The Brain: 6 Lessons for Handling Stress

Take a deep breath. Now exhale slowly. You've just taken the first step toward managing stress and avoiding burnout

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Photograph for TIME by Eric Tucker

Take a deep breath. Now exhale slowly. You're probably not aware of it, but your heart has just slowed down a bit. Not to worry; it will speed up again when you inhale. This regular-irregular beat is a sign of a healthy interaction between heart and head. Each time you exhale, your brain sends a signal down the vagus nerve to slow the cardiac muscle. With each inhale, the signal gets weaker and your heart revs up. Inhale, beat faster. Exhale, beat slower. It's an ancient rhythm that helps your heart last a lifetime. And it leads to lesson No. 1 in how to manage stress and avoid burnout.

NO. 1


EVOLUTION HAS BEQUEATHED TO OUR BRAINS A variety of mechanisms for handling the ups and downs of life--from built-in chemical circuit breakers that shut off the stress hormones to entire networks of nerves whose only job is to calm you down. The problem, in the context of our always wired, always on-call world, is that they all require that you take regular breaks from your normal routine--and not just an occasional weekend trip. You can try to ignore the biological need to periodically disengage, but there's growing evidence that it will eventually catch up with you. Insurance claims for stress, depression and job burnout are now the U.S.'s fastest-growing disability category.

Making matters worse, Americans tend to cope with stress in all the wrong ways. A November survey by the advocacy group Mental Health America found that we frequently deal with chronic stress by watching television, skipping exercise and forgoing healthy foods. The problem with these coping mechanisms is that they keep you from doing things that help buffer your stress load--like exercising or relaxing with friends or family--or add greater stress to your body. Indeed, using many of our most cherished time-saving gadgets can backfire. Cell phones and mobile e-mail devices--to give just two examples--make it harder to get away from the office to decompress. Working from home may, in some cases, exacerbate the situation because it isolates employees while simultaneously blurring the line between work and leisure.

We also have a lot of misconceptions about who gets stressed out and why. Twenty years ago, psychologists almost exclusively blamed job stress on high workloads or lack of control on the job. More recent studies, says Christina Maslach, a pioneer in burnout research at the University of California, Berkeley, show that unfairness and a mismatch in values between employees and their companies play an increasing role in triggering stress. "Probably one of the strongest predictors is when there's a vacuum of information--silence about why decisions were made the way they were," Maslach says. "Another is having to operate in conflict with your values. Do you need to shade the truth to get authorization from the insurance company? Are you selling things that you know people don't really need?"

NO. 2


FOR YEARS PSYCHOLOGISTS HAVE concentrated on the behavioral symptoms of burnout: lost energy, lost enthusiasm and lost confidence. Now, thanks to new brain scans and more sophisticated blood tests, scientists can directly measure some of the effects of stress on mind and body--often with surprising results.

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