Harvard Business Review: Battling the Physical Symptoms of Stress

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HBR Staff 
by Parneet Pal

Steve should have been celebrating. A 30-something entrepreneur in the Bay area, he had just closed a multi-million dollar round of Series A financing for his startup.

Instead, he found himself in his doctor’s office – 25 pounds overweight, physically exhausted, sleep-deprived and with a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. This news only aggravated the anxiety and disconnect he had been feeling for months.

Steve was burned out. It’s called “burnout” for good reason — at the cellular level, our bodies are literally inflamed.

This doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a chronic condition that’s a direct response to our 24/7 “always on” work cultures – which, combined with a climate of economic uncertainty, make for a perfect storm in our physiology.

Our stress response system evolved to protect us from danger. However, it cannot distinguish between a saber-toothed tiger in the wild and a harsh email. Each time one of our three primal survival needs are not met – for safety (e.g. a company downsizing), reward (e.g. poor performance feedback) and connection (e.g. working on a team with a cut-throat “each to his own” philosophy), the “fight or flight” stress team of biochemical reactions in the body kicks into gear.

Over time, the effects of chronic stress are insidious, reflected in our lifestyle choices: we toss and turn each night struggling to sleep; use caffeine to jolt us into alertness in the morning; confront mid-afternoon slumps with a cookie or soda; and then numb and soothe ourselves at night with junk food, alcohol, social media, or medication. We wear our “crazy busy” badge of honor with pride, while sacrificing prime time with family and friends in order to keep pace with the demands at work.
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In the body, all kinds of stress lead to one destination: inflammation – that “fire” in our cells. Inflammation is simply the body’s protective immune response to any kind of toxin or injury. Think of how your skin recovers from a cut, for example – there may be swelling and redness followed by scab formation and, finally, healing.

When our life spins out of control, we turn on genes that cause chronic inflammation, the root cause of the largest global health epidemic of our time: lifestyle-related chronic disease (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression, anxiety and others).

In the U.S., three out of four of us will suffer from at least one chronic disease in our lifetimes. Collectively, those diseases account for more than 86% of our healthcare costs. Stress in the workplace costs the U.S. economy upwards of 300 billion dollars per year with up to a 190 billion dollar healthcare spend. And despite the popularity of social media, loneliness and social isolation are on the rise, with one in four Americans reporting they do not have even one person to discuss important matters with.

How can productivity, creativity, and innovation thrive under such circumstances? While there are many systemic issues that need to be addressed, there is something we all can do to start taking better care of ourselves. The path to inflammation and chronic disease, fortunately, is not a one-way street. We can reverse overwhelm and build resilience.

Enter the power of lifestyle and epigenetics.

Epigenetics (“above” or “beyond” genetics) studies the influence of our environment on gene expression. At any given moment, a gene — such as one associated with inflammation — may either be active and turned “on” or inactive and turned “off.” Our lifestyle — what we eat, how we move, how much we sleep and how mindful we are — acts like a powerful dimmer switch.

Resilience is our ability to adapt successfully in the face of stress and adversity. The very essence of epigenetics is adaptability — our DNA does not change, but its expression is dynamic and malleable. In fact, up to 80-90% of chronic disease is completely preventable and sometimes reversible, when we pay attention to the lifestyle choices we make each day.

Where to start?

  • Pick a habit — a keystone habit — and make it stick. A keystone habit is a change that often triggers other good changes, because it alters how you see yourself. (For example, starting an exercise routine first thing in the morning is a keystone habit that can positively affect the choices you make the rest of the day.) Ask yourself: What are my core values? What lifestyle habit will help me embody those values and become the kind of person I want to be?
  • Surround yourself with like-minded people. Sticking to a new lifestyle habit is easier, more fun and effective when we do it with others. This social support is a bonus independent factor helping us live longer and healthier lives.
  • When you stumble (and you will stumble), pick yourself up with compassion. Life will get in the way of your new habit – it’s inevitable. But there is now overwhelming evidence that being kind to yourself, treating yourself as you would your best friend, is more motivating than being self-critical.

Steve identified his core value as “creating impact.” He wanted his product to help change the world for the better. To do that, he knew he had to stay calm and take better care of himself on the entrepreneurial rollercoaster. Mindfulness became his keystone habit. He started with just five minutes of practice a day and switched his weekly happy hour at the local bar to an hour of socialization with a local mindfulness group. As his practice grew, it became easier for him to eat mindfully and make better food choices. His energy levels and sleep improved. This in turn, helped him stay focused under pressure and make better business decisions.

With a little help from epigenetics, he was on his way to a more resilient lifestyle.

This article was originally published in Harvard Business Review.

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Parneet Pal

Parneet Pal, MBBS, MS is a Harvard- and Columbia-trained physician on a mission to create a compassionate society where health is the default. She moved away from clinical practice to focus on chronic disease prevention. She also provides lifestyle-as-medicine consulting to academic organizations, business and individuals. Follow her on Twitter @parneet_pal.

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