Question: when did you last feel anxious, panicked or under stress? Maybe you've tried a little extreme sport. Bungee jumping, hang gliding, white water rafting? Or perhaps a hair-raising roller coaster ride? Or what about an unexpected incident? A near miss on the motorway? A stolen laptop? Or that feeling, before, during and after a job interview?
What physical symptoms did you experience? Increased breathing, tense muscles, heart racing, dry mouth, butterflies in the stomach...
'Fight or flight' in the techno-age
These symptoms are all physical manifestations of the 'fight or flight' response, a perfectly natural reaction, activated without conscious thought, the purpose of which is to get us to take appropriate action in a perceived dangerous situation. In Neolithic times, when danger meant a wild animal or marauding army, such a physiological reaction was wholly appropriate; our options would have been limited to physical defence or personal protection.
But in the twenty first century, our perceived dangers are likely to be the self-afflicted (bungee jumping) or emotional in nature - meeting a tight deadline, a system crash, making a presentation. While our bodies can cope with the odd adrenaline arousing incident, sustained pressure, too much for too long, takes the body beyond the ability to function effectively. As we can't run away from these mental challenges, or fight them, there is no natural outlet for the hormonal and other physical changes that course through our bodies. Hormone levels remain elevated and physiological change, which is designed as a short term response, persists, preventing the body from returning to its normal state and taking its toll on our health.
Chronic pressure can increase the production of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline which lead to fatty deposits building in the arteries and increased blood pressure. Stress has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and a suppressed immune system, leaving us susceptible to viruses, infection and disease. And even in the shorter term, heavy daily demands make us more vulnerable to relying on short term fixes (caffeine, alcohol, junk food - which pack their own punch when it comes to health) rather than taking long term action to deal with the causes and build resilience.
Twenty first century stresses, twenty first century antidotes
Now we know very well what constitutes best practice as far as health is concerned. But the human psyche often does not find it easy to translate theory into personal practise. We all have our own 'pressure relieving' mechanisms, upon which, we typically rely. More often than not, they're the ones that aren't good for us; we know we shouldn't but...
Now and again we need a wake-up call, a motivator or a deterrent to help us make behavioural change. That time has come.
Building physical resilience: getting fit for the busy season
Whenever your 'busy' season falls, January/February, later in the year or right now, it's never too late to start building your physical resilience. We all need incentivising to make real, lasting lifestyle change. We know it's not easy, and linking good health practice to surviving and thriving at work, might just give you that extra boost to sustain your commitment.
Four steps to physical resilience
1) You are what you eat
When the going gets tough and the hours are long, it's tempting to skip balanced nutritious meals and rely on quick fixes like sugary snacks and fatty takeaways. Short term, poor nutrition can contribute to stress, tiredness and our capacity to concentrate. Longer term, risks include obesity, type-2 diabetes, depression and some cancers.
Need an incentive? Good habits breed better habits. Succumbing to the quick fix of sugar and fats has been likened to addiction. The more you have the more you want. We are wired for survival, so our base instinct is to go for the (tastiest) foods highest in calories. Break the cycle and it starts to become much easier to make healthier choices.
Take action: you know the drill. You need protein and fats for cell repair and renewal, muscle mass, hormone and enzyme production and a well functioning immune system. Vitamin and minerals balance bodily fluids, carry oxygen, clot blood and strengthen bones. Carbs (preferably slow release from whole grains) provide energy. Plan ahead so you don't get seduced by quick snacks on the run; order online for supermarket home deliveries; stock up on highly nutritiously long life foods and exercise moderation and balance when eating out.
2) Exercise: less can be more
The benefits of exercise are well documented - flexibility and mobility, muscle tone and strength, cardiac health, as well as relaxation and mental acuity. And, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, exercise can actually improve your energy levels. Our biggest obstacle is finding the time to do it.
Need an incentive? Physical activity stimulates brain chemicals, boosting your mood and feeling of wellbeing, which in turn can improve confidence and self-esteem.
Take action: if you are working long hours, you can still get all the health benefits by incorporating HIIT into your schedule. High-intensity interval training can take as little as 10 minutes a session, 2-3 times per week. Research has suggested that a short blast of HIIT can boost metabolism for the entire day, more effectively than an hour long, steady workout. To start, get some expert coaching to ensure that you operate in the super zone of intensity, but once trained you will have the flexibility to enjoy the benefits of exercise on even the busiest of days.
3) Water: are you getting enough?
Water is actually even more important for survival than food. You could probably go without food for a month but you wouldn't manage a week without water. Dehydration reduces the amount of blood in your body, forcing your heart to pump harder to deliver oxygen-bearing cells to muscles. Mild dehydration is very common; you might feel light headed, irritable and headachy, as well as lacking in energy.
Need an incentive? Did you know that drinking water is linked to improved mental performance? A recent study found those taking a bottle of water into an exam scored between 5-10% higher than those without. It seems that water consumption may help alleviate anxiety as well having a physiological effect on the thinking functions.
Take action: aim for 1.5 to 2 litres of fluids a day. It sounds a lot but you will get a fair amount from eating your five portions fruit and vegetables too. Tea, coffee and juices all count towards your fluid target but pure water, which has no downside, should make up the biggest proportion.
4) Sleep, the hygiene factor
You may have been striving to get your 6 to 8 hours a night, but did you know that quality is as important as quantity where sleep is concerned? A good night's sleep comprises 4-5 periods of deep sleep alternated with 4-5 periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Beware of anything that interferes with this vital restorative cycle, particularly stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and sugary snacks. While alcohol will promote the onset of sleep, it disrupts the cycle. As the alcohol starts to wear off, your body comes out of deep sleep and back into REM sleep, which is much easier to wake from - a recipe for a restless night.
Need an incentive? REM sleep, our dreaming sleep, involves a process called consolidation which is vital to learning and memory. The quality of your sleep directly determines the quality of your waking well being, influencing mental sharpness, productivity, emotional health and creativity and energy levels.
Take action: often termed sleep hygiene, the first rule is to establish a routine and stick to it. This means a set bed time and curtailing those 'lie-ins' at the weekend. If you can't naturally wake to daylight in the winter, consider using a body clock dawn simulator - it mimics sunrise, waking you up naturally. The gradual increase in light prompts biological responses that make you feel more energetic and alert upon wakening.
For the best night's rest, banish digital devices from the bedroom; that is anything that has the potential to disturb or distract you from sleep. A bit harsh, this one, but the research is convincing. Sleeping soundly depends on a delicate mix of reduced light which stimulates the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, a reduction in body temperature and a gradual relaxation of mind and body which allows the nervous system to switch off. Mobiles phones and devices of all persuasions interfere with each of these crucial steps. Light from the screen can reduce melatonin, while the radiation from digital signals will extend the time it takes to achieve relaxation and reduce quality sleeping time.
Fighting fit and raring to go
In parts 1 and 2 of The Resilient Auditor, we discussed how resilience helps us survive and thrive, cope with heavy demands and thorny challenges and persist in the face of setback. Investing in your physical health and fitness is the foundation stone to building your resilience toolkit. Small changes really can make a big difference. Even by choosing just one of the action areas to work on, you will be making a real contribution to building your resilient core.
If you'd like signposting to further resources, you can email me and request 'Building a Resilient Body'. In the meantime, I look forward to you joining us next month for the second part of getting ready for the busy season when we'll take a look at preventing and managing stress.
Carol McLachlan FCA
Carol McLachlan, theaccountantscoach, is a qualified accountant, NLP Practitioner and professionally qualified coach. Her 18 year career at Ernst and Young in Audit and Assurance as a client handler and as Director of Resources has equipped her with a real understanding of the professional and personal issues that auditors face.
As theaccountantscoach she works in partnership with individuals and organisations - quite simply - helping them to be the very best they can be. She has helped accountants and auditors move from employment to entrepreneurial pursuits, prepare for their next promotion, become inspiring leaders and engaging presenters and manage their work life balance. Carol writes and lectures extensively on a wide range of professional development topics and is currently researching 'CPD in accountancy' for her master's degree.
For the agony aunt service on career issues, contact Carol here