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Get a handle on stress.

It has got a bad press for years and for all the right reasons -- stress is the bane of our lives, steadily robbing us of our health and sanity. As we go through the daily grind, dealing with traffic snarls, high rents and low pay, loan instalments, squabbling partners, unruly children, workplace frustrations and so on, our body takes a beating we are too stressed to pay attention to. How many of us truly understand the impact of stress on our happiness? Do we even know where and how stress begins? Here's what experts have to say on how to recognise stress and deal with it.

The mind and stress

To deal with stress we need to understand the nature and intensity of the stimuli and how we respond to it. Linda Sakr, counselling psychologist at the Dubai Community Health Centre, provides her understanding of stressors and the mechanics of coping.

"We are confronted with problems every day, so when that happens, first, you must determine the seriousness of the problem. Next, ask yourself, do you have the resources that will help you cope with the problem?"

For example, you have to get somewhere on time. But for several reasons, like a traffic jam, for example, you cannot. This induces stress. "In other words," says Sakr, "stress can be defined as a process in which environmental demands strain an organism's adaptive capacity, resulting in both psychological as well as biological changes that could place a person at risk of illness and interfere with an important personal goal. The more important the goal, the more stressed a person feels when that goal is threatened.

So, if you believe that not getting to a place on time is a serious issue and you do not have the emotional resources to tackle the problem, it is the beginning of stress.

If you do not recognise the stress that is building up and undertake measures to control it, it means your stress will now persist beyond the initial flight-or-fight stage. Now the body's reaction to this persistent stress enters the next stage. During this stage, stressful events can possibly lead to the risk of people developing an illness. They may also trigger behavioural or biological processes that contribute to the onset of disease.

Exposure to chronic stress may result in permanent or, at the very least, long-term psychological, biological, or behavioural responses. These responses have the ability to change the course of an illness. For instance, if you have been experiencing stress for more than a month or longer in the workplace, you have an increased risk of developing colds.

Having said that, none of us can lead completely stress-free lives. What tips the scales is chronic, negative stress. Psychologists believe that any, and all, change is stressful because it forces us to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances. Some changes require more of an adjustment than others. The change resulting from both positive (marriage, promotion, graduation) and negative (divorce, unemployment) life events are stressful.

"Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. A certain amount of stress is natural," Sakr says.

How can you cope with stress?

A sense of control: Both animals as well as people cope better with a painful or threatening situation when they can exercise some sort of control. For instance, if you are overweight and your doctor tells you it is because you have a genetic disorder, you have no control over your situation. This may be very stressful for you. However, if your doctor tells you that with diet and exercise you can lose the weight, you might find that situation less stressful as you can exercise control over it. Even when you cannot control unpleasant events, they tend to be less stressful if they are predictable. So, knowing that traffic will be heavy on Shaikh Zayed Road at 8am is less stressful than dealing with unexpectedly heavy traffic at 3pm.

Tip: As far as is possible, try to be aware of the outcomes of your life events. It will help you exercise your choice.

Coping styles: Optimism and pessimism: Some people seem predisposed to believe they can maintain control over stressful situations. These people are said to have an optimistic coping style. Other people have a pessimistic coping style, they view the world as an uncontrollable, unpredictable place in which they will never be able to gain control over things that bother them.

Tip: Try to have an optimistic view of life.

Appraisal and coping: A key component to people's reactions to stress is how they appraise or think about a potentially stressful situation. What may be stressful for one person may not be stressful for another. For example, one person may see going to university as a stressful experience. They may be anxious about living away from home for the first time and worried about making new friends and doing well. Another person may see going to university as the beginning of a new, fun adventure. Both of these people experience the same event but for one the event is stressful. When faced with potential stressors (like going to university) we appraise the situation to determine if it is threatening to our well-being. If there is a threat, we need to evaluate the personal resources at our command to meet the demands of the situation. In other words, when faced with a stressful situation, we need to determine if we have the ability to cope or not.

Tip: Try to scope out the situations you are likely to face in everyday life so you can assess how you can deal with them.

-- By Linda Sakr

Hormones and stress

Can a hormonal overdrive wreck our health? Absolutely. Dr Sadeer Samara, an Australian Board Certified MD in internal medicine, XY Clinic, Dubai, tells us how.

First, the role of hormones in stress

Your body perceives threat.

A pair of endocrine (ductless) glands in our body called the adrenal begin to release hormones, the chief among them cortisol and adrenaline.

These cause rapid changes in our body. Stored glycogen (fat) is released from the body to give a burst of energy and the heart pumps faster to increase the blood supply to organs.

These responses give us sudden strength to fight back or run from the source of danger.

If the flight-or-fight response is called into action too often, the strength to fight effectively begins to take a beating. This is the lead-up to chronic stress.

Our survival mode goes into overdrive, our adrenals get to be overused to the point when after years of abuse, our adrenalin glands get fatigued. The result is that we are permanently in a state of alert, turning now to our extracellular and extra-muscular energy to deal with problems on a daily basis.

How it affects your organs

It pushes up your heartbeat

"Whenever stress hormones -- epinephrine and norepinephrine are released, they cause the heart to beat faster. This triggers an increase in blood pressure as part of the evolutionary response. Chronic stress has an effect on cardiac function and is a known contributor to tachycardia."

Leads to sugar cravings and fat build-up

Stress has no direct impact on cholesterol metabolism but it may indirectly contribute to it if the person experiencing chronic stress deals with the problems by eating sugary foods.

"The reason for the carbohydrate craving and sweets is that there is increased demand for glucose in stressful situations. Keeping in mind that the natural stress response leads to increased alertness and focus, it is clear the craving for sugary foods is mediated at the brain level. The more you feel stressed, the more carbohydrates a person tends to eat and the more carbohydrates you eat, the more likelihood of that person developing metabolic syndrome.

Compromises immunity

Other ways stress affects health is by increasing the process of inflammation. When your internal body clock is affected, cortisol secretion changes during the day and night. Night-time cortisol influences sleep negatively and sleep deficit triggers the release of some inflammatory molecules called interleukins. And inflammation is at the core of almost all chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease and diabetes," says Dr Samara.

Now that you know all this, how can you control stress?

The first thing is to measure the nature and extent of your stress levels and how it has interacted with the vital physiological functions of the body. Dr Samara recommends a stress test for your circadian rhythm.

"This test measures cortisol and DHEA [dehydroepiandrosterone] levels four times between 6am and 11pm. Additionally, we conduct a urine-based test both for adrenal hormones and their metabolites. These tests provide sufficient information to determine at what stage a person is in the stress cycle. Obviously, it is wishful to think that we can entirely eliminate stress from our lives. What we can do is improve the biological response to stress by working on a person's neurotransmitters and adrenal health. The same stress signal elicits varying degrees of response in people. So it is possible to blunt the effects of stress. We improve both the quality and duration of sleep, provide recommendations that improve cardiac health and deal with the disturbances in the cortisol secretion with the use of natural supplements and hormones."

Yoga and stress

Physicians and yoga specialists both agree that our stress response affects our breathing rhythm. When we experience anger, sadness or fear, we tend to have shallow breathing. Over a long period of stress, we adopt shallow breathing rhythms and are unable to relax completely, compounding our stress levels. Meditation where we are able to consciously cut ourselves loose from the world and concentrate on deep breathing can have a salutary effect on reducing the impact of the stressors and helping us cope better.

Dr Vishwas Chhabra, a Dubai-based Ayurveda doctor, yoga guru and lifestyle coach in Dubai, explains how meditation can lower your stress levels.

"Stress is not in our environment, but in the manner in which we perceive external stimuli through our mind and attitude," he says.

Yoga postures and meditation can help tremendously. Yoga consists of concentration techniques, breathing exercises, dietary guidelines, and a series of postures. This helps balance the different systems of the body, including the central nervous system, endocrine system, and digestive system.

Here are a few ways to control stress using yoga techniques:

1) By slowing down mental activity, by gently stretching the body and massaging the internal organs, yoga creates a climate of dynamic peace within.

This relaxing and rejuvenating experience momentarily removes us from involvement with the stressors in our day-to-day hassles.

With practice, we build up a natural response to stress, and bring the relaxed state more into our daily lives.

Meditation: It is considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine

Meditation is also called "the relaxation response" as it elicits the opposite bodily reaction from the "fight-or-flight" response. It produces a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind which decreases heart rate, blood pressure and one uses oxygen more efficiently. The adrenal glands produce less cortical, the mind ages at a slower rate, and overall immune function improves.

During meditation, one focuses attention and eliminates the stream of jumbled thoughts that causing stress, which increases a sense of calm, peace and balance. Meditation can even improve certain medical conditions.

Training our bodies on a daily basis to achieve this state of relaxation can lead to an enhanced mood, clear mind, increased creativity and reduction of lifestyle stress," said Dr Chhabra.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Apr 12, 2014
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