Don’t worry about bird flu. The killer bug stalking the corridors and cubicles of the modern workplace is stress.
But what is stress exactly and how does it manifest?
Stress can result from anything that annoys, threatens, prods, excites, scares, worries, criticises, angers, challenges, hurries or frustrates one, or reduces self-esteem. A wide range of stimuli indeed, many of which we are exposed to during the course of a working day.
Ultimately, the danger of stress is that, at its most severe, it undermines decision making, which can have seriously detrimental consequences.
How stress manifests itself
Stress may manifest in a variety of ways. Physically, those under stress experience frequent headaches, high cholesterol, tightness in the neck and shoulders, general muscle and back ailments, a pounding heart, chest pains, high blood pressure, stomach or digestive discomfort, fatigue and frequent colds, flu or other illnesses.
Stress also has emotional manifestations, such as feelings of extreme sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, negative thoughts, anger and resentment, irritability and forgetfulness.
Behavioral problems relating to stress include extremes in eating, sleeping, spending, an increased use of alcohol or medication and chemical stimulants, hurting others and withdrawal from family, friends and life.
Stress has been linked to cancer, heart attacks, a weakening of the immune system, high blood pressure, migraines, blood clots, back pain, muscle deterioration, digestive disorders, spousal abuse, child abuse and violent behaviour.
"From the common cold to cancer, every illness known to humans typically begins with a breakdown in immunity," declares a report by the Health News Network.
With the prevalence of stress in the hectic work environments of today, how does one fight back?
Researchers have pegged stress resistance to a single quality: resilience. An investigation by the Wall Street Journal into mitigation of stress claims: “People who handle stress well recover quickly, physically and mentally when confronted by it.”
A study by the University of Chicago of over 670 managers found that leaders who faced stress with a positive attitude of challenge, commitment and control, remained much healthier than did their pessimistic counterparts.
Another reported study showed that patients who received a four-month stress-management course had a 74% reduction in the risk of heart attack or need for surgery, compared to routine care.
A 35-year study at Harvard University has found that a positive attitude can slow down the ageing process. Optimists suffered far less from chronic degenerative disorders and lived longer, healthier lives than pessimistic peers.
Also examining this phenomenon, The Independent newspaper in Britain reported that "breakthroughs in the neurosciences are bringing about a paradigm shift in how we understand the relationship between the mind and the body".
Breath and meditation
Chris Loker, MD of Moksha Yoga Enterprises, has developed a unique programme on stress management in the workplace, using techniques derived from the ancient Indian art of yoga.
Loker’s methods use his business background and combine meditation, breathing and physical exercises – contemporary applications of yogic teachings gaining currency today not only in India, but worldwide.
Conscious breath work is at the centre of Loker's approach. "During meditation, breathing slows, blood pressure decreases, and stress hormone levels fall. Oxygen consumption falls almost twice as much as during sleep. The effect is immediate,” Loker says.
Some studies have even found that meditation is more refreshing and energising than a deep sleep, with half an hour of meditation being equivalent to three to four hours of sleep.
A study from the University of Kentucky, for example, found that meditation could offset the sluggishness of sleep deprivation better than a nap. Researchers tested volunteers on a button-pressing speed task and found that even novice meditators improved their performance more after 40 minutes of meditation than after a 40-minute nap.
Meditators, Loker says, are better able to deal with life's challenges and crises. They are calmer, more centred and less vehemently aroused by stress.
The benefits of yoga
Loker contends that, “yoga offers practical tools to short-circuit the stress reflex.” The Harvard Medical School has documented that the benefits of yoga include a reduction in blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol and blood sugar.
Dr Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and a Harvard Medical School associate professor, has studied the body's “relaxation response” for nearly 40 years. He says that scientists now understand this phenomenon in ever more advanced scientific terms.
In recent years, academic researchers seeking to turn anecdotes into hard data have suggested that meditation may provide a broad array of benefits, from lifting depression to relieving pain to fighting flu.
Research on meditation now includes many scientific studies examining its possible benefits, as demonstrated by a Society for Neuroscience meeting held recently in Washington.
“The relaxation response also boosts the immune system,” Loker says. “Yoga is about learning to breath properly by being aware and in control of the breathing process (which is meditation). In so doing, we exercise greater control over the mind, which in turn allows us not to react to stressors. Instead it moderates the reaction by objectively accessing the impacts thereof.”
(Moksha Yoga Enterprises, updated March 2012)