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MSU Denver is the first University in the nation to offer a lifestyle medicine minor, which will launch in fall 2018, and cover topics such as stress. Photo by Mark Stahl

Your job is literally killing you

How stress at work is taking years off our lives and what we can do to find inner-calm in our cubicles.

February 15, 2018

By Daniel J Vaccaro

You know the feeling. It’s Monday at 9:30 a.m. and you’re already behind. The emails are piling up. Your to-do list just leapt to a second page. You have that presentation tomorrow (sweaty palms). And on top of it all, your boss just came by the cubicle to ask if you could take on an additional project.

You smiled and said “of course.” But in your mind, you were thinking, “This job is killing me.”

And the sad truth is – that may more accurate than you realize.

“It’s estimated that 75 percent of doctor's office visits in the United States are for stress-related ailments,” says Dr. Michelle Tollefson, a physician specializing in lifestyle medicine and an associate professor of health professions at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

And the No. 1 cause of stress? You guessed it.

Job pressure.

That is according to a 2014 study from the American Psychological Association – and almost every conversation you’ve had about work with a friend and family member in the last year. Seriously, when is the last time you heard someone talking about how relaxed they were at work (Yoga instructors, notwithstanding)?

Looking at the list of health issues that have been linked to stress can be – stressful. Heart disease, high blood pressure and headaches are those you hear about most often. But gastrointestinal issues, sleep dysfunction, diabetes and even obesity have been linked to chronic stress.

Here’s the good news: There are some simple things you can do to stave off illness by finding inner-calm in your cube.

Dr. Michelle Tollefson says you can mitigate the negative health impacts linked to stress with some simple techniques, including a simple form of meditation.

Reframing stress

Tollefson has been studying and teaching about stress for a decade, and recently developed the first minor in lifestyle medicine at any university in the United States. She says her students are amazed (and often put off) by the number of health issues linked to stress, but she is careful to emphasize that not all stress is bad.

There is an important distinction to be made between “acute” and “chronic” stress.

“Acute or short-term stress can actually be a good thing because it helps the body prepare for action,” she says. “The body is actually beautifully designed to deal with it. But long-term, chronic stress is where you start getting into danger.”

Here’s another way to think about it: Stress is a survival mechanism. When our ancestors came face to face with a tiger, for example, a surge of stress hormones would prepare them for fight or flight. Their hearts would pound, muscles would twitch and they’d be on high alert. Most of us aren’t running into tigers in the office, but it turns out a last-minute request from the boss produces the same effect. The accompanying energy burst and sense of focus can be extremely helpful when you’re hustling to fill that request.

But when we can’t come down from that fight-or-flight response for days, weeks or even years, it takes a toll on our bodies.

MSU Denver is the first University in the nation to offer a lifestyle medicine minor, which will launch in fall 2018, and cover topics such as stress.

Assembling a stress toolbox

For people who have trouble de-stressing, there are several techniques that can help.

Tollefson has had most success with two, which fall at opposite ends of the spectrum – inducing a relaxation response and partaking in short activity bursts.

The term “relaxation response” was coined by Harvard professor Dr. Herbert Benson and is a way to bring the body back to pre-stress levels. If you’ve done any form of meditation, you’ll know the drill. The idea is to find a quiet space, close your eyes and take a series of deep breaths. On each exhale, repeat a word that evokes calm, such as “peace.” Tollefson says that as little as 10 minutes of intentional breathing can make a big difference in slowing down heart rate and lowering blood pressure.

If you’re someone who has given up on quieting your mind, then try the opposite – the short activity burst.

As any regular at the gym knows, exercise has a major impact on mood. The same is true for alleviating stress. And yet we spend most of our workdays glued to chairs, a sneaky sedentary lifestyle that actually compounds stress.

Tollefson recommends any kind of physical activity, even just getting up and walking around the office. Skip the elevator and take the stairs. Choose a lunch spot that forces you to walk farther. Stretch in the break room. Five minutes of any type of movement can help you get back to baseline.

“Stress is here to stay,” she says. “The key is figuring out how to recognize it and developing a toolbox of techniques to help calm down. Our health depends on it.”