When she returned to work after a serious burnout, Ani Wilson started to see her colleagues in a different light. She could spot the signs of their extreme stress levels a mile away – the same signs that had plagued her until an episode of not being able to leave her bed forced her to stop and take stock.
With a fresh insight on the perils of extreme pressure, she chose not to re-join the corporate rat race, and instead went on to retrain in neurological science in order to help managers, leaders and execs avoid the dangers of the chronic stress cycle. These days, Ani works as a stress mastery coach and leadership consultant, and helps frazzled professionals around the world.
With a focus on teaching achievable steps and evidence-based 'brain hacks', here she shares some insights and tips for putting the brakes on the stress express.
How information overload can affect you
Despite all our knowledge on the dangers of high cortisol levels, the trend towards meditation and wellness, and the flood of information available to us about how to ease the pressure, we're still more stressed than ever.
So what's going on? Ani believes it's not just our addiction to our phones or an inability to say 'no' that's the problem, but our brain's processes simply struggling to cope in the world we now live in.
"We all have about 80,000 thoughts a day, and 90 per cent of those are your subconscious thoughts like habits and emotions, which are generally the same as yesterday," she explains.
"So we only have about 7000 unique thoughts a day. In 1952, the average worker was processing about two newspapers' worth of information a day, but if you fast forward to 2018, that number is now estimated to be 176 newspapers' worth of data. That's using the same number of unique thoughts – and that's just the tip of the iceberg."
How interaction can help us
Another key factor in our rising stress problem is a lack of support networks, which can be a major issue in many workplaces. If you're a worker bee in the trenches, you probably know the struggle, but Ani says it's a problem that affects the top managers too.
"In our corner of the world, a lot of executives have a short tenure with a company, so they feel they have to burst in and be cutthroat, and other people in the business can fear them as they are so far removed from everyone else," she explains.
But not only is this unpleasant for all involved, it also means we miss out on a vital way of connecting that most of us aren't even aware of.
"When you talk to someone face to face, start to get to know them and ask them questions about themselves, their heart rate will come into line with your heart rate," she explains.
"It's an amazing thing called 'heart resonance', and it happens when people start to feel a humanistic connection with each other. It greatly reduces stress, and it also impacts on our brain wave state, moving the brain wave patterns from beta, to [calmer] alpha. The same thing happens when we are around animals."
Tired yet wide awake: the new normal
We already know that the human brain is spectacularly complex, so with this in mind, a 'one size fits all' approach to busting stress is impossible. But rather than it just being a matter of whether you prefer to wind down with an exercise session or a good book, Ani's work goes deeper into the inner wirings of our grey matter.
"A high performer may have spent 20 years training their frontal lobe, the reward centre of the brain, to expect to achieve," she says. "The brain has physically trained itself to expect reward, and it has become stronger in certain areas, often at the detriment of other areas. So just telling a person like that to simply chill out and go on holiday is often just putting them on a faster track to burnout highway."
For the people that find a tranquil getaway almost impossible, Ani recommends the seemingly counterintuitive step of taking some work away on holiday – but limiting the time spent in work mode to one hour a day.
That way, there is still a sense of achievement, alongside the relaxation and change of scenery. She says teaching the brain to see the wonder in the small things, like a butterfly that crosses your path, is one of the ways to help ease a goal-driven mindset and encourage neural activity in areas of the grey matter that may be underutilised.
According to the life coach, the common pattern of constantly using the same parts of our brain can lead to a mental rut, or a 'groundhog day' way of thinking. And while becoming a master at something might sound like your ticket to easy street, it can actually be a bad thing as far as our brain activity and hormones are concerned.
"If you're rewarded for an achievement, you go out of your way to find new achievements because every time you reach a goal that is important to you, your brain 'celebrates' by flooding you with amazing feel-good chemicals," she explains. "Over time you search it out more and more, but the effect of those chemicals goes down. This isn't a good thing.
"Eventually, the hippocampus in the brain knows it's no longer interested in flooding you with excitement chemicals, but it doesn't know how to turn off. This can start to have a negative impact on the adrenal glands, you have less [feel-good hormone] serotonin, stress hormone cortisol goes through the roof, and melatonin production suffers and you start to have issues sleeping."
Spotting the warning signs of stress and burn out in yourself
While everyone is affected by stress differently, and some people get to the 'pressure overload' point faster than others, there is a key sign of impending burnout that's the same for almost everybody.
"Burnout is where you get to the point where you become mechanical about everything, you have no emotion whatsoever, other than wanting to cry," Ani says. "You just can't turn that emotion on – you can't laugh – and you get to the stage where you're utterly exhausted but you cannot sleep."
She points out that for many of us, stress is a good thing. But chronic stress is when it turns bad.
If the warning signs are there, the first thing Ani advises is to work on getting a better sleep. This is often a case of going back to the basics like not using devices before bed, taking
a warm bath in the evening, and having tryptophan-rich foods like warm cow's milk before hitting the pillow.
A fear of asking for help is another hallmark of the road to burnout, and we can all agree it's high time we put an end to the stigma.
"As a friend, if you see someone who is close to burnout, say to them, 'I'm worried about you, I want you to ask me to help you. If you don't ask me, I'm going to get angry with you, as I really want to help.'" Ani says.
"Most of us get to that point because we are useless at asking for help, as we think that other people will judge us. We have to start teaching ourselves that we can't do everything and be everything, and that this fear of judgement – it's all within ourselves. It's not even about being vulnerable, it's called being human."