It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year stress has been put under the microscope. In recent years, the concept of stress has gone from being a presumed-inevitable symptom of modern life, to a health-impacting problem that requires serious consideration in our society today – in fact, a recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that 74 per cent of people have at some point been so stressed that they felt ‘overwhelmed or unable to cope’.
Dr Mithu Storoni
Although it isn’t categorised as a mental health issue in mainstream medicine, chronic stress increases our risk of addictive and destructive behaviour, of developing anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, according to the Mental Health Foundation. It can also lead to physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease, insomnia, damage to the immune system, and joint and muscle problems.
So how should we begin counteracting the effects of stress? Well, Dr Mithu Storoni has written a book about tackling the problem straight on. In Stress-Proof: The Scientific Solution To Protect Your Brain And Body – And Be More Resilient Every Day, Dr Storoni delves into the latest medical and scientific research on the human body’s reaction to stress, and the best ways to counter its negative effects. Here, she shares some of her methods with The Jackal.
Both physical and psychological factors can trigger stress
According to Dr Storoni, there are different factors in your daily routine that can cause you to experience stress, both mental and physical. For the former, dwelling on negative experiences long after they’re over is a common problem. ‘The moment a stressful experience is over, you must detach your mind from what just happened immediately to turn off your hormonal response to the experience,’ says Storoni. ‘Otherwise, your brain thinks the experience was more traumatic than it actually was.’ An example of a physical factor that triggers stress is the continuous disruption of your body clock by working across different time zones – a common necessity for many professionals. ‘Your body’s clock will be out of tune,’ explains Dr Storoni. ‘This disturbs the natural rhythm of your stress axis, disturbs the quality of your sleep and disrupts your response to stress the next day. Difficulty with falling asleep at night, waking up too early, feeling tired in the morning or struggling to wake up are signs of an out-of-tune body clock.’ In other words, developing a healthy sleep pattern and the discipline to stick with it, is essential for a stress-proof life.
Your mind and body offer clues that you might be chronically stressed
Just like different physical and psychological stressors, stress can manifest in different ways in the mind and body. According to Dr Storoni there are certain physical symptoms you can look out for that indicate chronic stress. These include digestive issues your doctor can’t quite label, losing your temper too easily, struggling to retain concentration and either losing interest in, or having an excessive desire for, things you usually enjoy. Casual drinking, general apathy, weariness and insomnia should be monitored, too – all are common indicators of chronic stress. Dr Storoni says ‘all of the above can have external causes too, so it’s important to get a full check-up with your doctor. But, if your doctor says everything is fine, then these signs indicate you might be suffering from chronic stress.’
But we all experience stress in different ways
There are as many manifestations of stress as there are stressors in our society. ‘From subtly affecting the way you think, react, and perform to creating cracks in your intestines, changing the populations of bacteria living in your gut, tipping your immune balance, and making you more prone to insulin resistance and heart disease, stress has a broad range of effects,’ Dr Storoni explains. ‘Not everyone will be affected in the same way and some people will be more affected by certain things than others.’ The key to dealing with stress is to listen to your body, not ignore it.
There are practical steps you can take to minimise stress
In Stress-Proof, Dr Storoni outlines several techniques to alleviate stress in your work and personal life. Here are six simple pointers to incorporate into your day-to-day routine.
1. Keep your your body clock well tuned and minimise your exposure to blue light in the evenings. Have your last meal as early as you can, keep lights low and sounds soft, and use blue-light filters on electronic devices. Take in natural daylight when you wake up and at least three different points during your day.
2. Never relax immediately after a stressful experience. Do something that absorbs your attention until you can let go of the experience.
3. Eat probiotic foods with every meal, and top-up on probiotics after a stressful experience, including after intense exercise, whether that’s a gym session or after putting your body through heat stress in the sauna.
4. Head to a sauna if you’re having a mentally challenging week at work and feel low. Scientific studies have shown that exposure to heat can improve mental well-being and reduce symptoms of depression. If there’s no sauna to hand, try a hot bath instead.
5. Engage in an absorbing hobby or a project that’s separate from your day job. Give your mind something pleasurable to focus on.
6. Take up hot yoga. It’s been shown to reduce stress reactivity in the body.
Stress-Proof: The Scientific Solution To Protect Your Brain And Body – And Be More Resilient Every Day is available to buy now.