I’ve had a hangover recently, but not one from alcohol. Instead I got sozzled on anxiety and stress following a particularly intense few weeks that included a health scare with my daughter and a few too many shots of worry over a loved one.
This sort of lingering mental hangover plays out in the body – for me, catching in my throat, clamping down around my airways and constricting the muscles in my neck and shoulders.
A little bit of stress sharpens us, but more than 30 per cent of Australians report feeling significantly stressed out and this makes us more than twice as vulnerable to experiencing anxiety or depression and more prone to getting sick, both in the short and longer term.
Regardless of the cause of stress – whether it’s physical from an infection or losing blood, or psychological from work pressures, relationship troubles or our kids getting sick – our body responds in a similar way, explains Professor Christopher Dayas from the University of Newcastle's School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy.
Our bodies kick into gear quickly and powerfully to help us prepare to “fight or take flight” from the stressor; a part of the brain called the hypothalamus triggers the release the “major stress hormone” cortisol, our heart rate and blood pressure jump and, in the case of psychological stress, we typically have a very strong desire to escape.
My instinct was to run: to run it out, to force air into my lungs and, maybe, to try and out-run the feeling. But, is that the best way to relieve stress?
It’s certainly better than doing nothing, Professor Dayas says.
“Doing nothing is probably the worst thing to relieve stress,” he says. “You've got to try and recognise the stressor and, if it’s work-related, are there ways to short-circuit those issues?”
Dr Michelle Tuckey, a researcher in stress and wellbeing at the University of South Australia, says recovery is the key to managing stress. According to Dr Tuckey, there are three key ways we recover.
Detaching: This means periods of physically removing ourselves from the stressor, switching off our phones, and taking our brains with us.
“Psychologically closing that window and getting the sense that you’re away from the situation that is causing stress is helpful,” says Tuckey. “But detachment is about distance so, if you’re still thinking about it, you’re not detached.”
Getting fresh air and a spot of sunshine is a good way to do this: research has found vitamin D boosts the “happiness” hormone serotonin while spending 20 to 30 minutes in nature reduces cortisol levels.
Spending time with friends and family is another highly effective, and enjoyable, way to detach. Not only does social isolation spike cortisol levels, connecting with others plays a vital role in stress relief, Tuckey says.
“Social support is one of the most important ways to help people manage stress. People have three basic psychological needs, one of which is relatedness – a need to be connected to other people... Talking to people we trust meets the need.”
Mastery: Mastery is learning a new skill or hobby, volunteering, or exercising. “Active recovery through what’s called mastery... means drawing on different mind and body systems to the ones that generated stress in the first place,” Tuckey explains.
Exercise releases endorphins that act to “essentially calm the stress responsive parts of the brain down”, adds Dayas.
While robust exercise is “generally very beneficial” for mood and stress, doing too much high intensity exercise can exacerbate stress, further increasing cortisol, leading to changes in reproductive hormones and making us more susceptible to illness and injury.
This means stressed-out A-Types need to remember to take breaks. That aside, Dayas says that stress that feels uncontrollable “is worse for you” and that exercise can help us feel more in control through better attention and focus. He also suggests finding an exercise that is enjoyable.
“You will be more likely to want to do it and feel better after. For me this is surfing ... But its important that exercise is intense enough to release endorphins and get your heart working,” he says. “A lot of people feel if they take a break or take exercise they won’t be able to achieve what they need to get done, but they tend to be more focused after exercise so it can actually help you get the work done. You’ll be less stressed and more efficient.”
Relaxation: A good night’s sleep may be the ultimate way to relax (and give the body a chance to recuperate from stress), but finding ways of actively inducing a relaxed state can take the edge off during our waking hours.
“There is a lot of evidence for mindfulness,” Tuckey says, who describes it as a quality of awareness and attention that we bring to the present moment. “Instead of being tangled up with thoughts and feelings that come with stress, it is being able to take a step back and be one step removed and see those experiences without being so caught up in them.
“When you practice that over time you have the double layer effect. You can see the stressful event and see your reaction to them and you can try to bring a bit of a calming presence to both of those. When you’re not so tangled up in those you can do a better job of solving the stressful problems.”
We need both relaxation and robust exercise equally, says clinical psychologist Dr Lauren Tober.
“Exercise is really important for our mental health, but we need to bring in the piece around breath and this is the piece that is missing for so many people – doing a meditation practice, going to a restorative yoga practice, putting a hammock up and reading your book for the afternoon are really important parts of stress management,” she says.
Breathing exercises can help shift us from “fight or flight” to the “rest, digest, reproduce – the relaxation response”, Tober says, but when we’re stressed breathing is not easy.
“When we’re stressed and anxious we know that what we need to do is breathe deeply but that can be inaccessible so a way into that is through simply noticing the breath, without trying to change it or make anything happen, it can start to shift by itself.”
A life that is safe by design
Not all stress can be avoided, but the final piece of the stress puzzle is re-appraising stress – seeing it as a challenge instead of a threat can help – and reducing our exposure to it.
“It’s really important to think about a life that’s safe by design,” Tuckey says. “How can we design our lives to be less stressful in the first place? What exercise routines, what healthy eating routines, what time management routines that build a system of a healthy life?”
“We have such high expectations for ourselves – high expectations of all of the things we can fit into one day that are not realistic, so we really need to look at the choices we make and make choices that are nourishing rather than stressful as best we can.”
With financial pressures, work pressures, family and parental responsibilities, as well as shit sometimes just hitting the fan, it’s "not always easy” but an important piece of the puzzle, she says.
“Otherwise we’re just putting on band-aids.”