How to treat stress

8 April 2019

If you find yourself thinking about your endless to-do list, increasing deadlines and constant alerts and reminders, you’re not alone. In fact, the World Health Organisation names stress as the health epidemic of the 21st Century.

But what is stress, why is it becoming more prevalent, how does it affect us, and how can we alleviate it?

What is stress and how does it affect us?

Humans have developed the stress response to survive. Our cavemen ancestors used the onset of stress to alert them to a potential danger, enabling them to react to it. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. When we’re stressed, our body releases hormones and chemicals, such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. These cause many responses, from diverting blood to muscles (to make us run faster) to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions, such as digestion.

In these situations stress can be useful, but problems can occur when this stress response happens too often or during inappropriate situations. In modern society, it can be triggered by anything from paying your bills to jumping out the way of a car. Some stress can help us perform better but, if longstanding, helpful can become harmful.

One role of increased cortisol levels (the main hormone released by the body to help deal with stressful situations) is to raise blood glucose, which is great if we’re running away from a sabre-toothed tiger, but not so good if you’re stressed about a mounting to do list or finding a parking space. Having a continuously raised cortisol level is known to increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, which are preventable conditions. It’s also linked to weight gain, obesity and some eating disorders due to changes in eating patterns in response to stress. Additionally, chronic stress, which is where emotional pressure is suffered for a prolonged period of time, can result in withdrawing from friends and family, contributing to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Stress in modern Society: “It’s just part of fife”

First world modern society is changing rapidly. Everyone is busier and there are more things to do, which can make it hard to switch off. Our opportunities are ever-increasing and our prospects endless, but is this always a good thing?

Finlay Haswell, Physiologist at AXA PPP healthcare says: “We’re under constant pressure to make more money, be smarter, fitter, more productive, and it can become overwhelming. We live in a hyper-stimulating and distracting world, with boundaries between work and personal lives becoming more blurred. To be effective and enjoy our lives, we need to learn how to SWITCH OFF and understand that we need periods of rest and renewal. Think about your daily routine. Is there ever a point where you entirely switch off? No computer or television, or no phone?”

The Challenge

If you’re at risk of ‘burning out’, why not challenge yourself to treat stress by incorporating a daily relaxation routine? A time when you’re not focussed on a work task, you aren’t scrolling social media, catching up on emails or watching TV?

Finlay says: “We often have our best ideas in the shower, when out on a run or while cooking… Why is that? It’s because, during complete down time, our brain doesn’t shut off. A specific part of our brain, called the ‘Default Mode Network’ (DMN), goes into overdrive. We allow a different part of our brain to flourish and thrive, so it’s worth trying periods where you switch off and then see how it makes you feel.”

Try one or more of these tips each day (or even give them all a go!)

  1. No-tech lunch hour! Your lunch break is a fantastic time to switch off. Why not leave your phone in your drawer? Your brain is always trying to solve problems, but we need to give it time to. That brilliant idea you’ve been racking your brain for all day sat at your desk might just come to you when you give your brain a chance to stimulate itself.

  2. Prioritise relationships. Put your phone away when out for dinner with friends or when spending time with your partner. Just 10-15 minutes of REAL connection. Even if your phone is face down on the table, it can still be distracting you. Your concentration won’t be as good if your phone is around.

  3. Choose to get active. When you choose to get outdoors and do hands-on activities you choose to connect with your environment, your body and your friends. There’s no time for checking social media when you’re riding a bike or playing football, so why not choose tech-free activities to disconnect. You can find lots of information and inspiration to help you get more active in our Exercise and fitness hub.

  4. Have a phone-free dinner policy. Having your phone at the dinner table is many people’s pet peeve! No one wants their date checking their phone every 5 minutes, or your sibling ignoring the conversation because they’re busy on social media. Try to put the phones down and have a real conversation! The art of conversation is disappearing, and dinner time is the perfect way to reconnect and find out how someone’s day has been.

  5. Leave your phone at home or in the car. Next time you go out to meet a friend or family member, why not leave your phone at home or in the car? The phone will just distract you from giving your friend or relative the attention they deserve. Remove the temptation and keep it completely out of sight.

Further reading

5 steps to coping with anxiety and stress, using the body scan - AXA PPP healthcare

7 signs of stress on your body - AXA PPP healthcare

Stress centre - AXA PPP healthcare

References

www.stress.org.uk

https://drchatterjee.com/stress-health-epidemic-21st-century-dr-rangan-chatterjee

https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/the-ups-and-downs-of-cortisol-what-you-need-to-know

www.who.int/occupational_health/topics/stressatwp

Got a health question?

Our Ask the Expert service allows you to ask our team of friendly and experienced nurses, midwives, counsellors and pharmacists about any health topic.

Don’t feel alone. You can ask us anything about your health, any time. So don’t lie awake at night worrying, get in touch now.