Epidemic of stress

Last Updated 17 November 2017, 19:48 IST

Work is so stressful these days, I am looking forward to my vacation, just kick back and do nothing. The stress is so bad that sometimes I grind my teeth at night. Last month, I had a terrible back pain and the doctor told me that it's mainly because of stress. But it's so common, I don't think I should be complaining," says Rita. She knows she is stressed, and wants to do something about it, but there's always another deadline to meet, something to do.

"Yeah man, if you can't handle the heat, get out of the fire, know what  I am saying? Don't do this job if you can't deal with stress. We work hard, we party hard." Harish loves his work, and has a hectic social life but of late, he feels exhausted during the day and sleepless at night. He has gained a few kilos and has started to drink a bit too much. He had a recent
medical checkup and was diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  

Stress is a word commonly used to describe the feeling of being keyed up, tense, on edge, overworked and overwhelmed. Stress occurs for several reasons, but ultimately it is felt when you feel a sense of threat.

Primitive response

Thousands of years of evolution have ensured that your brain is designed for survival: parts of the brain are exquisitely sensitive to threat, responding immediately to threat by sending signals to the rest of the body, releasing stress hormones and creating what is commonly called the "fight, flight, or freeze" response. The muscles tense up, the eyes widen, heart beats faster, blood pressure goes up, the blood increases its propensity to clot, the sweat glands increase their output, and the mind becomes vigilant and irritable. We are ready to fight the threat, or run away from it, or if these are not possible, then we freeze in the face of danger.

This response occurs without conscious thought and so rapidly that the conscious brain cannot stop the process. This response helped our ancestors, the cavemen, survive physical threat in forests, but it's now causing us untold pain.

In today's world, we are relatively safer from a physical perspective; most of us are fortunate not to face physical attack on a daily basis, and yet statistics tell us that we are more stressed and anxious than ever before.  

The brain cannot differentiate between threats to the emotional self and the physical self  - the same brain circuits that respond to physical threats are activated when we feel the subtle emotional threat of day-to-day life: A boss criticises you, a partner ignores you, someone cuts you off in traffic, you are behind on your EMI payments, you have an impending appraisal  - the brain perceives these just like physical threats and generates the fight, flight or freeze response.

As more people migrate to urban areas to work, as communities fragment, India is facing an unprecedented epidemic of loneliness and loneliness is stressful.


We are sleeping less and exercising less than we should. Sleep deprivation has become an epidemic, with some studies estimating that more than 80% of people in urban areas are sleep deprived. The less you sleep, the more you are at risk of suffering from stress, depression and physical disease such as diabetes and high blood pressure.


Our food habits have also changed, and more people now eat food loaded with preservatives and artificial flavouring, and not enough fruits and vegetables. Research suggests that our intestines are like a second brain. Many of the chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters) are synthesised in the gut, and unhealthy foods alter the bacterial colonies in the intestine, decreasing the production of hormones and neurotransmitters. In short, eating bad food can make us depressed and stressed.


Urban life has also taken us far away from nature. We don't get enough exposure to sunlight, we don't get enough fresh clean air to breathe, and we are not usually able to see a green vista in the distance, or a verdant scenery of trees and plants. This affects our brain too  - studies show that nature is relaxing for the brain, while seeing an urban environment suburban environment actually stresses out the brain.

With so many factors pushing us over the edge, it is not surprising that studies show that over 40% of people in India may be suffering from significant stress. The rising incidence of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, anxiety and even suicide are all a result of this increasing amount of stress.

Fortunately, a few simple strategies are helpful in significantly reducing stress.

A balanced diet: Maintaining good gut health improves brain function and reduces stress. Eliminate refined sugar, and processed food, increase fruits and vegetables and reduce animal protein. Fermented food like curds also helps in maintaining a healthy digestive system and brain.

Adequate sleep:  Research proves that  seven to  nine hours of sleep a night, helps prevent stress and improves mood.

Regular exercise:  About 30 minutes of physical activity a day, three to five times a week reduces stress and improves mood. Almost any kind of exercise is useful including walking. Yoga and pranayama helps reduce stress.

Meditate: Many studies now prove the remarkable power of meditation in reducing stress and improving mood. Research proves that even 10 to 15 minutes of a mindfulness meditation practice, that involves bringing the mind to the present moment, decreases stress hormones, reduces blood pressure and heart rate, and improves brain health.

We can learn through patient practice that we can be productive, we can work hard, and enjoy the many opportunities we have while letting go of all that we cannot control.

(The author is  mental wellness expert,

(Published 16 November 2017, 10:52 IST)

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