Over the last few decades, stress has become a public-health epidemic on the same scale as smoking – with similarly catastrophic effects on the body. ‘Stress causes inflammation in the body and weakens the immune system,’ explains specialist psychiatrist Dr Siobhan Dawson, whose Cape Town practice centres on functional and integrative medicine. ‘Almost every chronic disease can be aggravated or caused by stress, including cancer, depression, heart disease, stroke, gut problems, memory issues, autoimmune conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes, premature ageing and thyroid issues. People [suffering from stress] also commonly complain of mental and emotional symptoms, such as chronic fatigue, irritability, anxiety and insomnia.’
That’s a pretty sobering list. The problem is, while most of us are aware that our stress levels aren’t doing our health any favours, it feels almost impossible to just … stress less. Unlike quitting smoking or cutting out trans fats, stress is an invisible but insidious component of our modern lifestyle, and we’re not always aware of being in its grip. So the only way to win the battle against it, is to understand it better.
A natural response
Here’s the thing: Stress is a perfectly natural state for the human body – but in short bursts. It’s how we’re designed to react to emergency situations; the good old, fight-or-flight response. Dr Dawson says this is termed ‘acute’ stress. ‘It’s our response to an immediate, isolated challenge, such as taking a big wave in surfing; witnessing an accident; meeting a work deadline; doing a public presentation; or having an altercation. It has the benefit of triggering the body to respond efficiently to the event: The heart pumps more blood to the brain, oxygen floods the body, and vessels constrict in the extremities to reduce potential blood loss. The body should then have time to recover. Occasional stress events actually help the body build resilience.’
This was all well and good for our prehistoric ancestors. They came face to face with a sabre-toothed cat, went into fight-or-flight mode and, hopefully, spent the next few weeks relaxing in the cave on their new sabre-toothed-cat-shaped rug (if it went the other way, well … stress was the least of their worries). Modern life, on the other hand, seems to have been designed to include an almost constant barrage of stressful situations, which is playing havoc with our internal sympathetic system. Dr Dawson divides these onslaughts into ‘episodic’ and ‘chronic’ stress.
‘Episodic stress refers to frequent bouts of acute stress, which may be related to unrealistic expectations a person has of themself or a personality style that is highly anxious, critical or pessimistic. They may experience stress from traffic jams, news events, having too many commitments, parenting issues…’ she says. ‘Chronic stress is unremitting and relentless. Eventually people feel overwhelmed and depressed, and burn out. This could be related to ongoing marital problems, prolonged health concerns, constant political uncertainty or job pressure.’
Pack your toolkit
Life is stressful. Unless you plan to quit your job and escape to a tropical island to do yoga for the rest of your life, there’s just no getting around that fact. The trick is to find ways to game the system and introduce some calm into our chaotic modern lives.
‘Each of us needs to have a toolkit of techniques that we’ve explored and found to work for us. It isn’t complicated. Nutrition, rest, sleep, exercise, laughter… The basics are so, so important,’ says Penny Louw of Neurobalance. Based in Cape Town and Joburg, Neurobalance offers a treatment known as Brainwave Optimisation, which analyses and helps to recalibrate a client’s brainwaves to restore the mind to a more harmonious, balanced state. ‘People need to experiment with a variety of processes, and understand that small changes can make a huge difference to stress levels.’
Break a sweat: ‘Aerobic exercise is vital,’ says Louw. ‘Most of the clients we see are stuck in fight-or-flight mode. Their bodies are awash with adrenaline, which causes a huge variety of stress-related issues. This can be mitigated by using up that adrenaline during exercise.’
Start the day right: ‘An early-morning breathing practice can have profound effects,’ says Dr Dawson. ‘Practise deep breathing for three minutes, followed by gratitude reflection for three minutes, and then visualisation of the day to come for three minutes.’ No matter how busy you are, you can probably spare nine minutes a day to be proactive about reducing your stress levels.
Commune with nature: ‘Time in nature is more critical than one realises,’ says Dr Dawson. ‘A walk in the forest can be more beneficial than running on the treadmill if you are trying to manage stress. The Japanese have a practice called ‘forest bathing’, and studies have shown that it has significant physiological anti-stress benefits.’ Known as shinrin-yoku, this practice isn’t about hiking, jogging or any kind of exercise, but rather about taking in the stimulus of nature through all your senses.
Get away from it all: Sometimes what’s required is a complete break from your situation, so you can reset and learn techniques to better manage your stress once you return home. In Franschhoek, at the Anassa Retreats, Dr Dawson helps sufferers of chronic stress to do just that. ‘We aim to expose participants to healing strategies that have a good scientific base and can be incorporated into a busy lifestyle. We focus on mastering the techniques to thrive through detoxing, resetting the nervous system, building resilience and enhancing flow.’
Food for (calmer) thought: ‘Dietary choices have a critical role to play in supporting your body to manage the effects of stress,’ says Dr Dawson. Since stress causes an inflammatory response in the body, it makes sense to avoid eating foods that do the same. You know the drill: ‘Alcohol, sugar, caffeine, chocolate, energy drinks, processed convenience foods and artificially salted items, such as crisps and fried food, should be avoided at all costs. The closer food is to its natural state, the better it will be in supporting health. Try blueberries, green vegetables, avocado, wild fish, nuts and legumes,’ says Dr Dawson.
There’s an app for that
Team up with technology to manage your mental state.
All available free on Android and IOS
Breathe2Relax ‘Just breathe’ isn’t the most helpful advice, if you’ve forgotten how to do more than take shallow gulps of oxygen when stressed. This simple app will instruct you on how to breathe diaphragmatically. You can link it to your Apple watch, too, to see how your heart rate is affected in real time.
Headspace Meditate, they said. It’ll be good for you, they said. But what if ‘they’ never said how to do it? Headspace, one of the most popular beginner’s meditation guides out there, has got you covered with a beautiful interface and 10 free guided meditations.
Pacifica for Stress & Anxiety Based on principles of cognitive behavioural therapy, this app plays the long game in helping you manage stress, anxiety and depression. With self-care skills training and a mood-tracking feature, it’ll help you feel more in control of your own well-being.
Colorfy Adult Colouring is officially a thing, but who wants to cart around a pencil case? This app allows you to zone out and tap (ahem) into your creativity.
BEAT A RETREAT
Get away from it all and learn anti-stress techniques at these five-star retreats
Franschhoek, Western Cape
Hoogland Health Hydro
Hennops River Valley, Gauteng
Namasté Detox Retreats