We all know people who appear to sail through life without a care in the world, no matter what’s thrown at them. Similarly, we have all witnessed the complete and utter breakdown of friends or colleagues when their worlds collapse around their feet. Is this laid-back approach a natural inclination or a learned response? Are the cool headed just lucky or do they possess some kind of innate superpower?
Everyone suffers set-backs in life. Often it feels like problems arrive in clusters, compounding our stresses further. One thing is for certain, no one leads a ‘charmed life’. No matter what is happening in our lives to cause distress, we can all work on behavioural and psychological processes known to enhance our resilience to stress factors.
Stress is a necessary part of life. In evolutionary terms, it was the difference between life and death. Our biology adapted to form two pathways for dealing with stressful situations. The brain gathers together all the sensory data it receives and sends it to a region called the amygdala. Here the current threat is compared to memories of similar events. Armed with a template of how to react from your past, the amygdala either ignores the situation or triggers an emergency response.
This alarm activation stimulates glands to release two different chemicals into the bloodstream. Adrenalin is the first. This is the infamous fight or flight reflex. The hormone increases the heart rate to push blood to the muscles enabling a quick getaway or defensive action. The second hormone is cortisol. This chemical prolongs the stress response, helping our bodies to mobilise glucose for a rapid energy boost. It also shuts down non-urgent processes such as digestion or the immune system so that energy is focused on survival.
In Neolithic times, this biological imperative allowed us to escape from predators. Today the system is still relevant for avoiding oncoming vehicles, potential accidents or hitting that deadline at work, but it should not become the default setting or our bodies start to suffer.
A traumatic event or low-level long-term stress both have significant negative impact on health from PTSD and depression to digestive problems and diabetes. Too much adrenalin in our system can erode blood vessels, increasing the chances of strokes and heart attacks, while cortisol can lead to exhaustion and mental health issues.
How is it that some people seem to have a handle on their stress where others are completely overwhelmed? There are multiple factors to consider.
1 — Stability and support in childhood.
No one is wholly immune to stress, but some people have a few advantages over the rest of us. One of those factors is our upbringing. Studies suggest that stressful and traumatic events from our childhood can impact our responses to future events long into adulthood.
To illustrate the point, the Bucharest Early Intervention Project studied children raised in Romanian orphanages. Out of 136 children, half were fostered between 6 and 30 months. When these children were tested at the age of 12 with stress inducing tasks, they showed similar reactions to the control group of children from the local vicinity.
Those who were fostered after the age of 2, or those who stayed in the orphanages, released less cortisol under stress. This sounds like a positive outcome for the care received in those institutions, but further tests revealed that they had a damaged stress response pathway. In effect, their senses were dulled to fear. These symptoms are common precursors for behavioural issues and mental health conditions such as depression.
This study, led by Katie McLaughlin at the University of Washington, indicates that the first few years of development are particularly sensitive to stress factors and therefore are more likely to create lasting healthy neuronal pathways in the brain.
The most likely explanation for the dulled responses of those who stayed in the orphanages, is the lack of parental support from a nurturing primary caregiver. That’s not to say that those early responses will go on to mar the reactions of an individual for the rest of their lives, but they can and do set the template for the amygdala from then on. One way to compensate for early trauma is to surround yourself with a supportive network of friends and relations to counteract and re-educate this region of the brain. It’s also not the only factor that determines a person’s response to negative triggers.
2 — Inheritance
Some of us possess a set of genes that code for the production of a chemical called Neuropeptide Y (NPY). Current theories suggest that this compound helps to regulate our responses to stress. Thus far, animal tests indicate that when frightened, laboratory creatures produce high quantities of NPY. After the threat has passed, the levels return to normal.
The US National Center for PTSD in Connecticut are analysing the role that NPY plays in stress reactions by comparing blood samples from elite special force units. Initial results indicate that the greater the quantities of NPY a person releases, the less confusion they feel under pressure. Those with the highest levels, also seem better able to recover after a stressful event too.
Since there are different Neuropeptide Y gene variations within the population at large, current theory suggests that those elite force members were fortunate in inheriting variants that enable them to tolerate a high level of stress.
3 — Mindful meditation
While I have written exhaustively about the physical, psychological, and biochemical changes that occur when meditation is practiced routinely, it’s worth mentioning again.
A great many studies have conclusive proof that as little as 8 weeks of mindful meditation is enough to increase stress resilience significantly, and for a considerable time afterwards. Long-term practitioners have the greatest buffer against stress related disorders.
4 — Humour
A study of stressed firefighters conducted by Michael Sliter at Indiana University/ Purdue University, Indianapolis, discovered that those who used comedy and humour as a coping mechanism reported fewer symptoms of PTSD and burnout. Laughter, if you’ll forgive the pun, is never taken seriously as an antidote to stress and yet studies repeatedly show its efficacy.
Laughing triggers the release of endorphins or happy chemicals that are related to modulating our mood. This natural high is thought to impact our perceptions of stressful situations. Not only is this an easy way to self-medicate, but it’s infectious. You only have to watch the viral YouTube video of the Scottish grandmother reading the children’s story, Wonky Donkey, to know how good it feels to laugh. Two minutes of the three-legged donkey and you can’t help but cry with laughter. It’s also an incredible social bond shared across every continent and all sections of the population.
5 — Strong Community Support
Relationships are key to emotional resilience. Loneliness is known to contribute to dissatisfaction in life, a propensity to mull over and internalise problems, and often leads to physical and mental ill health. Maintaining close friends and family relationships takes time, effort and commitment, but the value of a support team in times of crisis is priceless.
The more we isolate ourselves and restrict human contact, the greater the likelihood of succumbing to illness and a reduced life span. Any interaction is better than none. We have evolved as social creatures to improve our chances of survival. In leaving the house to see others, we are more likely to partake of exercise and receive a dose of sunlight to boost our Vitamin D levels. It’s a win-win situation.
6 — Happy tummies
Gut bacteria. No one likes to talk about it, but microbes have a surprising impact on how we deal with stress. More and more studies are linking the diversity of microbes present in the digestive system and the occurrence of mental health and physical disorders.
Stress can also have an effect on the membranes in the gut wall. Under normal circumstances, digestive microbes are blocked from passing through the gut into the bloodstream. During prolonged bouts of stress, the membranes are less able to prevent the bacteria from penetrating the circulatory system. This leads to inflammation and eventually, further medical and psychological issues.
This gut-brain axis is a relatively new discovery and has spawned a whole raft of exciting studies into the relationship between useful bacteria and our mental and physical health. Suffice to say that just knowing that there is a direct correlation between the digestive and nervous system should be enough to persuade people to eat a healthy diet rich in foods which promote the growth of a diverse range of positive microbes.
Optimise what you can control
None of us can travel back in time and alter our genetic makeup or avoid childhood instability and trauma, but we can do our best to influence the other factors. It stands to reason that good sleep, diet, mindfulness, and exercise are obvious when it comes to healthy bodies and minds, but few of us prioritise resting, relaxing and socialising.
Work and family commitments often relegate friends and social engagements to the bottom of the priority list, yet positive stimulation such as a friendly get together reduces a sense of isolation, makes you feel supported and cared for, and allows opportunities for laughter. With so many people suffering from work-life imbalances and increased levels of mental health disorders, managers and CEOs need to wake up and realise that company success is directly proportional to the well-being of its workforce.
According to an article from 2017 in the Guardian newspaper, British workers clocked up an astounding 2.1 billion hours of unpaid overtime, saving companies an incredible £33.6 billion. You might think that nothing will change while the finances are stacked in favour of a few giant corporations, and you’d be right, until you analyse the downside to this hidden exploitation.
In the same year as the Guardian article, work-related stress was cited as the cause for 12.5 million lost work days. Along with this stress, comes physical and mental health issues from anxiety and depression to high blood pressure and strokes. There are even studies conclusively proving the links between excessive working hours and alcoholism and drug addiction.
The economic cost of these sick days, tallies at around £56 billion per year to the economy, but over here in the UK, it’s the National Health Service that picks up the pieces. It’s our pride and joy, but the NHS is stretched beyond all reasonable expectations. Our society is on the brink of collapse and requires a radical change before it’s too late.
Sweden have the solution, placing great value on family time, social interactions and even giving out prescriptions for walking in the forest before resorting to drug therapies. They are successfully implementing a four-day working week in many places, with no discernible reduction in productivity.
German and Dutch employees work far fewer hours than their British counterparts and their economies are stronger and more stable than ours. Working more hours does not equate to achieving more. A Swedish study, trialling a six-hour working day resulted in higher productivity and reduced staff absence. So long as outcome is rewarded rather than using fewer hours as an excuse to cut pay, everyone wins from this radical alteration to work-life balance, including those on the front line of medical facilities and services.
How do we make this happen? By spreading the word and uniting together as one force. If enough of us voice our opinions over the impossible conditions we all face daily, our politicians will be forced to implement a change before employees are on their knees and economies collapse worldwide.
Until then, the best we can do is to take care of ourselves and each other. We are one world, one massive community, and each of us has an important part to play in shaping the future. Would you want your children to suffer the same stresses as we have done?