Unwinding, switching off, a moment of being. It might sound like a natural thing to do but for many people, there is no time for simply being. From when we get up until we retire into bed while binge-watching a Netflix series, our mind is caught up in doing and planning. No wonder stress-levels in society have never been higher, and the same is true for anxiety and depression. Being able to relax the mind and body is one of the most important ways for us to maintain our mental and physical health.
Doctor Weighs In on the Causes of Stress
“Stress is a range of biological mechanisms designed to help you react to external stimuli, a change in your surroundings, a wild car driving on the sideway, a difficult situation in the workspace or a sudden leak from a water pipe. When a zebra develops stress because a lion is about to attack, that stress will be lifesaving for the animal, the instant change in hormones in its body that follow will make it run quicker and have a bigger chance of escaping the predator. Survival or not will depend on this initial stress response. Either way, the stress will not last long. That’s why biologist and neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky wrote the book Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. In the animal kingdom, stress doesn’t last: it appears only when needed and fades once the situation is over.”
As you can see the stress response is a natural and healthy reaction to any kind of perceived threat to your existence. It can be triggered by an actual threat like a tsunami or being chased by a tiger but more often is triggered by things in our daily environment like unpaid bills, an expected conversation with our boss or being late for a meeting. If our stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol returns to baseline like in the animal kingdom it usually causes no issues. The problem arises when we are constantly experiencing low-levels of stress which keep the sympathetic nervous system in a sustained state of activation.
“In many ways, you could say that we would not be here as a species if we did not feel stress. But the machinery intended to help us survive turns itself against us when it becomes a chronic condition. Today, there are not many situations where stress is triggered to save our life. Instead, it is caused by being stuck on the tube, being late for a dinner, or because we foresee a trying situation in the near family. Most of the stress we experience today is related to anticipating uncomfortable events or outcomes in the future, as supposed to an actual threat”
Having an overactive sympathetic nervous system is associated with a lot of adverse health events. It can lead to unpleasant and dangerous physical symptoms like hypertension, increased heart rate, insomnia, weight gain, hot flashes, headaches along with tiredness and fatigue among others. It can also lead to a lot of mental and behavioural adverse effects like poor memory, depressive symptoms, anxiety, social withdrawal, substance and alcohol abuse and a loss of self-esteem and self-confidence. Ultimately it can lead to a total burnout where the body can no longer produce cortisol and all normal activities become impossible to handle for the individual.
Dr Ionita explains:
“Being under chronic stress increases the risk of developing ulcers and hypertension, you might lose your libido or suffer memory losses and finally, depression. To simplify it; when under too much stress, your brain starts to shrink. Some people believe that the more devoted you are and the more hours you spend on our work the better the results; but this is not always the case. Less is often more when it comes to working ethics. You will have more energy, you can increase creativity and focus if you allow yourself to rest and have breaks and time to recharge your batteries. It is time we start living in a less stressful way.”
Dr Julie’s tips on how to best reduce stress
Meditation: One of the most effective and researched techniques for reducing stress is meditation. There are many approaches to this but what meditation really does is giving you a short break in a busy life where you do absolutely nothing but watching your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations as they come and go. Apps like Headspace or Calm can help you get started or sign up for a meditation.
Breathing exercise: When we are stressed we often breathe fast and shallow. Breathing for stress reduction involves increasing the length of the exhale. When you are feeling stressed, try the exercise below:
The prolonged exhale technique
This breathing exercise can be used for stress or to promote sleep.
- Close your eyes, turn your attention to your breath. Start by observing your natural breath as it is right then, without changing it. Just explore how the breath feels when you are feeling stressed or anxious and accept what you find.
- Now, inhale to the count of 4.
- Make your exhale prolonged so that it finishes to the count of 6 or 8.
- Keep on doing this for 2 minutes and observe the effects on your body and mind.
- The essence of this breathing exercise is that by keeping your exhales longer than.
Reduce your coffee intake: Caffeine activates the sympathetic nervous system and makes you feel elert or even agitated. It can increase your heart rate and blood pressure and make you warm and sweaty which are also signs also associated with stress. Our advice is to have no more than one cup a coffee per day.
Get moving: Exercise releases endorphins, the body's innate pain-relieving and wellbeing hormones. Some forms of exercise are better than others for stress. This includes slow yoga, yogging, walking or stretching. Vigorous exercise can have the opposite effect and make you feel more stressed as it releases stress hormones as the body cannot tell the difference between sprinting to escape a tiger or sprinting in the park to increase endurance.
Talk to your friends and family: it is okay and a completely normal part of life to feel stressed. We all have stressors in our lives and the more we are able to talk to our friends and family about it the better. Talking to others can help you process difficult emotions and perhaps make you realise that you are not alone.
Join Dr Julie Moltke and Dr Lavinia Ionita on April 6th for a Webinar all about stress and how to deal with it in these uncertain times we are facing.