You sit down at your desk in the morning with your hot cup of coffee or tea, prepared to balance that spreadsheet, write that article, or tackle that tricky graphic for your website.
A notification pops up on your screen. It’s an important email from your boss or a client; it’ll just take a moment to respond. You get another email or two out of the way, then return your focus back to your original task. A short while later a coworker, roommate, or child knocks on your door, and you have to stop again to attend to your visitor. You grab another mug of motivation and really dive back into your original project, only to be pulled out of your flow by an urgent text or an impromptu zoom meeting. You finish the day feeling tired, overwhelmed, unproductive, and wondering what happened.
Interruptions like these are constant in the modern world, and they can leave us feeling scattered and conflicted. Even if the interruption itself only takes a minute, it takes an average of just over twenty minutes to recover. This contributes to a lower quality of work and an increase in overall irritability. Some people remain cool and collected when faced with a constant barrage of interruptions, gracefully spinning from one task to another like Odette from Swan Lake. Others may get irate and overwhelmed. Most of us fall somewhere in between the two.
No matter whether you are a cool cucumber or a raging inferno on the outside, interruptions generate stress that has a measurable, physical effect on all of us.
Researchers and scientists have been studying the effect of interruptions on task performance for many years. We have long known that interruptions to our primary task not only increase the time it takes to complete the primary task, they also increase the number of errors made. Interruptions can amplify the annoyance factor of a project by 31% to 106% and double the anxiety that subjects feel in relation to the task.
In other words, interruptions increase stress.
Stress can have a profound effect on our endocrine system. Connections were recorded between Graves’ disease, a disorder causing an overproduction of hormones, and stressful events as early as 1825. There are many hormones in our system that either increase or decrease in response to stress.
Vasopressin is similar in structure to oxytocin, and it originates in the same part of the brain. It maintains the proper ratio of dissolved particles, like salts and glucoses, in the blood serum. This hormone stimulates the adrenal gland to release other hormones.
Cortisol, produced in the adrenal gland, is one of the primary hormones responsible for fueling our fight-or-flight syndrome. When the adrenal glands release large concentrations of cortisol into the bloodstream due to a perceived threat, it causes a temporary increase in blood sugar and enhances your brain’s ability to use that sugar. Along with its role as a natural alarm system, cortisol helps regulate blood sugar, blood pressure, and the sleep/wake cycle. Imbalances in this hormone can cause digestive upset, anxiety and depression, weight gain, and memory impairment.
Catecholamines are also produced in the adrenal glands and released during times of stress. When released into the bloodstream, they make you breathe faster, increase your heart rate, and raise your blood pressure. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (adrenaline) are all catecholamine hormones. Once released into your blood, catecholamines can have a noticeable effect on your body for up to an hour.
The cortisol released during a stressful situation, such as when you are on deadline and someone is blithely nattering on about something else, can temporarily interfere with the production of thyroid hormone. In the moment, this can cause exhaustion and mood dysregulation. As a chronic condition, this can lead to continued sluggishness, weight gain, joint pain, and heart disease.
Surprising the Scientists
While we have learned a lot more about how stress affects the hormones than we knew in 1825, we still have a great deal to learn about their role. Findings from a more recent study, specifically measuring the physical responses to psychosocial stress and interruptions during work, surprised the researchers.
In the study, three groups of people worked at a specific task in an office environment. The control group was interrupted in their task by a sales pitch, the second group was interrupted by an actor stating that they were looking for the most suitable person for a job promotion, and the third group was not only interrupted by the person looking to promote them but also text messages asking them about the progress of their task. At multiple points during the task, participants recorded their mood on questionnaires and provided saliva samples to the researchers.
As expected, the two test groups showed much higher levels of cortisol than the control group. The stress of a possible job promotion is predictably greater than the stress of listening to a sales pitch. Also unsurprising was the fact that those who also received the text messages had much higher levels of cortisol.
What was surprising was the results of the questionnaires.
While those individuals who had been interrupted by messages had higher cortisol levels, they reported feeling less stressed and in a better mood at the end of the study than those who had not been further interrupted. While both non-control groups reported the situation as equally challenging, the messaged group reported feeling less threatened. Researchers surmised that the interruption caused by the messages may have helped distract the individuals from the stress of being evaluated.
While we know that stress has profound effects on our endocrine system, we don’t yet understand the effects’ intricacies. Interruptions mentally pull us away from our tasks and reduce our effectiveness, but sometimes, they distract us from other stressors.