MANAGE stress and you’ll be healthier and happier. Haven’t we heard this once too often? And isn’t it easier said than done given the “pressure cooker” lives we lead today?
Demanding bosses, back-stabbing co-workers, problematic children and unruly neighbours — the list of “stress triggers” is endless in today’s urban environment. But can we still find ways to manage stress and achieve balance in our lives in the midst of all this chaos?
Humans are social creatures. We thrive in our inter-personal relationships, whether at home or at work but these same relationships can either be a source of support or stress, says Dr Daniel Zainal Abdul Rahman, consultant psychiatrist at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur.
Managing stress he explains, doesn’t mean eliminating it from our lives because that would be impossible. Furthermore, we need stress to some extent because it motivates us to perform. But, if we are in perpetual stress mode 24 hours a day we are heading for danger.
THE DANGERS OF RUNNING ON FIFTH GEAR
Dr Daniel says everyone is “running on fifth gear” these days, so the body’s stress response, which is actually intended to help us face an external threat to our safety or survival, is being constantly triggered.
The heart beats fast, breathing becomes shallow and rapid, blood pressure, pulse rate and sugar levels rise. Adrenalin floods the body and muscles tighten. All these come into place to help us either fight or run away in the face of danger and these stress parameters go back to normal once the threat is over. However, in today’s environment, this stress response is being triggered all the time, even over small things and the end result is damage to the body and mind.
“It’s like starting a car, and keeping the left foot flooring the brake and the right foot flooring the gas. What do you think happens to the engine? How long can it last? It will break down,” he says.
Dr Daniel says while stress drives us to perform, each individual has an optimal stress level and when this level has been reached, their performance drops and they suffer a “burn-out”. For this reason, we must learn to respect our optimal stress level.
The key to managing stress in daily life is to put in as many “buffers” as possible between us and stress.
Exercise is one such buffer because when we work out, the body releases endorphins or “happy hormones” and all our stress parameters come down. Exercising three to four times a week or more for at least 30-40 minutes doing either brisk walking, cycling, jogging, swimming or aerobics can be beneficial in stress management.
Our diet offers another solution to stress. We need to include as much anti-oxidant rich foods as possible into our meals and much of this can be found very easily in local markets. Red onions, garlic, broccoli, nuts, pomegranates and other brightly coloured fruit and vegetables should be included in our diet together with an adequate intake of water.
“We must keep in mind that if we put rubbish into our bodies, we get rubbish in return,” says Dr Daniel.
AWARENESS OF OURSELVES
Dr Daniel says keeping a “stress diary” can also be beneficial as it helps us understand how things affect us and how to improve. Put everything down on paper such as what causes the stress, how it affects you and what you can do to make things better. For example, you can write down all statements you either tell yourself or other people that include the words “should”, “should have” or “should not have”, statements generally related to anxiety or stress provocation and decide how many of these you can actually do without. You’ll realise there are many you can disregard.
“It’s like putting everything on the table and examining it from the outside in an objective manner.”
People with certain personalities do tend to be more stressed because our personalities determine how we think, feel and behave but there are two sides to every personality, says Dr Daniel.
For example, those who are obsessive are also very meticulous and organised, and shine at work. In relationships however, they fare poorly because of the “my way or highway” approach. A very easy-going person on the other hand may be too laidback and perform poorly. Gender also plays a role in how we deal with stress. Women are more emotionally resilient and introspective compared with men. They are also more expressive, and more likely to come forward and seek help for problems.
Practising deep abdominal breathing is another buffer against stress. Dr Daniel says the body’s stress response is to initiate shallow, rapid breathing so the opposite works to relax and calm, and if a person can convert as many of his breaths into deep, abdominal breathing, he will generally be a more relaxed individual.
Meditation should also be an important component in our daily lives as it helps the mind push away anxiety provoking thoughts and promotes relaxation. It even helps us cope better with stressful situations.
“Ancient Eastern philosophies have shown us how to deal with stress but the problem is we’re not using them often enough. What’s worse is that we always react to a problem when we’re supposed to act,” he says.
Building and nurturing a supportive network of family and friends at different levels, and cultivating hobbies and interests that help us relax are also crucial in stress management. Even giving ourselves some “down time” and “me time” is important.
But all these coping mechanisms should be made part and parcel of daily life in order for them to be effective, says Dr Daniel.
“There are many things you can do but you need to do them consistently, turn them into the philosophy of your life.”
• Acknowledge that you cannot have complete control over your life.
• Set specific but realistic and achievable goals.
• Accept that you cannot change certain things.
• Be flexible and adaptable.
• Aim for moderation in life.
• Break down problems into small components before dealing with them.
• Learn to forgive and let go. Don’t hold grudges.