Expanded Chapter: Stress

Stress

 It’s a 21st century thing

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.”
Leonard Bernstein

I love that quote, and it also sets a familiar tone, one familiar to most of use. The modern world is more -fast paced than ever, we now live in a world that’s changing faster than at any period in human history. It’s fun and exciting but there is one real downside: stress.

As the world changes so do the stresses we find ourselves under. Some ore pretty obvious like poor diet or pollution, alcohol or smoking, but as with the body our brains would appear to be having a hard time keeping up with the pace of change and that’s bad news for body and brain. So what is the cause of this stress?

Social networking versus face to face interaction, work that you take home with you on your company laptop or virtual desktop all mean that you’re exposed to more little stressors as the virtual and work worlds bleed together into our ‘real’ social recreation time. When you’re checking work email at home or at the weekend you’re also lose the relaxation time and when the barriers start to blur we lose a lot, for example the ability to focus on what is in front of you – answering work email as a dinner with friends, or facebooking friends when at a gig with your partner, many of us have done it. A analogy might be exercising for hours a day with less quality recovery time to compensate.

One antidote to this soup of modern distractions is ‘mindfullness’, the discipline and process of developing focus on the moment. Whilst this buzzword may conjure up images of monks and hippies there’s very real research going on showing the ability of ‘minfullness therapies’ to change the way your body functions on a genetic level. But here I’m getting ahead of myself, first, what is stress?

Stress and allostasis

Stress is an external environmental factor that interacts with your body on some level. It may be chemical, such as pollution, mechanical, like exercise, mental such as work deadlines or even a change in the light/dark cycles. There’s a great number of them, and of course our individual ability to deal with them differ. Here it’s time to introduce ‘allostasis’, a newer concept when talking about stress and it’s great as it hints at why stress can be good and bad.

The word translates as ‘moving to stay still’. Ordinarily your body always tries to keep everything running smoothly, keeping all the systems the same, and in effect we need a little stress to so this. This stress is information and as acts as a controlling factor, the problem starts when this information becomes too much of the body to use to keep everything stable.

The body reacts to stress via the nervous and immune systems. Cortisol is the most famous ‘stress’ hormone and a great example of how this works, because whilst over producing this hormone is defiantly bad for your health, the cortisol blocking drugs can in themselves be dangerous because we need it to survive. Similarly other factors like norepinephrine, cytokines and TNFα are all needed by the body, but their over production is also bad news. Your allostatic load is the long term effects of stress that are a out of balance, it’s important to realise that they can be good or bad.

Allostasis, McEwen (22) by permission from the New England Journal of Medicine. Copyright 1998 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved.

McEwen  New England Journal of Medicine.

Allostasis and the cycle of stress and recovery

As important to stress is your body’s response to it, this usually manifests as a cycle of stress and recovery. The stressor is felt – usually meaning there’s some form of chemical change or upset in the cells or tissues –  the body reacts the body adjusts and then physiologically comes back to where it was. Again exercise is a great example, the activity causes changes in nutrient usage, cell energy output, temperature and chemistry. The body reacts and this reaction helps to return everything to baseline after the training is finished.

The really interesting stuff, both good and bad, happens when your stressors and responses get out of balance.

You may be exercising to stay in shape, but you may also be training to get fitter. So what is training? It’s planned activity that stresses the body, the point is that the response is ‘bigger’ than the stress, this is adaptation. Remember allostatic load can be good or bad and this adaptation, which you body coming back fitter and more able to perform is just that, on the flip side stress can also be too much to recover or adapt to.

When we’re chronically stressed and don’t leave enough time to, or can’t recover properly our health declines. The research shows that lack of sleep, chronic stress and so on can damage brain and body leading to cognitive impairment, increased inflammation, higher body fat levels and so on.

stress symptoms

What factors affect stress

The internal and external environment dictates the allostatic load, physical, emotional and mental stresses are all the same as far as your body is concerned and the responses to it are all mediated the say way.

Stressors are always present at a very low level, but just generally being fitter improves your tolerance so the body doesn’t react as readily. Exercise, good diet and not smoking are big factors here. One aspect of ‘fitness and health’ is the ability to regulate the body more effectively, being able to tightly control the body keeping it close to the straight and narrow and responding in a effective and proportionate way when stressed.

Of course it doesn’t end there and our genetic individuality has a lot to do with this, not just what is coded in our genes of course but also who they’re expressed, these epigenetic factors we look at in the earlier chapters of The DODO Diet.

How do I combat it?

There’s three factors to look at here:

  1. Reduce the triggers of stress
  2. Change or improve your reaction to the trigger
  3. Stress-proof yourself

With any problem there’s some logical steps you go through to put a solution into place. You

  • Identify a problem
  • Define it
  • Think up a range of solutions
  • Break the issue down into manageable chunks (like we did with the diet habits)
  • Select what to work on and the solution you’ll use
  • Give it a go and monitor the results

Dealing with stress 1, 2 & 3

Here’s a step-by-step look at the possible problems and ways of dealing with them.

1) Reduce the triggers of stress

Identify them:

Work: Individuals or situations/tasks Difficult colleagues, ineffective boss etc, too much work, poorly controlled work

Family/social: poor relationships, illness, busy schedule. Spouse, kids, parents and the stress they’re under. 

Self-imposed: poor organisation at work, procrastination. Poorly organised work day, poorly organised social schedule, procrastinating on the internet etc

Physical: diet, training. Too much exercise, the wrong type of exercise, too much food, not enough, poor diet choices

Deal with them where you can:

This involves planning. Once you know what is giving you stress ask

  • Why is this stressful?
  • Can I deal with it?
  • If I can, what are two or three possible solutions?

You’ll note that in some of the examples above there are not solutions. In this case you have to change the way you react to the situation. For others there are solutions you just have to find them. The very act of not just thinking about, but thinking through a stressful situation and thinking up solutions is quite cathartic.

For all the above issues there useful resources that exist, you just have to find what works for you – more links and resources are below

2) Change or improve your reaction to the trigger

This is easiest to explain by looking at some scenarios

Scenario ONE: you have an argument with a colleague at work
Reaction: you go to the vending machine and eat a Snickers
Outcome A: you feel twice as bad

Alternate reaction: go for a walk outside, take deep breaths, try if possible to see the issue from the other person’s side. Think about some of the good things that happened in the last month

Outcome B: Feel a lot more relaxed and no Snickers-induced guilt.

Scenario TWO : Pressure at work because you’re behind schedule, say, writing a book for example (!)
Reaction: Go home, drink bottle of wine, and have take-away
Outcome A: Bad night’s sleep, feel sluggish and have no energy

Alternate reaction: Blow off some steam at the gym, come home, have hot bath and a good meal.

Outcome B: Feel awesome the next day

You see how there are different reactions you can have to specific situations? As much as possible you have to work on reacting the right way and avoiding the knee-jerk comforts such as a bottle or wine or Snickers bar, even if it means identifying those behaviours by writing them down.

False friends

Smoking, booze, naughty foods, they’re all seen as ways to let off a bit of steam or make yourself feel better but in fact they only make the situation worse in the long run. While indulging, you’re heaping more stress into the system, just of a different type. After the fact you feel worse from an emotional standpoint and they may make mentally dealing with the l stress harder as well. With each of these options above find two or three different actions or behaviours you can try instead.

3) Stress-proof yourself

Sleep, exercise and good diet will all help raise the bar at which stress affects you. Remember, though, exercise is another stress so tailor the amounts to your needs.  In addition to getting fitter there are things you can do to also try to change your mindset and find ways to relax effectively.

Meditation

Amazingly not just for Buddhists and hippies. The scientific study of meditation shows that it can have very real effects in a very short space of time. It’s a rapidly growing research field in the health sciences

> 3-minute meditation

Forget incense and nice carpets. This can be done anywhere, even on the train. Simply:

  • Sit up straight, shoulders in line with your hips. No crossed legs or kneeling necessary.
  • Close your eyes
  • Lay your hands open and palms up on your lap
  • Breathe slowly either in through the nose and out through the mouth or both in and out through the mouth, whichever is most comfortable.
  • Clear your mind, concentrate on your breath
  • Thoughts will pop into your head. Not a problem; in fact, it’s part of the processes.
  • Simply clear them and return to concentrating on the rise and fall of your breath.

That is it.

You won’t feel any different after the first few times but give it a few regular sessions and you’ll start to notice the differences in your stress levels, your ability to relax and your attitude to life in general. It’s powerful stuff.

Here’s an excellent guided mediation, the Three Minute Breathing Space

Progressive relaxation technique

Either in bed or stretched out in an armchair, breathe in, tense a muscle or body part, hold for five seconds, then relax the body part and breathe out. Work your way up the body:

  • Feet (curl toes and press your heels down)
  • Feet and front calf (uncurl toes and pull them up towards the knee)
  • Calf muscle
  • Thighs (locking your knees)
  • Buttocks
  • Arms (curling arms up in front of chest)
  • Shoulders (bringing the shoulders up towards the ears)
  • Face (frowning hard)
  • Relax the tense whole body and hold for 5 seconds

With your eyes closed, concentrate on your breath. Repeat if necessary.

Yes, I know, relax, but remember that whole list … so if that’s too much to remember HERE‘s a longer guided PRT video.

Get outside and go for a walk

Walking is like a moving meditation, it triggers the ‘rest and digest’ part of the nervous system, which like a see-saw pushes down the ‘fight and flight’ response.

Try to go somewhere green or with water present and walk at and easy pace. You may wish to just focus on your breath as you do so.

Try to change your mood and mind-set

Some techniques that support a better mood or outlook on life are

  • Giving thanks

It’s easy to slip into the habit of only seeing the negative aspects of a situation. Making a mental list of all the good stuff in your life is the antidote to this.

  • Use counter-factual thinking

Here, instead of focusing on what is missing from your life you imagine your life without one of the good events, people or experiences in it.

  • Help someone

This could be giving to charity, helping someone with something heavy or sending a nice text or email. It sounds trivial but the research shows that people who practise these behaviours feel better about themselves and life in general

  • Do something you’re good at

Usually this means practising a hobby or skill. This helps to put yourself in a positive light

  • Learn to focus

‘Multitasking’ is a lie, it just means lots of little chopped up focussed efforts. this isn’t effective and leads us to be less good at focusing for a longer amounts of time

>  Avoid distraction –  disconnect from the wifi, close the web browsers
> Do your work in blocks or 20 or so minutes where you work on just that, not only is it an effective way to work it practices your focus
> Unplug from the internet
> Read a book not a tablet
> Ignore phone and email prompts
> Try 3-minute meditations

Resources

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre
Part of the University of Oxford Psychiatry dept. A great resources for real practical info on mental health and mindfullness.
Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society
University of Massachusetts Medical School, with tons info, resources and great links
Mindfulness Works An organisation to provide help and resources for mindfulness training in the workplace.

UK Charities and health campaigns

Be Mindful Campaign to promote MBCT and MBSR run by the Mental Health Foundation

Books

Zen to Done Leo Babauta
A great spin on the usual organisation and time management books

Bounce: Living the Resilient Life Robert Wicks
Ways for you to deal with stress and even turn it to your advantage.

Selected references

McEwen, B. S. (2002). Sex, stress and the hippocampus: allostasis, allostatic load and the aging process. Neurobiology of aging23(5), 921-939.
Clark, M. S., Bond, M. J., & Hecker, J. R. (2007). Environmental stress, psychological stress and allostatic load. Psychology, health & medicine12(1), 18-30.
Seeman, T. E., Singer, B. H., Rowe, J. W., Horwitz, R. I., & McEwen, B. S. (1997). Price of adaptation: allostatic load and its health consequences: MacArthur studies of successful aging. Archives of internal medicine157(19), 2259-2268.
Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological bulletin132(2), 180.

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