Do you feel like you are working harder than ever but getting less done?
Does it feel like it takes more effort to complete work and life tasks, and your threshold for impatience or irritability is lower than usual?
The explanation may lie in the low-grade proliferation of stress affecting us while we are in lockdown. This chronic stress is one of the main drains to our productivity and connected to a critical brain function, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is tied to our psychological well-being.
Deep inside the brain, the hypothalamus receives input from the retina, hormone levels, and salt/water balance in the blood, as well as body temperature. One of its most important functions is to link the nervous system to the hormonal system via the pituitary gland, intensifying the brain–body connection both ways. The hypothalamus then sends information out to the body and has a role in the sleep/wake cycle along with the pineal gland, which releases melatonin as part of our body clock. The hypothalamus-pituitary axis also has a connection with the adrenal glands (which sense levels of threat in our lives and produces adrenaline and cortisol in response) and the thyroid gland (which impacts our metabolism, digestion, and the sexual organs).
Since these axes or loops are all interconnected, when cortisol levels stay high, this is why stress can impact our sleep, energy levels, metabolism, and libido, and lead to declining productivity levels, fatigue, weight gain, constipation, poor concentration, and even depression.
Many driven and successful people believe they thrive on stress, and operating with heightened adrenaline and cortisol is a given for anyone who wants to do well in life. They are highly likely to ignore their body’s signals that it is struggling to cope. Particularly at times of chronic stress, like when a pandemic leads to confinement, loss of job security, financial worries, homeschooling, or relationship issues, our adrenal glands continue to release increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol that is detrimental to our health—mental and physical. When you’re under constant stress, for example, and your brain and body are continually flooded with cortisol, this has a knock-on impact on white blood cells, which are our first line of defense in our immune systems. Essentially, your entire brain and body system is fighting harder just to regulate the basic functions essential to your survival. So add on top of that, an excess of virtual meetings, more household chores, industry uncertainty, and the management of workers with varied process-based or interpersonal concerns, you begin to see why the resources are diverted away from the higher functions of the brain and saved for our vital organs.
Once you understand the complex interconnectedness of these systems, it can alleviate some stress simply by offering an explanation for things like sleep disturbance, change of bowel routine, fluctuating menstrual cycles, loss of sex drive, and lack of productivity. The next step is to take action toward correcting these through targeted lifestyle behaviors such as regular good quality sleep, healthy diet, sufficient aerobic exercise and hydration, but primarily through general stress reduction wherever possible and recharging to recoup resilience.
This is where the benefits of meditation, yoga, mindful eating, and walking in nature, cannot be emphasized enough at this time.
A study by the University of Southern California and the University of California found that 58% of insomniac participants showed significant improvements in sleep quality with regular meditation. At the end of the study, 91% had been able to come off or reduce the dosage of their sleep medication. Women who practice yoga for 90 minutes twice a week have lower stress scores and serum cortisol levels than age-matched controls.
When working with type-A business people who are very dismissive of anything they consider “new age,” I always quote a study on the US Marines, which showed that those who practiced mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes each day had increased resilience after stressful combat training compared to those who did not.
A follow-up study looked at 320 Marines who were preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. Half the group were given an eight-week mindfulness course, including homework and training on interoception–the ability to accurately “read” the body’s signals. They were encouraged to develop better awareness of bodily sensations, such as a churning stomach, fast heart rate, and tingling of the skin. Part of the training involved simulated combat experiences with live-action scenarios in a false Afghan village, where actors played Afghans and real-life conflict situations were played out.
During and after this, a team of researchers monitored the blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing of the mindfulness-trained and non-mindfulness-trained Marines, and took note of their neurochemical reactions to stress. The mindfulness-trained group were calmer during and after the exercise, and reacted more quickly to threats when they appeared. The Marines’ brains were observed using MRI scans; the mindfulness-trained Marines had reduced stress-related activity patterns in regions of the brain responsible for integrating emotional reactivity, cognition, and interoception. In other words, building the brain-body connection gives exponential benefits both physically and mentally, and leads to unlocking productivity.
A few other studies show that meditating for as little as 12 minutes a day can make a huge difference to mental well-being. When people express resistance towards building a mindfulness practice into their lives, I understand the impracticality of some of the more time-consuming well-being activities. However, by incorporating just 15 minutes of your day to practice a few mental well-being activities, you will unleash productivity and reduce overall stress in your life.
Tara Swart is a a neuroscientist, executive adviser, author, and medical doctor. She is the author of The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain.