Want to be smart? Go slow!

In my previous blog, ‘How stress is wearing us down and what to do about it’ I briefly discussed the effects of stress on our body, making stress a high risk factor for diseases like metabolic syndrome, depression and cardiovascular diseases. Prolonged stress will create a ‘new normal’ causing wear and tear on our organs, but research has also shown that prolonged stress has a negative effect on our brain.

If you are like me, and procrastination is your middle name too, I have to tell you that we are paying dearly for this habit. Sending yourself into a frenzy and hoping that the heightened stress levels will help you come up with brilliant ideas might work occasionally. But if you are constantly are under stress because of your interesting planning, or indeed due to unfortunate factors outside your control, this prolonged stress has a negative influence not only on your mental well-being, but also on your cognition and the speed you can process information. Basically brain functions which are ever so welcome in times of stress, are lessened by stress.

Most research has been done with work related stress, and the studies show that a high stress job in combination with a work environment in which you have low control influences your cognitive functioning and memory . And the effects of stress in the workplace are not short term. This negative effect on our brain lasts well into the years that you were about to enjoy your well-earned retirement.

Are you stressed or rushed?
As mentioned in my previous blog, the way we perceive stress influences the severity of the stress and its negative influence. Interestingly, one of the first studies into stress and the effect on cognition was done in 1981 and two questions were asked during this study, ‘How often do you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work’, and: ‘How often do you feel rushed at work’.
The study showed a strong correlation between the two questions, which was so significant, that these two questions were used in many studies afterwards to determine the work stress. You see, feeling stressed and feeling rushed felt strongly alike. So even if your workload is managable, if you are surrounded by people who constantly work as if this is the last day of their life (…) you automatically become rushed and stressed as well. If you have a manager who loves to look busy and rushes through your one-on-ones, it can make you feel more stressed than your workload warrants. Working in a modern open plan office is not really helping either. Having a view of people looking busy will increase your feelings of ‘being rushed’, thus increasing your stress levels and lowering your ability to function optimally.

Create your own tranquillity in 5 steps
It is not easy to change your office environment, or office culture. But you can make small changes yourself in order to feel less rushed.

1. Have breakfast, and take your time to eat it. Having breakfast allows for steady bloodsugar levels, preventing you to feel ‘hangry’, and gives you long lasting energy well into the morning.

2. If you work in an open plan office and the culture is to eat at your desk (which is also very unhygienic since your desk has more bacteria than a toilet seat..) make it a habit to have your lunch outside. You are entitled to your break and you should take it.

3. Take time to make lunch or have a healthy take away. Leftovers from your meal the night before, fresh salads and vegetables with healthy protein (lean meat, fish or legumes) and non – processed carbs are the way to go. If you go for take away, be aware of the ‘packaging’, so ask for the whole meal wraps, sandwich or brown rice. Ask for the sauce to go on the side.

4. Take a couple of breaths before starting to eat. This will slow down your heart rate. Eating your meal while you are rushed puts you in a ‘flight or fight’ mode. Your body is geared up to sprint away instead of getting all your organs ready to produce the right enzymes to digest your food.

5. Do not mindlessly snack away behind your desk while feeling rushed, no matter how healthy your snacks are. Again, this ‘flight or fight’ mode you are in while mindlessly snacking away is not doing anything for your digestion. If you need a break or you feel a bit peckish, take your snack and move away from your desk. 5 Minutes away from your desk is not that long, but it is long enough to re-charge yourself.

So looking after yourself is also going your own pace. And believe it or not, going slower may actually improve the quality of your work!