09 June 2011

Stress: the toll for living life in the fast lane

Stress-related conditions are on the rise. Learn how to take stress more seriously.



The demands of our fast-paced lifestyles are putting us under increased stress. Stress-related conditions are on the rise. These include very serious conditions, such as depression and ischaemic heart disease. It is vital that we take stress more seriously and proactively manage our daily stress levels.

As South Africans, we are a resilient, capable people and not known for our complaining, but could our strong, ‘let’s get on with it’ temperament be preventing us from acknowledging and dealing with potentially dangerous stress levels?

Our fast-paced, modern lifestyles offer many advantages, but the escalating demands of work and home also appear to be taking their toll. A wide range of stress-related conditions, from anxiety and insomnia to obesity, depression and mood disorders, are on the rise.

According to findings from the first South African Stress and Health Study, for example, South Africa is ranked 7th highest in the world for the prevalence of mood disorders and one in every 10 of us will suffer a mood disorder at some point in our lives[1].

We are not alone in this and the situation here reflects trends around the rest of the world. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) suggests America is also an over-stressed nation, for instance, with 32% of Americans living with extremely high stress levels and 44% stating that these have increased during the past five years[2]. Similarly, a report recently adopted by the European Parliament suggests that over 27% of European adults are affected by mental ill health every year[3].

Why don’t we take stress more seriously?

Whether it’s because we think we can handle it or are worried that admitting we’re feeling the pressure would be a sign of weakness, many of us appear not to realise how much stress we are under and just how serious it can be.

Yet we ignore high stress levels at our peril since they are a significant risk factor for a wide variety of debilitating and serious conditions, from alcoholism and substance abuse to serious mood disorders and ischaemic heart disease.

In fact, many healthcare professionals argue that stress-related disorders are escalating so rapidly because the role played by stress is not being recognised and addressed early enough.

What is stress and how does it affect our bodies?

Stress is our response to an event that has disturbed us and caused mental and/or physical tension. Our bodies react by releasing chemicals into the blood that can give us extra energy and strength, such as cortisol. In some instances, this can be a positive reaction, enabling us to swiftly deal with a threatening situation or motivating us to perform at our best. If maintained for a prolonged time, however, this heightened state also puts a serious strain on the body because it doesn’t allow the body to relax and recover in its normal state.

Prolonged high stress levels can lead to a wide variety of complaints, including insomnia, headaches, anxiety, fatigue, muscle tension, irritability, depression and ischaemic heart disease. Studies also show that people under sustained pressure are much more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours, such as excessive drinking and drug use, chain smoking, and making poor exercise and nutritional choices.

Managing our stress levels

Stress is a natural, inevitable part of a fulfilling life, but given the potentially serious hazards posed by excessive stress, it is vital that we proactively manage our stress levels. We need to be aware of how much stress we are under at any given time and to learn to take measures to cope, especially during particularly stressful periods.

There are recognised stressful events, such as moving house, divorce, the death of someone close, losing a job or suffering a serious illness or injury, but we also need to be more conscious about the frequent times a sudden change will leave us stressed and emotionally depleted. There are many ordinary occasions when we can feel overwhelmed, unable to cope and need a little extra support, for example, returning to work after a long holiday, writing an exam or taking on a bigger workload.

Prevention through pro-active management is the key. It’s more about routinely looking after your mental health than trying to eliminate every source of stress. By becoming aware of, and coping with, the smaller, but far more frequent stressful events in our daily lives, will improve our overall mental health and help prevent serious stress-related conditions from arising.

Anti-depressants and other therapies have an important role to play when it comes to treating chronic stress-related disorders, but the general goal should be prevention by proactively managing your stress and maintaining your mental health.

The good news

The good news is that there are numerous things we can do to give ourselves an improved physiological advantage during stressful periods. Perhaps the best way to manage daily stress is by using a combination of techniques, including eating a balance diet, exercising regularly, practising relaxation techniques and seeking support through personal relationships.

During a particularly stressful period, when you’re in overdrive and experiencing mental exhaustion, irritability, mood swings and forgetfulness, these methods should be complemented with natural, non-prescription supplements. These not only help stabilise and improve our moods, they also boost levels of mental alertness and concentration, enabling us to cope with the extra stress better.

20 stress-busting strategies

  • Listen to your body and be kind to yourself
  • Learn to say “no” to prevent overload
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Volunteer at a local charity
  • Take natural, mood stabilising supplements
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Drink less coffee, tea and alcohol
  • Practice breathing techniques
  • Turn to family and friends for support
  • Soothe your soul with calming, uplifting music
  • Snack healthily (e.g. fruit, not chips)
  • Seek out positive people and situations
  • Drink eight glasses of water a day
  • Schedule personal fun time into every day
  • Meditate
  • Don’t worry about the “what ifs”
  • Quit smoking
  • Strip out any ‘to do’ list task that isn’t absolutely necessary
  • Go for a quick stroll
  • Take up a new hobby or sport

- Dr Conrad A Smith, The Medical Nutritional Institute (MNI), June 2011

Please note: this information and advice is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult your healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for your own situation or if you have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.




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