Stress is unavoidable, but how can we reduce its impact on us?

Estimates suggest up to 50% of stress is attributable to external factors: work, for example

Reduction in stress produces a mental and emotional space to identify choices that could improve working life. File photograph: Getty

We have a tendency to misunderstand stress, even though it is one of the defining characteristics of our age. Research by Prof Mark Williams at Oxford University some years ago suggested that our levels of stress have been rising since the 1950s.

Stress makes your quality of life far less pleasant and is bad for your heart. A strong link between stress and cancer has not, so far as I can see, been established. But if it is bad for your heart, your quality of life and, quite often, relationships then it’s bad.

One misunderstanding consists of locating the sources of stress exclusively inside or outside ourselves. For instance, if you wish you weren’t going on a summer holiday because you’d rather deal with the stressful demands of work, you are acting on a misunderstanding. You are locating the source of stress solely outside yourself.

Some estimates suggest that up to half of our stress can be attributed to external factors: work demands, family problems, debt issues and so on. Where does the rest come from? The same estimates also suggest that up to half of our stress can be inherited.


What this means is that when you tackle only your external sources of stress – and it is usually a very good idea to tackle them if you can – you’re leaving your other, internal, stresses unaddressed.

Internally-generated stress has many sources that you can't directly change

Back to those who skip holidays and days off in order to address the stressful demands of their work.

They may or may not be able to sort out their work-related stress – but lowering their internal stress could improve the overall picture and that usually requires taking direct, stress-reducing actions.

For instance, if you think you’re too busy to spend time lying beside a pool in a holiday resort, you probably need to go and lie beside a pool in a holiday resort. In this way you can lower that part of your stress that isn’t directly caused by your workplace. Actually, you may find that the reduction in your own stress gives you the mental and emotional space to see choices that could improve your working life – such as getting out of that workplace or that department.

Similarly, if you like going to the gym, taking long walks, meditating, listening to music, reading, or watching bubblegum TV, then bringing these back into your life could do you and your heart a big favour.

Internally-generated stress has many sources that you can’t directly change. For instance, high stress levels in pregnant women can make their children more easily stressed after birth. This seems to affect girls more than boys. To be more accurate, it takes them longer to “come down” from stress.

You can’t actually go back and reset your experience in the womb. But you can pay attention to your own stress levels and sources of calm – you can take that holiday or go for that walk.

Some recent work has also shown that if your mother had very stressful experiences in childhood then you may be more easily stressable.

You need to get to know what helps you to be calm and to give time and attention to that

The exact pathway by which this happens isn’t clear. This source of stress seems to affect both males and females equally.

You can’t go back and reorganise your mother’s childhood either. Once again, if you are easily stressed, you need to pay more attention to ways of generating calm in your life. You need to get to know what helps you to be calm and to give time and attention to that. This is actually a very pleasant thing to do. Also when you get stressed you can try not to keep it rolling by going on and on talking angrily to yourself about it.

On a macro level, of course, all this means that the less stress suffered by pregnant women, the lower the stress levels of their children are likely to be. And the less stress suffered by young girls, the lower the levels of stress they will eventually pass on.

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