by Luke Elliott, MS, MD, FAAFP, MBA, Assistant Professor, Oakland University-William Beaumont School of Medicine
Our body at rest is in a homeostatic state, but when presented with a perceived physical or emotional threat, our body is able to react quickly. This reaction is called the “fight-or-flight” reaction, that is, we either stand our ground or run when faced with a dangerous situation.
The workplace can be filled with many “dangers,” which need a quick response. In the workplace we feel the pressure of processing more and more, and yet, at the same time, maintaining excellent quality. And, we are asked to accomplish these tasks in an environment where, at times, relationships are strained, and we have less autonomy in how we work. This can lead to prolonged emotional stress, producing negative short and long-term health consequences.
When we are presented with a dangerous situation, we need to react. The normal physiological process starts in our brain, spreads throughout the body with the release of glucocorticoid steroids, ending in an increased heart rate and shunting of blood supply to our muscles, enabling our body to ultimately fight or run away. The problem is our bodies were not designed to handle prolonged exposure to these glucocorticoid steroids.
Some of the short-term negative consequence to prolonged emotional stress can be dysfunction in higher cognitive abilities such as:
Also, our emotions are affected adversely as demonstrated in symptoms of:
- emotional liability
- racing thoughts
- feelings of being overwhelmed
We can even experience somatic symptoms such as headaches, chest pain, generalized body aches, nausea, diarrhea or constipation, increase or decreased appetite, somnolence or insomnia and decreased libido.
Some of the long-term negative consequences to prolonged emotional stress are the inability to accomplish normal work related tasks, relational dysfunctions, depression and even substance abuse. Moreover, elevated ambulatory blood pressures, increased coronary artery disease risk, higher rates of obesity and diabetes, impaired coagulation proteins, depressed immunological system, and worsening of certain skin diseases are further examples of what prolonged emotional stress can produce in our bodies.
The above negative consequence are made worse when we choose to consume tobacco, alcohol, high fatty foods, make other poor dietary choices and not get enough exercise and/or rest. So, what should we do to prevent these negative consequences?
There are many coping techniques, such as:
- limiting the use of sugar, caffeine and alcohol
- better eating habits
- getting enough sleep
- talking to a trusted friend or counselor
But, in my opinion, the key to the solution is found in our approach to these apparent “dangers” we find in the workplace. It is my opinion that what has happened in our culture is the decoupling of the concepts of “calling” and “vocation.” Historically, these concepts were synonymous. A “calling” is what is done for the love of God and mankind. A “vocation” is what is actually done, and in health care, what is done is the care of the sick. The key is re-linking our “calling” and our “vocation,” so that we can cope with the constant onslaught of work related “dangers.” It is in this inner strength that we replenish our bodies and avoid the short and long-term consequences of prolonged emotional stress discussed above.