change and be prepared to put the techniques into practice in one’s daily life. Everyone deals with stress in his or her own way. For some people meditation, relaxation therapy or biofeedback proves to be a great help. For others exercise, and yoga, provide relief from stress.
But it is universally recognised that no single activity enables a person to overcome stress as much as sound sleep.
Almost everyone realises the importance of sleep in human physiology. All the organs of the body need a certain period of rest to get rejuvenated in order to function efficiently. Deprivation of sleep for long intervals of time can throw a person completely out of gear, resulting in various adverse physiological and psychological effects.
Most people somehow manage to adjust their lifestyles in such a way that a day of hectic activity is followed by a peaceful night of restful sleep. Should their sleeping routine be affected, they manage to set apart some period of the day for this important physiological requirement. However, in certain persons working on shift duty, there is increasing evidence to show that the work pattern is dislocated to such an extent that their entire system gets totally upset. They may, of course, try to claim that they have adjusted to sleeping by day and working by night fairly well, but you can notice from the way they shout at the kids or throw stones at a barking dog that their body rhythm is in a mess. This category of persons, whose sleep routine is thrown out of gear, includes police personnel, firemen, sailors, pilots, stewardesses , factory workers, journalists, doctors and nurses working in hospitals.
Researchers who have been studying people who work shifts have come to the conclusion that they face a lot of problems that the rest of the world does not know about. Many shift workers were found to be aggressive at home and at work. They had trouble expressing themselves, and were almost inarticulate and uncoordinated. They had trouble focusing their eyes, and, their attention span was very short. Their health or sense of well-being was poor during night shifts.
As a result of the foregoing studies, scientists have concluded that shift work does indeed cause disruption. This is the reason why in some countries employers pay ‘penalty’ rates. However, employers as well as the workers themselves appear to have overlooked the most important factor in the whole issue—the health angle
The effect on health due to working in shifts is a slow one and it is very specific to that kind of work. This means it is not like other kinds of stress. It is specific to nervous disorders, which cause among other things, gastrointestinal disorders.
By monitoring the hormones, heart rate and temperature of shift workers, researchers have identified what they believe is the main factor that affects their health—circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are believed to be daily rhythms generated from within the body which persist even under constant or unchanging conditions of light, temperature and humidity. However, if a person happens to live and work in a topsy-turvy world where day is night and vice versa, as all shift workers would have to, the person’s brain may somehow accept the situation but the body would simply be not able to adjust itself to the strain. It is an unfortunate fact but, nevertheless, true that such people never get ‘adapted’. Since it is not possible to make people buy health by giving them more money, the question is what can one do about it? Researchers, having carried out studies for several years, have come out with a number of solutions and suggestions with emphasis on greater sleep, better nutrition and better condition for promoting good health.
Here are a few guidelines:
A) Because of fluctuation of body clock rhythms in the digestive system, food intake does change. If only junk food is available, that’s what the shift worker eats. Hence there is every need to monitor the intake of food, a shift- worker eats and provide him with healthy nutritious food.
B) There should be adequate facilities for showers, performing aerobic exercises and a changing area. For anyone working at night, there is a double benefit because in addition to promoting fitness, aerobic exercises can provide alertness by raising adrenalin levels when they are at their lowest.
C) There should be an effort to improve lighting patterns. Approaches to place of work, the corridors in between, as well as the place of work are important. Experiments have shown that important lighting can lessen depression,
D) At home, for sleeping during daytime it is desirable to have double-glazing, to reduce noise and assist with temperature control. Daytime temperatures are not suited to sleeping. A good air conditioner can serve the double purpose of lowering temperature and also providing a ‘white noise’ to mask other noises.
E) Shift workers also could do well to go in for a sleep programme incorporating relaxation techniques. In this programme a sleep diary is used and mental images are projected as a way of blocking out unpleasant thoughts. Similarly, it is desirable to learn stimulus control as a useful strategy. One should be taught to think of a bed as only for sleeping and not for reading, watching television or eating or even worrying. If sleep does not come in about ten minutes, one should get up and do something else. One should get back only when one feels sleepy
F) One should not use alcohol to enable one to sleep. It can be a factor in back problems (one moves and turns less naturally, during sleep). It can reduce oxygen intake and interfere with the quality of one’s sleep.
Finally according to scientists, a self-selection process must be introduced. If people really cannot stand shift work and they find that it is interfering with their physical and mental health, they should perhaps look for another job which is ideally suited to their physiological and psychological make-up. After all, what can be more precious and important than one’s own health?
Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a hysterical state when his own pangs of guilt, tormented him to such a degree that he found it impossible to catch a wink of sleep cried out in agony for getting:
” the innocent sleep
Sleep that knits up the ravel’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course
Chief nourisher in life’s feast”