Anti-stress strategies can make you stronger, fitter, calmer

Learning to control stress takes time and practice. But you could start by quitting coffee

Destress and smell the roses: Calm yourself by thinking about something pleasant, looking at a rose or even washing your hands.

Destress and smell the roses: Calm yourself by thinking about something pleasant, looking at a rose or even washing your hands.

 

First, the scary bit: too much stress can damage your health. Not in the way that a bolt of lighting might but in a slow, insidious fashion that silently does its work over years.

At its simplest, it can lead to high blood pressure, which if not treated or kept under control is one of the major risk factors for heart disease and stroke, according to the Irish Heart Foundation. It can lead to loss of muscle even as you gain fat around the middle. It can also dramatically increase your risk of developing diabetes, dementia and some cancers.

Given that the world seems to be becoming more, rather than less, stressful, it is good to know that experts now believe anyone can learn to handle stress better.

“Some people are more ‘highly strung’ than others, ie more prone to feeling anxious. But the human brain is so malleable that anyone can learn to perform better in any situation with practice, including high pressure ones,” says Prof Ian Robertson, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

“Learning to control stress is like learning any skill – it takes time, practice and perseverance. And, you have to believe that you can do it, otherwise you will be discouraged at the first setback.”

Prof Ian Robertson of Trinity College Dublin, says his research on the brain led him to conclude that some stress is not to be feared but that it can actually have benefits. Photograph: Alan Betson
Prof Ian Robertson, of Trinity College Dublin, says his research on the brain led him to conclude that some stress is not to be feared and can actually have benefits. Photograph: Alan Betson

In his latest book, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper, which has just been released in paperback, Robertson describes how his research on the brain led him to conclude that some stress is not to be feared but that it can actually have benefits.

“I have learned that anxiety and excitement have exactly the same bodily symptoms and that it is possible to harness these symptoms as a form of energy that can be harnessed to help you perform better and hence feel better,” he says.

It’s not just what happens to you that matters, it’s how you deal with it. Faced with stress, our bodies react as if we are being hunted down by a wild beast. 

Our digestive system, libido and immune system temporarily shut down as the focus is on taking immediate action to deal with the stressor. Our cortisol and adrenaline levels go up, along with the heart rate.

 The right mindset

“Moderate levels of stress can be good for you emotionally, physically and cognitively, if you approach them with the right mindset,” Robertson says. The key is how you see it. Is it a threat? Or a challenge?

The physical and emotional signs of stress or anxiety are pretty much the same as those of being excited. Research shows that telling yourself “I am excited”, rather than worried about meeting that deadline or making that presentation will help you to perform better, he says.

Back that up by squeezing your right hand for about 45 seconds to increase the firing of brain cells on the left side of your brain and you can set the “challenge” mindset in action.

Mini meditation, exercise and focused breathing sessions throughout the day help too. Trying to multi-task does not. He also points out that simply sitting up straight can assist blood flow to the brain’s frontal lobes, thus helping to keep you alert.

Build calm strength

American psychologist and senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley Rick Hanson agrees with Robertson. “Anybody can develop psychological resources and attitudes that build up calm strength,” he says.

In Hardwiring Happiness he explains how pausing to savour positive everyday experiences has the power to change your brain, and your life, for the better.

“To help our ancestors survive, the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it like Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good ones,” he writes. To counteract that instinct, Hanson explains how to focus on positive experiences.

“Research shows that little things can have benefits, but you must do them,” he says, as we learn from our experiences. This is the first aid. When in a stressful situation, don’t work yourself up, he says. “Pull away from the situation, even looking out of a window for a minute can help.”

Most people feel better able to cope with stress within just 30 days of quitting stimulants

Calm yourself by thinking about something pleasant, looking at a rose or even washing your hands. Then contact someone else in person, on the phone or email, not to have a bitch, but to help you to feel connected.

“We humans are enormously social. Being part of a group and feeling others care about you is a signal that you can afford to be less stressed,” he says.

That’s the short-term solution and it should take no more than minutes from your day. In the longer term, Hanson teaches methods to develop resilience.

“You can learn to build up deeper resources of resilience so when challenges come up or others are hurtful, it doesn’t feel that way to you,” says Hanson, adding that you don’t need therapy but can learn this yourself.

The key is to notice those times when you feel calm and strong, and then to luxuriate in that feeling, whether it happens when you are playing sports, at work or with family.

“To hardwire it into your nervous system, you need to marinate in it – let it sink in. This increases the conversion from state to trait.” Keep doing it until it is a part of your natural response.

Hanson, who is speaking at the Sanctuary in Dublin city centre on Thursday, June 8th, on the topic of Finding Resilient Happiness in a Changing World, is quick to point out that you don’t have to be unrelentingly positive or cheerful to benefit either.

Complementary to all this is British nutritionist Patrick Holford’s approach, as explained in The Stress Cure, which he co-wrote with Susannah Lawon.

This involves also reviewing your diet to balance your blood sugar naturally and foregoing stimulants, such as tea and coffee, as well as taking other actions.

“Most people feel substantially more energized and better able to cope with stress within just 30 days of quitting stimulants . . . ” he writes.

The harm severe, chronic stress can do to your physical health is often forgotten. Learn how to deal appropriately with the stress in your life, however, and you will sleep better, have more energy and be fitter. Just remember, if it all feels too much, seek out help from a doctor or other healthcare professional.

Resources

ianrobertson.org/the-stress-test
http://www.rickhanson.net

  • Rose Costello is a journalist, health coach and fitness instructor who works one-2-one and in groups to help people get healthy. See zest4life.com.
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