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Can Work Stress Be Good for You?

A little stressed at work? Find out why a certain level of stress is good for you and what to do when it gets to be too much.

Woman sitting in office writing in her notebook and holding her head in concentration.

Work stress is a normal part of having a job. In small, reasonable amounts, it can help you become a better thinker and a more motivated worker. 

However, a workplace survey reveals 51% of Malaysian workers are stressed out to the point of burnout. The survey also lists the negative effects of workplace stress, such as poor sleep and musculoskeletal pain, among other health issues. 

How can you tell the difference between good and bad work stress, prevent burnout and embrace balance? Read on to find out. 

The Physiology of Stress 

Have you ever felt a twinge in your stomach when a new project lands on your desk? That’s your body doing its job. Your brain senses a stress stimulus and tells your sympathetic nervous system to get ready for the challenge.

Research finds that this temporary stress is not only manageable — it also makes us stronger and smarter.

Chronic stress has the opposite effect. You may experience this when you keep getting assigned new projects without enough time to do the work. As the pressure gets heavier, your cognitive ability suffers, and you begin developing health issues.

When an Imbalance Doesn’t Get Corrected 

Like Western medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recognises the body’s response to stress. The foundational tenet of TCM is to maintain qi (vital life force) and its optimal flow. This can help you handle pressure. A prolonged imbalance of qi, like chronic stress, creates disharmonies in the body that surface as illnesses. 

Chronic stress causes Liver Qi Stagnation, which leads to Spleen Deficiency. Symptoms include anxiety, mood swings, irregular menstruation, low self-esteem, fatigue, and poor sleep. Circulation in the stomach is also impaired, which manifests in digestive issues. 

Tricks to Keep Stress Manageable

Three pieces of paper with the words “break”, “tasks”, and “down” handwritten on them next to a pair of scissors against a red background.
Dividing a big project into smaller tasks is a proven way to manage work stress. 

What does stress management look like in practice? Here are a few effective tips

Feed and feel

There are two F’s: Feed (feeding) and Feel (feeling) in dealing with stress. Feed is allowing yourself to tackle low-level challenges before actual pressure comes, and then gradually increase the intensity of the challenges. 

Feel refers to feelings and introspecting your hidden emotions in order to understand the source of your fear. The idea is to try analysing the underlying logic of each emotion to understand it and eventually unlock stress.

Break large tasks into smaller tasks 

Thinking about a project in its entirety can get overwhelming. Instead, tackle what needs to be done step by step. Breaking your work down into simpler, smaller chunks will make it feel less daunting and allow you to focus on what you can control at the moment. 

Take breaks (and don’t “cheat”) 

Viewing your workload as a series of smaller tasks also means you get to take breaks. 

Here’s how to destress between tasks: 

  • Look up from your computer screen every 20 minutes or so. 
  • Close your eyes or look out the window and take some deep breaths to relax your body. 
  • Take a moment to chat with a friend or loved one. 
  • Read or watch something funny for a few minutes. Smiling and laughing are great stress relievers. 

When you take breaks, you protect yourself from getting consumed by your work every second of the day. This is where boundaries come in – close your office door, switch off notifications when you’re having a meal, and so on. 

Get Your Body to Handle Stress Better with TCM 

TCM practices in stress management can be captured in this saying: “prevention is better than cure”. A balanced body is harder to knock about. At the very least, it bounces back more quickly, even when under pressure.

Herbs 

Herbs contain compounds that help your body modulate its stress responses and reduce cortisol levels before they get too high. Research shows TCM herbs such as Radix Bupleuri (chai hu, 柴胡) are effective for these purposes.

Other herbs like rosebud (mei gui hua, 玫瑰花), lily bulb (bai he, 百合), and longan fruit (long yan rou, 龙眼肉) have a calming effect on stress.

Making and drinking a tea like Ba Bao Hua with ingredients such as hawthorn, jasmine, rose and chrysanthemum reduces stress, maintains healthy blood pressure, and calms emotions. Work with a TCM physician to determine the best combination for you

Acupuncture and acupressure 

Acupuncture is another method of combatting the effects of chronic stress. If you require a more immediate solution while you wait for your acupuncture appointment, try acupressure at home. 

Using your finger or a blunt object, apply pressure on these points for about three to five minutes at a time: 

  • Nei guan (PC6, 内关) 
  • Yin tang (EX HN3, 印堂) 
  • Feng chi (GB20, 风池

Feeling a certain level of work stress is a sign that you’re facing a challenge. This means you’re growing and developing with a sense of purpose – which is a great thing. The key is to manage this stress before it becomes more serious, and ultimately, results in burnout.

Did you have a stressful day at work today? Tell us how you dealt with it below! 

This is an adaptation of the article “让压力来助我一臂之力”, which first appeared on the Health123 website.

References

  1. HumanResourcesOnline.net. 2019.. [online] [Accessed 14 February 2023]  
  2. Psychiatry Research. 2022. Is perceived stress linked to enhanced cognitive functioning and reduced risk for psychopathology? Testing the hormesis hypothesis. [online] [Accessed 14 February 2023]  
  3. The Science of Stress. 2022. The Science of Stress. [online] [Accessed 14 February 2023] 
  4. Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine. 2021. Advances in Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with Chinese Medicine. [online] [Accessed 14 February 2023] 

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