The author of a new book on stress management says that our bodies have not adapted to the 21st century ‘ever-connected’ culture.
Where we were once stressed by facing a lion or tiger in the wild, now we have Excel spreadsheets, broken down commuter trains, a PowerPoint presentation to prepare, unanswered e-mail and a smartphone which means we never escape from anything.
"Our response to every threat - whether it's a sabre-toothed tiger or a divorce or an approaching deadline - is fight or flight,” says Brian Luke Seaward, author of Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Well-Being.
"We see an increase in our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate - basically all the metabolic activities that get you to survive and run for the hills.”
It's an incredibly efficient system. Except that it's slowly killing us because so much of what we see as stress is perceived stress. When we constantly perceive ourselves as stressed, our stressed hormones never get turned off.
This is fantastic when you need to jump out of the path of a careening vehicle. Not so fantastic when a Twitter blackout sends you into apoplexy.
Seaward says we can reset our body to respond differently to stress.
“We can’t avoid stress or stressors altogether, but we can get more ‘stress proof’,” he says.
Top tips for doing so include:
1. Break a Sweat: exercise not only helps when stress hits, but also to protect the body from flying into crisis mode at the first sign of trouble. "When athletes engage in exercise they have a parasympathetic rebound," he says. "When they stop, their bodies say, `it's time for relaxation' and they kick in a chemical called acetylcholine, also known as a relaxation hormone. If you look at our culture, we're not exercising regularly. We're training ourselves for stress, but we're not training ourselves for relaxation."
2. Socialise with real people, not online: socialising and having social support reduces reaction to stressful situations and also helps when there is stress. But do it with real people, he says. Join a book club or a walking group. Do some volunteering.
3. Avoid comfort food: we all do it at times. Reach for something sweet or salty. It momentarily brings a tranquilising effect but it wears off and we crave the same food to feel better again. This raises our stress levels! But a carrot or celery stick are not necessarily the answer. Instead, do something else you enjoy that doesn’t involve food.
4. Meditate: “People who meditate can begin to change not just the physiology of the brain, but the structure of the brain," says Seaward. Compassion meditation, a technique aimed at creating more empathy and acceptance of others, is particularly helpful in warding off stress. The goal is to alter your perceptions of situations outside of yourself. Notice something good that happened to you today and tell someone about it. Do something nice for another person. Volunteer your time. "Even taking five minutes a day to sit in quiet ambience will help," says Seaward. "Our culture is in sensory overload and that creates a training effect for our brains to release an avalanche of stress hormones.”