If prolonged, stress may become chronic and change the biological and physiological functions of the body.

Firdaus Dhabhar (University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine), an internationally acclaimed stress researcher, is one of the keynote speakers at the closing seminar of the  CoPassion research project, held in the University of Helsinki’s Great Hall on 9 and 10 October. His speech will discuss the impact of compassion on stress management.

Dhabhar describes stress as a series of events triggered when a brain detects a stimulus. This activates the body.

“Short-term stress causes biological changes in the brain’s neurotransmitters and hormones. The duration of these changes  varies from a few minutes to a few hours. Long-term stress can be in effect for weeks, months or, in the worst case, years,” the stress researcher explains.

Chronic stress is particularly dangerous, especially if it results in long-term changes to the biological mechanisms that regulate stress.

Stress can also be positive

The results of Dhabhar’s research group have shown that short-term stress stimuli enhance the immune response of the body. This is natural in a situation where the body’s functions are at risk. Enhancing the immune response during stress ensures better protection against pathogens.

“Our goal is to take advantage of the strengthening and protecting functions of the physiological stress reactions for vaccinations, healing after surgery as well as in the treatment of infections and cancer,” Dhabhar explains.

They also hope to use the positive impacts of stress to improve performance.

Long-term work stress is dangerous

According to Dhabhar, several factors may contribute to detrimental, long-term work stress. Typically they relate to an oppressive everyday atmosphere in the work environment.

“Having a boss or a colleague who is erratic, unpredictable or duplicitous can contribute to stress. Or if the boss or colleague bullies or manipulates others.”

Monitoring your own wellbeing is important for stress management. The goal is to optimise short-term stress factors and minimise long-term ones.  

According to the latest research, compassion seems to support the management of work stress as well as stress in other situations.

“Social support can be a good buffer against chronic stress. However, there is still need for significantly more multidisciplinary research on the topic,” Dhabhar states.

Firdaus Dhabhar’s tips for managing work stress:

1) Don’t let the little things bother you, and don’t waste energy on worrying about little things.

2) Find a few colleagues who can support you during difficult times. It’s also important to support others when you can.

3) Focus on activities that reduce stress: it’s most important to find the things that work for you.