It’s Thursday afternoon. Paul glances up from his computer screen to watch the minute hand of the clock strike the hour, marking 9 hours since he first got to work and sat down in his office chair. He hastily ate lunch at his desk about 4 hours ago; with deadline day looming on his latest project, and coupled with one of his colleagues being unwell and absent today, his workload is double that of a normal day. With twilight beginning to cast its shadows outside, no end appears in sight. Paul is stressed!
But what is stress, and how can it be so dangerous to our health?
In Paul’s case, his stress response didn’t just begin 9 hours ago, it began earlier this month when his latest project deadline was dumped unceremoniously on his desk by his boss. Home life has been a bind too; his mother has been unwell lately following a recent fall, and his wife’s workplace is undergoing a number of worrying redundancies. He can’t switch his brain off, and is hardly sleeping as a result. Physiologically, his body has been in a heightened sense of stress for a number of weeks, which as we in the health and wellness industry are increasingly discovering, is a very serious matter.
The human body’s response to stress is its natural, automatic response to a perceived danger or upsetting situation. Back when we were cavemen roaming the plains looking for tonight’s meal, there were dangers aplenty, and we were often unwittingly flung into a fight or flight situation that required quick thinking and even quicker moving to escape unharmed. This survival mechanism was all important to avoid becoming something larger’s prey, but nowadays, our relationship with the fight or flight response has changed somewhat.
As Harvard Medical School explains, perceived stress starts in the senses and the brain.
– When we see or hear a stressful event, the information is transferred to the brain,
– There, the brain processes the information in the emotional processing centre called the amygdala, and the information is transferred to the hypothalamus, the centre that regulates the nervous system,
– The hypothalamus then secretes CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone),
– This information is sent to the sympathetic nervous system which is the part of the nervous system that is in charge of sending out the alarm to the adrenal gland, the centre in charge of the fight and flight response,
– The adrenal gland sends out epinephrine, which is another name for adrenaline, to keep the body on high alert.
Fast forward to 2016 living, an event such as public speaking is likely to create an acute stress response, which is positive towards improving focus and attention to successfully overcome the task at hand. A situation such as Paul’s where his stress has become more chronic and long-term, becomes a more serious matter, due largely to the continued elevated levels of the stress-response hormone cortisol. The negative effects of continued elevated cortisol levels are well documented, and include:
– decreased immunity,
– promotion of an inflammatory, state of dis-ease in the body,
– increased abdominal fat deposition (making it increasingly difficult to lose weight),
– muscle, bone and connective tissue break-down,
– inhibits thyroid function, affecting hormone production,
– impacts on healthy sleep patterns.
If you take away one piece of health advice from this article, it’s the following: following a short-term stress response, it is vitally important to have a relaxation response, to avoid the negative health effects associated with sustained, elevated stress levels.
So how do we go about promoting this relaxation response to promote a healthier, happier self more able and resilient at overcoming stressful situations?
Breathing and Meditation practices…
Here’s a tip from Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are. Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life: “Stop, sit down and become aware of your breathing once in a while throughout the day. It can be for five minutes, or five seconds. Let go into full acceptance of the present moment, including how you are feeling and what you perceive to be happening. For these moments, don’t try to change anything, just breathe and let go. In your mind and in your heart, give yourself permission to allow yourself to be exactly as you are”. This is an exercise Paul could complete at his office desk over a 1 to 2 minute period that will be positive towards reducing his stress levels; it won’t eliminate the causes of his stress, but it will help him to avoid hitting chronic stress levels and the negative health affects that come with it.
When Paul gets home, he can find a quiet place at home where he’s not likely to be disturbed. He can then perform further breathing exercises, simply as part of a way to improve his diaphragmatic breathing patterns to ensure more quality breathing, or as part of meditation practice. A great way to de-stress, meditation is the gateway to mindfulness, a way to become more present in the moment and not be consumed by past or future events. Personally, I find it a great way to control the thoughts that enter my head on a day to day basis, to not allow myself to be overwhelmed by any particular moment, thought, or stress that is presented to me, and to remain in control of my emotions. Applications such as Headspace (https://www.headspace.com/) and Smiling Mind (www.smilingmind.com.au/) offer guided meditations as a great way to get started!
To perform diaphragmatic breathing (or abdominal/deep breathing), simply lie down flat, legs bent, with a small pillow for head support if required. Place your hands over your stomach just below your bellybutton (as seen below) with the tips of your middle fingers touching. As you breathe in, expand out through your tummy, feeling your finger tips expand away from each other. As you exhale, feel your tummy flatten and your finger tips resume contact. Repeat for 3-5 minutes. This is a great way to recruit the primary breathing muscles of the diaphragm, and thus avoid short, shallow, stressful breathing patterns.
Exercise (and sleep)…
Quite predictably, a blog on stress-management written by an Exercise Physiologist entails regular exercise as a stress management strategy!
Unfortunately, Paul’s workplace is not operating in the best interests of its most valuable assets (its staff) and do not have a corporate exercise program in place. So it’s up to Paul himself to structure his day to include at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each day. Sure this requires juggling a few things each morning to create a window of time, but the feel-good pay-off from getting the body active and moving cannot be underestimated. Exercise triggers the release of the feel-good endorphins seratonin and norepinephrine in the brain, which are known mood improvers and stress relievers. A good workout will also prove beneficial at distracting Paul from his pesky work deadlines.
Any exercise modality will tick the stress-busting box; going for a jog, lifting some weights, high-intensity circuit training (check with your GP prior to engaging in higher intensity exercise), going for a brisk walk and throwing the tennis ball for the dog, tai-chi, swimming, yoga or pilates, the options are endless. As long as you give the body what it craves, which = movement!
Additional to being in a state of euphoria following great daily workouts, Paul’s likelihood of getting a good night’s sleep have markedly improved. With the increase in energy expenditure each day, and coupled with his breathing and meditation practice just prior to hitting the hay, he is finding it a lot easier to get to sleep and tends to stay asleep all through the night, thus achieving deep, restorative, healing sleep.
Immersing yourself in nature…
I often think about how disconnected we have become from nature in our modern day, fast-paced lifestyles. We are overwhelmed with technology, concrete and steel, conditioned air, motorised transport, all the while completely lacking exposure to and awareness of, nature, and the world around us. When was the last time you sat outside and watched the clouds slide past slowly overhead, feeling the gentle afternoon breeze on your skin; or took your shoes off, sat down outside and rubbed your toes through the grass; or went for a dip in the ocean and felt the cool, salty water refresh and reinvigorate your body? (listen to this podcast discussing the therapeutic healing properties of the ocean https://unmistakablecreative.com/podcast/the-surprising-science-of-water-with-wallace-nichols)
We all know how relaxing it can be to make it out into the hinterland of a Sunday, to walk amongst the rainforest and take in the sounds around us. Or to go camping for a couple of nights, to switch off from technology, connect with both our loved ones and the environment we live in. This may due to what are called negative ions, which are oxygen atoms charged with an extra electron. They are created in nature by the effects of water, air, sunlight, and the Earth’s inherent radiation, and latch onto positive ions such as airborne dirt particles and pollution to create more pure air. A 2013 study by Perez and colleagues concluded that negative air ionization was associated with lower depression scores particularly at the highest exposure level. The study did also declare that further studies must be completed to evaluate the biological plausibility of this association. There are various scientific studies that focus on negative ions and their potential links with the brain and serotonin levels, mood state and energy levels, and also asthma and respiratory function. It may yet to be comprehensively scientifically verified, but I think we can all relate to the uplifting feeling being surrounded by nature gives us.
This may be difficult for Paul who’s based in the CBD, but his stress levels could be reduced if he were to take his lunch down to the square next door, sit amongst the fresh air, slip his shoes off and take in the grass and greenery around him.
As with any health optimisation regimen, improved diet and nutrition is of vital importance. Paul must ensure that his meals are nutrient dense, to allow his brain to work efficiently and effectively towards his workplace deadlines, and have the right mix of macronutrients to support his increased exercise levels.
In summary, there are various ways we can avoid the negative effects of chronic stress. We can make the decision to control our stress levels, rather than allow them to control us. This can often be easier said than done, but I hope the above steps show that small, deliberate changes to our daily routine can have a significant positive impact on our health.
Paul managed to successfully implement these stress management techniques to his daily lifestyle. He now revels in the challenge of completing his work by a given deadline, rather than dreading it and the stress it once placed on his health!
Perez, V., Alexander, D.D., Bailey, W.H. (2013) Air ions and mood outcomes; a review and meta-analysis. US National Library of Medicine: BMC Psychology, 10, 13-29.
Carlson, L.E., Garland, S.N. (2005) Impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on sleep, mood, stress and fatigue symptoms in cancer patients. Int’l J of Behavioural Medicine, 12, 278.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion.