While the World Health Organization defines stress as any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological strain, simply put, it’s the body’s response to anything that requires attention or action, according to Sherry Hnatyshyn-Webster, Carepath Inc.’s managing director, speaking during a session at Benefits Canada‘s 2023 Chronic Disease at Work conference in early February.

Stressful situations can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce physiological changes, causing an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate, she added, noting researchers have learned how and why these reactions occur, as well as the effects of chronic stress on physical and psychological health.

Read: Exploring the link between chronic physical, mental-health conditions

Over time, the repeated activation of stress takes a serious toll on the body and studies suggest chronic stress contributes to hypertension, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits and causes brain changes that contribute to anxiety, depression and addiction, said Hnatyshyn-Webster.

Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress, so it’s normal to feel anxious about something new — a job interview, presenting in front of colleagues at work or having a difficult conversation, she noted. This is considered normal anxiety that comes and goes and doesn’t interfere with a person’s everyday life. However, when it comes to an anxiety disorder, she added, this feeling of fear might be constant. “It’s intense, debilitating and can even cause someone to stop doing the things they enjoy.”

Anxiety disorders are the most common form of emotional disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, women are more likely to receive an anxiety disorder diagnosis than men, said Hnatyshyn-Webster.

When it comes to other mood disorders, depression is a condition that will affect one in eight Canadians at some point during their lives, she added, noting it changes the way people feel, leaving them with mental and physical symptoms for long periods of time — and looks quite different from person to person. “Depression can be triggered by a life event, such as losing your job, the end of a relationship or other stressors like a major deadline, moving to a new city or having a baby. And sometimes, it isn’t triggered by anything at all.”

Read: Survey finds majority of Gen Z, millennials dealing with anxiety, depression

One of the most important things to remember about depression is that people who have it can’t just snap out of it or make it go away, she said. It’s a real illness and is actually the leading cause of suicide. That said, about a third of people with a chronic illness like diabetes or heart disease experience depression, she added. “Individuals with chronic physical health conditions experience anxiety and mood disorders at twice the rate of the general population.”

People can help counter their stress by using a combination of approaches that elicit the relaxation response, noted Hnatyshyn-Webster, citing the example of exercising when feeling stressed. In addition to deepening breathing, exercise also helps relieve muscle tension. And movement therapies like yoga and tai chi, as well as mindful movements with deep breathing and mental focus, can have calming effects. “Social supports can be beneficial, too — friends, acquaintances, colleagues, relatives and spouses can provide a life-enhancing network that may increase longevity.”

As the coronavirus pandemic winds down, individuals with social anxiety will require help transitioning back to the office, she added. “For most people, returning to the workplace can induce short-term anxiety symptoms. But individuals with social anxiety will need to develop a plan for a more gradual return to work.”

For employers that are bringing these employees back to the office, Hnatyshyn-Webster suggested they tell them to practice driving to and from the office, which will allow them to work through feelings triggered by this step. Another way to coach this type of anxiety, she said, is by encouraging employees to spend more time with their colleagues in advance of returning to the office.

Read: Sick leave, accommodation, mental-health considerations for a post-pandemic return to work

Employers have a responsibility to ensure their workplaces are safe for everyone, she added, noting they can host a welcome-back gathering to help employees become reacquainted. They must also acknowledge that some employees may find it difficult to return to the office and let them know they can reach out directly to have a private conversation. “Make sure employees have someone to confide in. The more they talk about their anxieties, the more they normalize them — and hopefully, the better they’ll feel about returning to the office.”

Employers can also be proactive by consulting the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s managers toolkit, added Hnatyshyn-Webster. “This can help them have meaningful conversations with their employees about how they can support them. Mental health matters — and for employees, having open and honest conversations with their managers is one of the first steps that can be taken to improve mental health.”

Read more coverage of the 2023 Chronic Disease at Work conference.