Why do we feel stressed?

A couple of years back I was heading “into the wall”. For a long period I had been working too much, resting too little and in general having a quite unsustainable lifestyle. This lead me into a condition where all my executive functions was affected – my short-term memory got bad, I couldn’t access things from my long-term memory, I had a hard time planning or even structuring my activities and so on.

This is not all that uncommon today, there are an increasing amount of people who are having sick-leave from work due to stress related illnesses or injuries. Stress in the workplace is so pervasive that it sometimes seem that everyone should go through a period of burn-out through our working lives.

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So, what causes it all? Well, the obvious triggers are too much work, too little relaxation, etc. However, since experiencing it myself I’ve wanted to understand it from a broader perspective than that. One explanation that I’ve really been able to connect with is that stress is due to our working memory becoming overloaded.

Our working memory is the part of our memory which we use to store temporary information in. This memory is generally understood to be able to process 5-10 items at a time – though it can be trained & exercised to deal with more. What happens is that as we’ve moved from mostly physical (manual labour) to more abstract and conceptual work (knowledge work), the requirements on our working memory have risen – but of course, the capacity has stayed the same. This causes a lot of stress.

Think of an example of a task you might have in your everyday life – “send out meeting notes”. When you’d start on such a project you’d probably first have to break it down into smaller actions in your head, say “find paper notes”, “type out notes”, “ask peter about his feedback on X”, “find Sandra’s e-mail address”, “draft e-mail”, etc. While doing these individual actions you’d also have to keep a lot of small notes and details on how you’re doing them in your head. Additionally you might get new ideas and remember old tasks while you’re doing this – meaning more things to keep in your head.

Overall, it’s a recipe for working memory overload. So, what do you do? Well, I’ve found that for me, one of the simplest and most effective ways have been to simply write everything down. I write down each task immediately as I remember it into my todo-list and I write down ideas, thoughts, etc. in a note-taking system. Once I consistently started doing this I noticed stress went down, even as I still had a lot of things to do, but just by writing it all down and keeping it out my head, I no longer felt as stressed about it.

So, if you’re looking for a good way to reduce stress, get out and buy a good notebook, a stack of index cards or a software like Evernote (for free!) to keep it all out of your head.

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