Stress Management: Better Living Through Technology
IT professionals at all career levels are facing unprecedented levels of stress in their jobs these days. Here's how one high-flying IT executive uses special technology to manage his response to stress, find an inner calm and make better management decisions.
Fri, October 14, 2011
CIO — In 2005, at age 32, Dave Asprey realized he was literally working himself to death. At the time, he served as the director of product management at Netscaler, a fast-growing Silicon Valley startup that was being acquired by Citrix. Asprey was smack in the middle of the acquisition, working on integrating Netscaler's product line into Citrix's. He worked 60 hours a week, five days per week, checked email on weekends, and travelled at least once a month to Florida from California.
Asprey didn't mind his jet-set life. In fact, he thrived off of it (or so he thought). His hard-charging work ethic was part of his long-term goal of one day becoming one of Silicon Valley's tech titans, and by the time he reached his early 30s, it appeared to be paying off. Already, he had co-founded the professional services group at Exodus Communications, which grew to 1,500 employees and created one of the first working instances of cloud computing while running the Web and Internet Engineering program at UC Santa Cruz.
Asprey was thrilled with his performance and career growth, but something nagged at him: The pressure to keep up with work, technology, the Internet and email was beginning to overwhelm him.
"As the Internet expanded, I started to get more and more stressed because I couldn't keep up," he says. "When email went down, I felt like I was dying because I couldn't get connected."
Burnt out and between jobs, Asprey travelled for three months through China, Nepal and Tibet.
"Like a good IT guy, I brought a three-pound laptop with me to stay connected," says Asprey. "When I got to remote parts of China, I was getting so much spam that it came in faster than I could download my email. Spam forced me to not be connected for a couple of months."
Asprey noticed a distinct change in himself after cutting off his technology ties. He says he felt much calmer and more alert. But as soon as he returned to Silicon Valley, so too did his stress.
Asprey sought medical help. He took a saliva test to identify stress hormone levels in his body. His score on the test was 46—nearly four times the level at which people begin to show signs of stress, such as a reduced ability to focus and difficulty sleeping.
Brain imaging revealed that Asprey was under so much stress that his prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that performs logic, had shut down.
The images on Asprey's brain scan were not the only physiological signs of his stress. He experienced regular headaches, upper back pain and a clenched jaw. He was often bone tired and was growing increasingly forgetful and irritable.
"Even though I was high-performing, I could tell it was costing me," says Asprey. "The cost here might have been my life."
The Stress Epidemic
The impact of stress on our health is well documented. Among the problems created by chronic stress: It makes us more susceptible to getting sick because it attacks our immune system; it causes high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)—both of which increase our risk of heart attack; and it can also leads to ulcers. According to the American Institute of Stress, 90 percent of all illnesses are stress-related.