What Science Tells Us About Managing Stress

In 2015, the Australian Psychological Society conducted their fifth successive Stress and Wellbeing Australia Survey to examine the levels, causes and impacts of stress among Australian adults. Key findings from the study showed that:

  • 35% of Australians report having a significant level of distress in their lives
  • 26% of Australians report above normal levels of anxiety symptoms
  • 26% of Australians report having moderate to extremely severe levels of depressive symptoms
  • In 2015, anxiety symptoms were the highest they have been since the survey was first taken in 2010.

The five main causes of stress are:

  • Personal finances
  • Family issues
  • Personal health
  • Trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle
  • Issues with health of loved ones

Stress is clearly a major issue in this country, but how can we best manage it?

Why stress needs to be managed

Reducing stress is vital for maintaining your overall health. A reduction of stress in your everyday life will result in boosted immune function, improvement in your mood, increased longevity, and an increase in productivity. When you let stress get the better of you, you put yourself at risk of developing a range of illnesses – from the common cold to severe heart disease.

Stress is a natural response that is activated in the brain. When you become stressed, certain chemicals within the brain begin to rise, causing larger amounts of “fight or flight” hormones to be released by the adrenal glands. The release of these chemicals contributes to certain physiological effects, including higher blood pressure, rapid heart rate, and a weakened immune system. If this is left unmanaged over time, chronic stress can result in the development of other serious health problems like asthma, heart disease, stomach ulcers, and increased risk of stroke.

Tips for managing stress

The Stress and Wellbeing Australia Survey showed that in people reporting higher levels of anxiety and depression symptoms, 61% drink alcohol, 41% gamble, 40% smoke and 31% take recreational drugs to manage stress. These kinds of habits can trigger dangerous dependency and deepen stress-causing problems. The figures of people engaging in these activities grow higher as stress levels increase.

But science tells us there are a number of ways to manage stress levels that don’t involve such high-risk habits.

Instead, you can change the way you interpret and react to stress triggers by consciously activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the “rest and digest” response, and the normal resting state of your brain and body. This can reduce stress levels, lift mood, increase clarity of thinking, and help you achieve tranquility and relaxation.

Psycho-neuro-immunology studies have now established the connection between body, mind and emotions, which ancient Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners and yogis have recognised for centuries. This suggests that the mind and body should be treated as one. By changing your reactions to stress, using breathing and relaxation techniques and changing your diet, you can reduce stress as well as its potential impact on your health.

Here are some other things science suggests we can do to reduce stress.

Cultivate positive emotions

According to Rick Hanson PhD, conscious cultivation of positive feelings activates the “rest and digest” response by lowering cardiovascular activity, allowing a person to be more relaxed and optimistic. Positive psychology affects an individual’s well being, intellectual ability and social relationships. By broadening your exposure to positive emotions (such as joy, interest, contentment and love), you broaden your mindset, widen your emotional and peripheral awareness, promote creativity and build your decision-making skills and resilience, which allows you to recover faster from the adversities of daily life.

Get moving

Exercise in almost any form can act as a stress reliever and you don’t have to be an athlete or be in good shape to receive the benefits. Exercise pumps up your endorphins – your brain’s natural “feel good” neurotransmitters. It helps you to shed your daily tensions by allowing you to concentrate on movement and physical activity. It increases self-confidence, relaxes you, and lowers symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety. Exercise can improve your sleep, give you a sense of command over your life, and offer social interaction.

Rest up

Research increasingly indicates a strong link between sleep and stress that highlights the potential for a vicious cycle. Sleep is a necessary human function, yet it’s not hard for a person to get caught up in an ongoing cycle of stress and exhaustion.

During sleep is when our bodies rest and our brains recharge. A bad night’s sleep means that your brain has missed out on memory consolidation and your body has missed out on muscle repair. Sleep is so crucial that even slight sleep deprivation can affect memory, judgement and mood. In the long-term, chronic sleep deprivation can also contribute to health problems, from obesity to high blood pressure, and it can also create safety risks while you’re driving.

Surround yourself with happy people

A study has found that by surrounding yourself with positive and happy people you can become more cheerful yourself. A team at Manchester and Warwick Universities discovered that after a six to 12 month period of being surrounded by happy people, depressed people doubled their chance of recovery. Social support is an important recovery tool for stress and a happy friendship group could be the key to keeping stress from taking hold.

Eat well

A healthy, balanced wholefood diet is proven to be effective in managing stress and restoring health and wellbeing. Leah Hechtman, author of Clinical Naturopathic Medicine explains: “An individual suffering from stress or anxiety must support the biochemistry of the body by following some important dietary guidelines”. Drink plenty of water and stick to a plant-based diet that incorporates complex carbohydrates such as quinoa, brown rice, oats and legumes. Choose high quality proteins, enjoy omega-3 fatty acids and aim to include plenty of vitamin C rich foods, which are thought to reduce the physical and psychological effects of stress by lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels when under stress. Try to avoid stimulants such as alcohol, cigarettes, coffee and other caffeinated beverages, as well as processed fatty foods and sweets.

Change your mindset

The mindset you adopt can have a powerful influence over your judgement, health and behaviour, and the way you think about stress might just be your best weapon in managing it. Stanford psychology Assistant Professor Alia Crum showed that viewing stress as a helpful part of life, rather than harmful, is associated with better health, emotional wellbeing and productivity at work. Putting a positive twist on your stress can make all the difference. As part of the study, hotel room attendants who began to see their stress as allowing them to exercise all showed significant reduction in blood pressure, weight, BMI and hip-to-waist ratio. It’s about acknowledging stress for what it is and making use of the energy stress gives you.

Manage your stress

There are many reasons why it’s important to get of control of your stress. Stress is a part of our lives, however the long-term impacts that can arise from it if it is not managed effectively are detrimental. Find a way to incorporate these tips into your everyday life and you will be on your way to feeling happier and healthier.

Disclaimer: The Herron blog is interested in general community well being, and does not imply that Herron products should be used for serious ailments without the advice or recommendation from your healthcare practitioner.

All information presented on the Herron website is meant for general knowledge and never meant as a diagnosis of prescription. Please always contact your doctor for health related matters.