A few days ago, I was having an initial session with a new client. She works at a well-known New York Investment Banking company, a job she felt extremely proud to have. Like me, she was an HBCU grad but had only worked in Corporate America for 5 years in an Analyst role.
She came to me seeking help with stress in her job. Prone to anxiety and depression like many of us, she was constantly on edge. Deadlines, excessive workload, perception of others, frequent high-level presentations, job security, difficult conversations, etc., were all some of the challenges she was navigating. Soon enough, these translated into physical symptoms such as headaches/migraines, insomnia, weird body/back pains, and weight gain. At first, she hardly even noticed these symptoms. She was so focused on her job, on making everyone happy, that her wellbeing was a non-factor. Recently, after a scary medical diagnosis, she decided to do something different and get support.
Sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. Many of us are completely unaware of what goes on in our bodies. When we are faced with stressful situations, are we aware of the actual chemical reactions in our bodies? To explain, I will get scientific for a moment. I rarely do so, but this is too important.
When our prehistoric ancestors lived in the wild, their biggest stressor was worrying about the physical danger of being attacked by a lion or tiger; a threat to their actual survival. When they encountered a wild animal, this triggered the sympathetic nervous system. Their brains fired off messages to the pituitary gland causing it to secrete ACTH hormone, which caused the body to produce more cortisol, (a stress hormone) and adrenaline. Blood pressure and blood sugar increased, and immune response is suppressed. All of this then resulted in the physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, shaking, flushed face, dry mouth, slowed digestion, shallow breathing, even hearing loss.
Here is the rub: we are no longer in the wild. We no longer have to physically fear for our lives. There is no tiger or lion at work. Yet, we still react this way to seemingly mundane activities. In addition, many of us are triggering these chemical responses in our bodies 100 times a day! Every time you get anxious over a missed deadline, agonize over an email, sweat during a presentation to your boss, even worry about missing a flight, you are firing all these synapses in your body. Your body does NOT know the difference between worrying about your job performance and a tiger. So, how do we address this? The solution is three-fold:
1) Decide what you want. I know this sounds simple, but many still do not know exactly what they want or need. What type of life do you want? What type of career or job aligns with that? If you have never seriously asked and answered this question, I invite you to use my Free Career Design Workbook to map out exactly what you want in your ideal job.
2) Address your mindset. What are you allowing to stress you out constantly? Is it necessary? Is this an indication that you need to work on yourself and get some support in doing so? If you are stressing out excessively over a presentation to senior leadership, ask yourself what this means. Are you confident? Do you know your value? Or do you feel like an impostor, a fraud?
3) Rest. The opposite of the Sympathetic Nervous System is the Parasympathetic Nervous system. It governs rest, relaxation and digestion. It causes the heart rate to slow, your muscles to relax so it can effectively digest food and convert it into micronutrients and energy. Intentionally set a wellness practice and calendar that prioritizes rest and relaxation daily.
Corporate America can be a very rewarding experience; one that fosters both your career growth and personal development. It can provide experiences that stretch you in new directions, causing you to examine your blind spots and improve on them as you ascend the ladder. However, without the right mindset and wellness routines, it can set off a chain of events that significantly affects your mental and consequently physical health. Decide today to get the most out of your corporate experience. Pursue your career success unapologetically; guard your wellness fiercely.
*This piece was written by Stella Odogwu, career coach and Founder of Intelle Coaching Solutions. She works directly with clients who are experiencing mental and physical symptoms directly caused by their work environment.*