Keep Calm & Carry On

A new perspective on stress management that looks on the brighter side of being stressful
By Keshav Palita
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In the age of concrete jungles, competitive jobs, escalating EMIs, mind-numbing traffic, fragile relationships and alienation from the self and others, stress has almost become the first nature of the modern man. Branded as something undesirable and to be avoided at any cost, stress is also inevitable. However, according to psychology, not all stresses are detrimental. In fact, stress can be desirable too.

Stress, simply put, is our body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When we feel threatened, our nervous systems respond by releasing a flood of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which rouses the body for emergency action. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response and is our body’s way of protecting us. According to classical psychology, stress that motivates us to perform better is good stress, or eustress. Conversely, when it becomes overwhelming, it becomes distress, and can damage our mood and relationships.

Stress, therefore, is more a matter of perception and response, than the event that leads to it. Over the past decade, in my experience of running a rehabilitation centre for various addictions, I have realised that stress can lead to the most beautiful growth. Since stress is a matter of perception, its experience is also dependent on how we react to it. Does this have a bearing on gendered responses to stress? Research at Columbia University suggests “women tend to respond to stress with anxiety and depression, whereas men take it out in a different way – showing more substance abuse and antisocial behaviour.”

However, the influence may be more social than biological. Our experience has shown that men may have a tendency, more than women, to stereotype themselves and operate from their conditioning to, consciously or subconsciously, put up a façade showing that they are fine. Having interacted with several male patients, my common experience has been that men are equally sensitive and vulnerable in their experience of stress – they just tend to internalise more due to the way society expects them to behave.

But the story can be different. We can become our own masters and take stress management steps on a daily basis. The first step towards that would be to acknowledge that one is feeling burdened. Simple coping techniques, such as sharing and forming heartfelt connections, even as a force of habit initially, go a long way in reducing stress. Deep breathing relaxes the parasympathetic nervous system – responsible for the flight and fight responses – and is an immediate intervention for stress. Other techniques, such as a positive music playlist, fragrances, and good touch such as hugs, massages and spas help reduce stress.

However, chronic stress, if unattended for very long can lead to physical and mental ailments, which can only be managed through therapeutic intervention. Experience shows that through therapy and neural rewiring, an individual response to stress can be permanently altered.

 


Keshav Palita is a psychologist and family therapist with years of experience in treating mood and substance abuse related disorders. He is also the President of UEMHAF – Universal Education & Mental Health Advancement Foundation. www.uemhaf.com