Foto: Caren Huygelen

Erik Scherder: 'Stress at work is great!'

Rianne Lindhout17 December 2017

‘Stress is great! Stress is life-saving!’ With his characteristic, springy stride, Erik Scherder walks back and forth in the lecture hall. During the Week of Occupational Stress, in the middle of November, he explains to a VU audience how a quiet, easy existence extinguishes our brains.

De Volkskrant once ran a great photo series, professor of clinical neuropsychology Erik Scherder reminisces. ‘It consisted of two photos of the same person: one on the day they retired, and one taken two years later.’ He covers his mouth in dismay. ‘What a huge difference!’ Scherder noticed how all those people had aged considerably in two years time, which he believes is due to too much relaxation.

Even if you’re far from retiring, the danger is lurking. If you simply switch to autopilot at work and you could easily just leave your cerebral cortex at home, your job isn’t good for you. Your brain cells are connected via hubs that you need to keep in good condition. By the time you’re old, this’ll protect you against dementia for up to 5 or 6 years longer.

You need alertness…

That’s why Scherder thinks you can easily start an exciting new job when you’re 55, even though others might think that you can start taking things a little bit easier. And if an urgent task comes by when you’ve just settled into your work, be happy! ‘Just think of your hubs!’ If you don’t watch out, they’ll start declining by the time you hit thirty. You need arousal, alertness. Use your prefrontal cortex, your working memory. Feeling a little bit of stress, causing noradrenaline to radiate through your cortex, is great for you. So when something annoying happens in your organisation, just remember that it’s great for your hubs!’

When your prefrontal cortex is hard at work, the brain will deactivate other areas, such as the amygdala, the centre of the brain that produces fear and other emotions. ‘When you’re suffering from chronic stress and are close to a burn out, the brain will activate other areas that aren’t usually switched on. They’ll also start working at full speed, which is exhausting.

… but so is doing nothing

In order to stay mentally healthy, though, you need enough rest and recovery time in the midst of all that brain activity. ‘Although we have to deal with more things coming at us than before, we still have the stress system of a fish. Having a quick peek at your phone all the time is rewarding, but it means you don’t allow your brain to rest, even after work.’ When you’re resting, your brain’s default network is activated, producing good ideas and increasing your productivity. That’s why Scherder is also a strong advocate of doing nothing, even at work, to balance out all the activity. ‘You should go out for a walk every day, and, as a matter of fact, it should be mandatory for all employees to just stare out of the window for an hour every week.’

People who sit down all day will be exhausted by the time the evening comes around and can find it difficult to get off the sofa. If someone drags you along to the gym, you’ll find that you’ll be a lot fitter afterwards. “That’s when the ideas start to flow and you’ll have all the energy you need to do fun stuff.’ Scherder, who helped put the importance of exercise for the brain on the map, sees lots of people making calls in the stairwell. ‘While you’re doing that, why not walk up and down the stairs as well?!’ He summarises: lots of exercise is essential for your vascular system, and so is lots of thinking for the networks in your brain.

Are you suffering from stress overload?

Scherder shares five simple tips that allow the parts of your brain that suffer the most to recuperate. How can you influence your brain in a super simple way, every day?

  1. Listen to music – your Frontal Lobe loves it.
  2. Move – it has a wonderful effect on your Frontal Lobe and your Hippocampus.
  3. Learn – Processing new impressions de-stresses your brain.
  4. Sleep – This is the best way to regenerate your brain, night in, night out. [Make sure to get enough sleep, but not too much. Read this VU magazine article about sleeping myths and facts.]
  5. Stop multitasking! Every time you check your mail it takes at least ten minutes before you can properly focus on your other task again. Ideal: work on one thing for an hour without any distractions, and then go and do something else.