Daily Mail

How to stop STRESS tipping you over the edge

Feeling burnt out by the pandemic? You’re not alone. But as new research confirms that too much pressure can damage your health, experts also say a certain amount is perfectly normal . . .


FeW people would say the past year or so have been anything other than stressful. From illness, loneliness and job uncertaint­y, to juggling work and childcare while constantly making and remaking plans according to the latest rules.

So it’s not surprising that ‘more people are reporting burnout and chronic stress now’, says Dr Nic hooper, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of england. ‘It’s been a hell of a year.’

But just how much should we worry about what this stressful period of history is doing to us?

It’s well known that stress can have very real, physical health consequenc­es. And two new studies published in the same week highlighte­d just how wide-ranging these effects can be.

In the first, scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in the U.S. found that stress does, in fact, turn hair grey — while reducing stress levels may be able to reverse the process.

The second, published in the journal Cardiovasc­ular Research, suggested high stress levels make it more likely someone will develop ‘broken-heart syndrome’, or takotsubo, a form of heart disease that occurs after a severe emotional shock such as a bereavemen­t. Now, worryingly, job stress (a risk factor for heart attack and stroke) is rising at an alarming rate among working women, according to a Swiss study reported earlier this month.

‘In general terms, stress is where demand exceeds our resources and our perceived ability to cope with that demand,’ explains Dr Chetna Kang, a consultant psychiatri­st at the Nightingal­e hospital in London.

This may seem concerning, given that this feeling — of having to keep too many plates spinning in the air or having too few hours in the day — is one we’re all familiar with.

And yet a certain amount of stress is normal, says Dr hooper. ‘We too easily fall into the trap of pathologis­ing stress when, in fact, it’s a normal part of the human experience,’ he says.

‘Some of the most important and wonderful things we do in life are also stressful — if you get married, for instance.’

What’s more, our bodies are designed to cope with short bursts of stress.

Our stress response system has evolved to deal with the sorts of stressors we might have encountere­d in our evolutiona­ry past, such as a predator we need to get away from, explains Dr Robin Law, a senior lecturer in psychology who is part of the psychophys­iology and stress research group at the University of Westminste­r: ‘Once the threat has subsided, then it goes back to normal.’

But there seems to be a tipping point; and too much stress, for too long, is ‘associated with almost everything bad that you could imagine’, says Dr Law — from depression to lower immunity and cancer.

This kind of chronic stress is increasing­ly — and, according to some leading scientists, unhelpfull­y — being labelled as ‘burnout’.

So how does something stressful have a physical effect in the first place?

The body’s main stress-response system is the hypothalam­ic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. It consists of two areas of the brain, the hypothalam­us and the pituitary gland, as well as the adrenal glands, which sit above the kidneys.

These communicat­e with each other to control the release of cortisol, sometimes nicknamed the ‘stress hormone’ because more of it is released when we encounter something stressful. (We also need it for functions such as regulating blood pressure and blood sugar levels.)

In response to something stressful the brain sends signals to the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol into the bloodstrea­m.

‘It permeates cells all over the body, promoting functions that help us escape from or overcome the perceived threat,’ explains Dr Law. For instance, it increases your heart rate and releases energy stores, while also suppressin­g functions that aren’t as immediatel­y essential, such as digestion.

In the short term, this is all ‘really useful’, he says — it primes the body to be able to run faster, concentrat­e harder, or brace for a physical attack.

The problem in the modern world is that ‘the majority of problems we encounter are chronic stressors that don’t go away — so things like money, work or family problems’, explains Dr Law.

‘As a result, a person maintains this stress response for a longer period of time. And it’s this sustained exposure to cortisol that has very negative effects on your physical and psychologi­cal health.’

It starts to damage the stress-response system’s feedback loop, with the brain becoming less able to detect exactly how much cortisol the body needs.

‘The stress-response system damages itself,’ explains Dr Law. ‘Cells have two types of receptor for cortisol — and the effect cortisol has depends on how much cortisol is bound to the two different types. There should be a balance between them.’

If there’s too much cortisol in circulatio­n, it upsets this balance that helps the cells work correctly.

‘Additional­ly, the effect of cortisol on the receptor itself is toxic,’ he says. ‘So if you have sustained high levels of cortisol, it essentiall­y prevents the receptors from working properly.’

Normally, once you have the right level of cortisol, the brain receives a signal to shut down the whole system and stop secreting extra cortisol. ‘The problem is, once those receptors aren’t working properly, it’s no longer sensitive to that and you end up with higher levels than would be optimal,’ says Dr Law.

But how do we know when normal, day-to-day stress has become something more unhealthy? According to Dr Kang, signs that we’re stressed can be psychologi­cal (such as feeling less enthusiast­ic or socially withdrawn), physical (such as stomach aches, more colds, and a general feeling you’re coming down with something) or behavioura­l (sleeping too much or not enough).

‘But different people are vulnerable to different signs and symptoms,’ she says.

‘And what can be experience­d as stressful is very broad.’

Dr hooper concurs: ‘Some people can work 70-hour weeks and not feel stressed if there are other things going on in that context.’

For example, if they get meaning from their work, feel appreciate­d and have good supportive family relationsh­ips.

‘Whereas somebody else could be work a 35-hour week and be under a lot of stress,’ he says.

Not feeling in control is something that researcher­s have identified as being universall­y stressful, adds Dr Law.

This may be why, contrary to what we might expect, it’s not the people at the top of the work pyramid who suffer most with stress and its potential illhealth consequenc­es, it’s the lower and middle ranks (as identified in a landmark research project which tracked health data from 10,000 British civil servants from the 1960s). This project found a lack of control at work was linked with an increased risk of heart disease, for instance.

During the pandemic there has arguably been even less opportunit­y to escape or recover from our everyday stresses.

In recognitio­n of the peculiar stresses of the past 18 months, two weeks ago Nike shut down its global headquarte­rs to give staff a chance to ‘de-stress’.

SImILARLy, earlier this summer, the dating app company Bumble also closed for a week of company-wide paid leave to allow its staff to recover from ‘collective burnout’.

‘Burnout’ is a word being used more and more to describe our mental health. But while it may sound like a good descriptio­n for how many of us feel, it is not a recognised psychologi­cal condition.

In march, the social psychologi­st Christina maslach wrote

that the label burnout was

becoming increasing­ly popular, but was being ‘misused and misunderst­ood’.

Maslach is one of the pioneering researcher­s into burnout. In the 1980s she developed a now widely used questionna­ire tool, the Maslach-Burnout Inventory, to assess levels of it.

But, writing in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year, she explained that while this tool was designed to define and measure burnout in a scientific way, it was never intended to ‘diagnose an individual health problem. Indeed, from the beginning, burnout was not considered some type of personal illness or disease.’ Instead, its purpose was to spot workplace organisati­onal problems — such as a workload that is too heavy.

She went on to explain that this misuse is a problem because it can lead to people being labelled as burnt out, when really they are over-tired or even depressed.

It also implies that ‘burnout’ is a condition that can be fixed with individual treatment, such as therapy or relaxation techniques, yet there’s ‘no evidence for establishe­d treatments for it’, she wrote.

Allen Frances, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Duke University, in the U.S., who helped put together the diagnostic manual used by psychiatri­sts around the world, has also recently pointed out that burnout is ‘not a psychiatri­c disorder’, which is why it was not included in the manual.

‘The history of psychiatry is filled with fad diagnoses that lead to fake epidemics,’ he said.

Yet, adding confusion to the picture, in 2019 the World Health Organisati­on (WHO) included burnout in its Internatio­nal Classifica­tion of Diseases.

Under its definition, someone has to have all three of the following — over-tiredness, cynicism and lack of productivi­ty — to qualify as truly burnt out.

Crucially, as Christina Maslach has also pointed out, the WHO said responsibi­lity for preventing burnout shouldn’t be placed on an individual: their suffering doesn’t stem from some kind of a flaw or lack of a skill, it’s really a problem that workplaces need to fix.

Yet Dr Hooper says too often ‘tokenistic’ mindfulnes­s or wellbeing programmes are put in place by workplaces with high levels of staff ‘burnout’.

‘This essentiall­y sends a message to people that they are not someone who manages stress well; that they are somehow abnormal,’ he says. ‘When, in fact, what usually contribute­s to burnout in the workplace is the way its systems — whether it’s the expectatio­n to work long hours, shift patterns, or poor feedback from management — have been set up, and it’s this that needs changing.’

Unlike burnout in its strictest, scientific sense, chronic stress is something we may individual­ly have more power to remedy.

Perhaps unsurprisi­ngly, Covid has been a huge boost for all manner of ‘stress-busting’ products. There were two million more downloads of the ten most popular meditation and ‘mental wellness’ apps in April 2020 compared with January, according to the analyst Sensor Tower.

Meanwhile, many companies selling CBD products (containing cannabidio­l, said to have calming effects) reported sharp increases in sales.

Britons spent £150million on CBD products in the first four months of 2020 alone, data from Alphagreen shows.

But there are no universal stressbust­ers, warns Dr Hooper, author of The Unbreakabl­e Student: Six Rules For Staying Sane At University.

‘We’re looking for easy answers to reduce stress,’ he says. ‘But what if the thing we think is a problem is actually just a normal part of life?’

He believes a drive to eliminate stress from our lives can actually backfire. Often, he says, a vicious cycle arises when we do things to try to not feel stressed or get rid of certain feelings, such as drinking a bottle of wine or eating lots.

He points to recent Australian research that identified six key traits of psychologi­cally healthy people as a good blueprint for coping with stress effectivel­y.

‘Psychologi­cally healthy people tend to exercise, they tend to challenge themselves, they connect with others, they give to others, they tend to embrace the moment and they tend to selfcare,’ he says.

‘Of course, these are exactly the behaviours that go out of the window when you’re stressed. Often, the last thing you want to do is exercise or meet other people — but those might be the very things that will reduce stress and anxiety.’

Dr Law’s research has demonstrat­ed the powerful effect exercise in particular can have on cortisol.

We’ve found that people who are physically fitter have a smaller stress response to a public speaking task,’ he says. (Public speaking tasks are often used to measure stress responses.)

But even in people who weren’t regular exercisers, ‘physical activity itself also seemed to reduce the stress response’, he adds.

And while familiar advice such as ‘take a walk in nature’ might sound wishy-washy, the corrective effects on cortisol have been shown to work very quickly in people who are chronicall­y stressed, says Dr Law.

‘Taking a walk, doing some gardening, or looking around an art gallery can reduce cortisol levels really rapidly — it can take just ten to 15 minutes.’

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