Ever fly into a rage for no reason? You think you're calm, but something comes along and pricks your balloon, and suddenly you're screaming at the car in front of you to JUST GO JESUS CHRIST IT'S GOING TO BE YELLOW FOR LIKE THREE MORE SECONDS.
It's almost like you were stressed out and on the verge of snapping for hours before that. But that's strange -- you didn't feel stressed out. There's no life crisis going on at the moment. Well, the hormones that trigger what we call "stress" are affected by all sorts of seemingly harmless things that science is just beginning to understand. Like ...
#5. Open Plan Offices
People spend a lot of time moaning about cubicles, but these days lots of offices have done away with them in favor of an "open plan" where everybody can see everybody else (just think of The Office sans the wacky antics, because, well, that's it). There's a good chance you're reading this article in an office like this right now and, as bad as "cubicle farms" are, these are worse. Stress-wise, at least.
Now scroll down very gradually so the slow reader at the back can keep up.
The Stress Factor:
Technically, it's not about the office per se. It's the people in it, and everything they do -- whether you realize it or not. The sneaky thing about stress is that you can feel it without knowing exactly what's causing it. There's the specific kind of stress you get from a guy chasing you with a chainsaw, and then there's the more subtle form caused by the little things -- like a conversation going on nearby that you can't quite hear, or the squeaky wheel on somebody's chair, or somebody continuously walking back and forth behind you. Open plan offices are full of that kind of stuff. You can't put your finger on it, you just involuntarily feel your hand clenching into a fist and think how nice it would be to just punch a dude through a wall.
Or several easily assembled walls.
In one research project, they made a guy work in an open plan office while wearing a helmet that measured his brain activity throughout the day. They found that, despite the guy getting to spend the day pretending he was Professor X and that his desk was Cerebro, his brain was nervously working on overdrive all the damn time. It was processing all of the disturbances in the office, and we do mean all of them -- the subject wasn't just flipping out at the horsey laugh of the dude at the water cooler. Instead, his subconscious took in every little thing around him and rolled it into one giant ball of "I've had enough of this shit."
"WHY THE FUCK DOES THIS THING KEEP RINGING?!"
Yes, even when he didn't consciously feel that he was being annoyed by those around him, his brain was secretly banging its head on the table.
It may be as simple as the conflict between your brain knowing it needs to concentrate in order to not get fired and the environment not allowing it to. There's always a ringing phone, and the only thing between you and that asshole who won't pick it up is empty space. There's always an office clown practicing pantomime on your right side so that you can just see him from the corner of your eye. And worst of all, there's always that nagging feeling that someone is watching you. You can try to tune all of this out, but that's the point -- it requires you to try. As in exert effort, continuously, all the time. That's stressful. You don't feel it as being all that severe from moment to moment, just as you wouldn't think of it as physically strenuous to give somebody the finger. But try to give somebody the finger for nine straight hours.
"These papers are levitating through the power of my hatred for you."
So it's hardly a surprise that research has found that open plan offices can lead to high blood pressure, stress, high employee turnover and conflict. So why do companies keep making open plan offices? Surely there is some huge, hidden advantage in enclosing their employees in a glorified pen that feeds on their productivity. Why, of course there is: Open plan offices cost 20 percent less than cubicles.
#4. All of the Little Background Noises in the World
We live in such a noisy world that even what you think of as a "quiet" room features the faint hum of passing cars outside, the buzz of fluorescent lights, the fan on your desktop computer, your roommate quietly masturbating in the room, etc. All of it is a part of your world, the soundtrack of the straight-to-DVD movie that is your life.
Hopefully if you make it dull enough someone will eventually mistake it for meaningful and art house.
You don't really mind most of these noises -- you're most likely so used to them that if they vanished, the silence would creep you out. But that doesn't mean they're not conspiring to stress the ever-loving crap out of you.
The Stress Factor:
As with the above entry, the key is that the noises you recognize as stressful (the workmen jackhammering your street open at 7 a.m.) are in fact only a small part of the problem. Loud or shrill noises like that get your attention specifically because they're rare and fairly easy to avoid in the grand scheme of things. But when the jackhammer ends, you're left with the low-level noise. The buzzing. The murmuring.
And it gets to you. You can't avoid it. Meanwhile, it actively plots against you and whispers obscenities in your ear, in the safe knowledge that you'll never, ever notice. A study on Austrian children found that people who live in the vicinity of large roads -- where muffled traffic sounds are always leaking through the walls -- have higher blood pressure. It was the same for kids who live in noisier neighborhoods in general. The kids subjected to low-level noise were also found to be much more prone to stress when faced with a demanding situation such as a test.
"I can't concentrate without my mother telling me how I ruined her life."
And the more severe the background noise, the more drastic the effects: Children living near airports and busy highways score lower on reading tests and are slower to develop language skills. Stress hormones mess with the brain's ability to memorize information because the hormones are telling the brain that there are more important things going on. Remember that, from an evolution standpoint, stress is a response to danger; if you hear a mountain lion coming, you no longer give a shit about your cave-painting hobby. Now, in a world where mountain lion attacks are rare, that stress response is triggered by whatever random bullshit is occurring around us.
And no, this isn't just about kids. For adults who have been exposed to significant background noise all their lives, the symptoms they might get to enjoy include high blood pressure, strokes, ulcers, a weak immune system and even a tendency for suicide.
"Can we get this over with? It's the swooshing that's the worst."
Yes, you should walk away from the apartment that's a great deal "just because it happens to be upstairs from a night club."
#3. All of the Little Lights in Your Bedroom
Just as it's next to impossible to find a completely silent room in the modern world, it's almost as hard to find one that's completely dark. You turn off your light when you go to bed, but you don't turn off all of the lights: the streetlight shining in through your window, the blue LED on the front of your computer, your alarm clock, the TV somebody left on, the night light you keep in the hall so you don't trip over the cat on your way to the bathroom at 2 a.m., whatever.
Close your eyes and shut up, kitty.
And yes, this is a problem.
The Stress Factor:
Researchers at Ohio State University had two things: a box full of hamsters and a strange vendetta against night lights. They divided the hamsters into two groups, with one group given a night light as they slept, and the other group given complete darkness.
After a no doubt thrilling eight-week period of reviewing hamster footage, a pattern emerged: The ones sleeping with the night lights were showing much more depressive qualities than the ones hanging out in pitch black. They were more passive, ate less and ... that's probably it, because they're hamsters. It's not like you can monitor the tone of their poetry.
"Listen to my squeal. I don't want to mate. I just ride on this wheel. Because my children I ate."
The reason behind the depression was chilling -- the night-light hamsters had actually suffered damage to their brains. The hairlike spines on the hippocampus had greatly lessened in density. As these spines help transmit chemical messages throughout the brain, it appears that the hamsters had experienced reduced levels of melatonin, the hormone that tells the body it's nighttime and thus enables proper rest.
Melatonin, incidentally, is secreted only when there's no light.
"I'm not depressed -- I'm actually regulating my melatonin levels. You wouldn't understand."
It's not just a hamster problem, either -- the human brain works in the exact same way. If you sleep with a dim light, you don't get the amount of melatonin you need. On some level, we already know this -- you don't turn out the lights at bedtime to save electricity, you need it dark so you can sleep. Go to sleep during the day and you'll close the curtains to keep the sun out. So if you need darkness to sleep, it makes sense that incomplete darkness equals lower quality sleep. Oh, you are still sleeping, and you might even think you slept well. But your melatonin is still off, and melatonin helps regulate your mood.
"Do you think I'd be strangling you this much if my hands weren't well-rested?!"
Keep it up and it will stress you to the point of full-on depression, not to mention cause a host of other side effects like a weaker immune system, higher blood pressure and increased risk of brain-related health problems. But hey, thanks to the consumer electronics industry for continuing to put blue LED lights on every device in the house.