The biggest error people make around stress is to assume stress in itself is negative thing.
It has been long understood that stress is actually great for us. Stress, be it called pressure, arousal or stimulus drives our performance, our energy; it provides purpose to our lives. Stress is essential to life and has been fundamental to the progression of the human species throughout our evolutionary past, driving the changes that allow us to prosper in a changing world. However, excess stress, the point where our various stressors exceed our ability to cope, is not healthy in the long term. It is managing this excess stress that must form part of any sensible strategy to secure good long term health and avoid lifestyle disease.
The second biggest error people make with stress is to assume it is a problem confined to the mind and as such can only be solved with interventions affecting the brain and our cognition. Stress as a mental health concern would struggle to explain why the Mayo Clinic found psychological stress was the strongest predictor of future cardiac events, such as cardiac death, cardiac arrest and heart attacks. Stress as a problem of the mind would not explain why three 10-year studies concluded that emotional stress was more predictive of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease than smoking. In fact people who were unable to effectively manage their stress had a 40% higher death rate than non-stressed individuals. Stress may originate in the head but it finishes in the body and should be viewed as a whole body concern not merely an issue of the shoulders and up.
We have known Stress was a physiological issue since 1946 through a cruel, by modern standards, experiment on some unfortunate rats. The study was the first to show that by creating excess stress in rats they developed consistent patterns of disease including stomach ulcers, enlarged adrenal glands and wasting of key bodily organs. These findings had nothing to do with the actual stress being given to the rats and showed that the body was creating disease born purely from an upset mind. This experiment enabled stress to be viewed as a physiological issue and gave impetus to the idea that managing the body’s reactions to stress could form part of a strategy to reduce the impact of excessive stress on the body.
A modern way to look at managing excessive stress is to look at our reaction to stress rather than trying to reduce the number of stressors we encounter. This approach is based on bolstering our resilience to prevent excessive stressors proving detrimental our health.
Being resilient does not mean that we don’t experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.
Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone. A key feature of resilience is creating habits and behaviours that reduce the physical response of the body to stressors. In the experience of Viavi’s clinic on Harley Street some of the most effective ways of doing this are as follows;
1. Daily meditation
2. High levels of daily movement
3. Spending time daily in nature
4. High levels of aerobic fitness from cardiovascular exercise
5. Yoga, tai chi and activities with controlled breathing
6. Minimal levels of caffeine and alcohol
7. Engaging in social activities and companionship
8. Slow and purposeful eating
9. Disengaging from technology at the onset and end of each day
10. Seeking pleasure in play and hobbies.
These activities don’t reduce the volume of stressors we encounter but they will reduce the impact those stressors have on your body and this is a powerful and beneficial intervention.
Further positive news comes from recent developments in technology that have enabled us to quantify the impact of stressors on our body, well before we develop core signs and problems associated with excess stress. These technologies and tests allow individuals to personalise their stress resilience strategies and engage in a full and demanding lifestyle without risking tipping over into dysfunction.
Stress will always be present in our lives and mostly to our benefit. However, when stressors rise above our natural ability to cope, a resilient physiology, fuelled by the habits noted above, will feed a resilient mind-set. At Viavi:be we believe key habits in this area allow an individual to cope with their stressors better to improved health outcomes in the short and long term.