Work yourself to death the right way

If you want to work yourself to death, make sure it is YOUR inner motivation you die for and not an external one.

As a stress researcher I am often asked where the line between good and bad stress goes. Let me tell you a secret and hopefully settle this one once and for all; there is no such thing.

Stress is a part of the endocrine system designed to activate you hypothalamus-adrenal-pituitary axis [1]. It optimizes your body’s immune system and cognitive reactivity. In simple terms it turns you in to the optimized evolutionary animal that you are, in case you need to survive an attack [2].

I also hypothesize that everyday situations such as work activated stress (by work I mean all work, not just employment) is a form of allocation of survival since we no longer have to have the biggest cave to survive, but we need to keep our cave through rent. Our jobs are also a way for us to strive in our chosen group dynamics i.e. getting promoted and getting leverage in society with ultimate goal of being alpha-leader (immortalized like Einstein or Steve Jobs). Though some of us are built more optimally for this than others are, we all are likely to try.

Just one of the important things the stress hormone cortisol does is to allocate the immune system, but as with any good thing, you can have too much of it [3].

One of the most documented effects is prolonged infections and decreased hippocampal volume [4]. Hippocampus is one of our most important brain structures for recall and encoding of memory, which may explain why you become slightly demented during extremely stressful periods.

Stress in itself is an accelerator and rarely the cause of any consequences it poses in the body [5]. An existing infection will become worse (“for many years stress was considered to be a cause of ulcers, until it was discovered that in fact stress decreased the immune system response, allowing  bacteria to have free play”).

In saying this, stress may not imply you working yourself to death, because stress does increase mortality [6], but only when accompanied by many other factors, wrong motivation being one of them. In stating this, the stress work model by Karasek has been validated over and over again. 

If I am to interpret the state of the world, we have entered a new period of renaisance. We have an entire generation who has lived in prosperity, not identifying themselves by what they do but with what they can do. A teacher can also be a brilliant photographer and a football player can be a fashion designer.

We are a generation of individuals that, unlike our parents, do not identify ourselves with the traditional work-stress model.

And why is that one may ask?

It is because the nature of our jobs requires a different type of motivation and poses a different type of strain. Thus, when we have it, we are willing to suffer the consequences. Many of us, many academics and many who choose to live like academics; with less security and with higher risks of unemployment in persuit of fulfillment, often having one paid and one unpaid job. 

It is there for I suggest a modified version of the stress-work model.

By this I do not by any means propose that everyone should become an academic or self-employed, but rather allocate their inner sources to maintaining inner motivation no matter what the external costs are. I have always lived by the motto “do and love”.

Instead of arguing which one is most relevant “love what you do” or “do what you love”, be more extensive in your frame of mind and realise that one can be a consequence of the other. 

How do I recognise which box I’m in?

Stress-Death; IBS, Depression, Sleeplessness, Weight gain/loss, irritability, Anxiousness, Arythmia, Apathy, High blood pressure

Stress-No death; homeostatic system at balance, recuperate.

How to change box?

Easy, make sure you take time to a) recuperate your body – Sleep, exercise and take at least a break of 2 consecutive hours – 3 day weekend b) make sure you are in the “bad” box for as short of period as possible. It is proposed that the loss of synaptic plasticity in the brain has a 2 week cycle. Give yourself two weeks, then make sure you  follow tip a)!

1.            Aguilera, G., HPA axis responsiveness to stress: Implications for healthy aging. Exp Gerontol, 2010.

2.            Lovallo, W.R., Stress in health and disease / edited by Bengt B. Arnetz and Rolf Ekman

Stress & health : biological and psychological interactions / William R. Lovallo. 2nd ed. ed. 2004, Calefornia: Sage Publications.

3.            Kendall-Tackett, K., The psychoneuroimmunology of chronic disease [electronic resource] : exploring the links between inflammation, stress, and illness. 1st ed. ed. 2009: American Psychological Association.

4.            Bremner, J.D., Stress and brain atrophy. CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets, 2006. 5(5): p. 503-12.

5.            Magri, F., et al., Stress and dementia: the role of the hypothalamicpituitary-adrenal axis. Aging Clin Exp Res, 2006. 18(2): p. 167-70.

6.            Nielsen, N.R., et al., Perceived stress and cause-specific mortality among men and women: results from a prospective cohort study. Am J Epidemiol, 2008. 168(5): p. 481-91; discussion 492-6.



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