We can’t completely get rid of stress from our lives. But it turns out we can train our brains to respond to it in a more resilient way. Wellbeing journalist Jo Usmar finds out how.
Heart-racing, blood-pumping, feeling that something bad is about to happen, we’re all familiar with that physical feeling. In fact, we’re experiencing it more than ever, with 74% of the UK in 2018 reporting feeling “overwhelmed and unable to cope” due to stress in the previous year.
“Stress, in a nutshell, is your brain’s way of preparing for whatever danger may happen in the next moment,” explains Dr Mithu Storoni, researcher, physician and author of Stress-Proof: The Scientific Solution to Protect Your Brain and Body and Be More Resilient Every Day (£14.99, Yellow Kite). “But what we’re now discovering is that pretty much all stress stems from the brain and you can train yourself – primarily your brain – to achieve a better baseline to allow yourself to respond to stress in a resilient way.”
What happens to our brain and body when we’re stressed?
Your brain ignites a stress response if it thinks you’re being threatened – and that threat can be physical or emotional. The release of adrenaline manifests in a range of physiological responses such as rapid breathing, a quickened pulse, and heightened alertness. The adrenal gland releases the stress hormone cortisol. Your emotional brain takes a back seat so you can focus on the immediacy of the threat.
All of this works together until the stressful moment passes. At which point, the parasympathetic nervous system rises (sometimes called the ‘rest and digest system’ as it conserves energy and slows the heart rate). While the sympathetic system falls (this activates our fight or flight response), returning things to normal.
What about long-term stress?
When suffering from chronic stress, these responses can ‘malfunction’ causing your body all manner of problems. This might include permanently raised levels of cortisol (affecting blood sugar levels); altered synaptic plasticity (the way in which your brain forms connections); lack of attention; an out-of-tune body clock and even insulin resistance (when glucose levels are out of balance, potentially contributing to diabetes and even weight gain).
How can I cope better with stress?
Dr Storoni believes there are things we can do to better manage the repercussions of day-to-day angst. Here are some of her recommended strategies, extracted from Stress-proof by Dr Mithu Storoni…
1. Find your flow
‘Flow’ denotes a state of being so completely absorbed in an activity that any unrelated thought or sensation is obliterated. The activity must be challenging enough for you to engage your brain, but not so challenging that you lose interest because it feels too difficult or stressful. Entering into this state immediately after a stressful experience (such as an argument with a friend) may help you avert unwelcome negative thoughts.
People who incorporate flow in their daily lives report being happier and less stressed. Think yoga, playing or listening to music or sports such as tennis.
2. Smell the lemons
One study has shown how smelling the scent of a lemon for fifteen minutes can reduce heart rate and blood pressure and make you feel calmer. The volunteers in the study actively smelled the scent for thirty seconds, then gave their noses a break for thirty seconds. Try using lemon essential oil on your pressure points in the morning and applying throughout the day.
3. Eat natural probiotic yoghurt
A randomised trial found that eating 100g of probiotic natural yogurt every day for six weeks reduced general perceived anxiety and stress-proof effects. Make this your breakfast go-to with berries and nuts. You’ll also benefit from a filling, protein-rich start to the day.
4. Exercise in the morning
Exercising in the morning as opposed to the evening may raise your body’s parasympathetic activity at night while you sleep. This helps you relax and improves your sleep quality, according to Japanese researchers. If a gym class is too much, try a short yoga practice or an at-home HIIT video.
5. Visit a sauna
Waon therapy is a Japanese sauna therapy which may improve anxiety and feelings of fatigue. People sit in a dry infrared sauna for 15 minutes, before resting under a blanket for 30 minutes. No time for lengthy sauna sessions? Having a 20-minute sauna visit, three times a week may be enough to stress-proof your body, reduce anxiety and tension headaches according to hospital researchers in New Zealand.