How to recognise stress and fight it with fitness

There is good stress and bad stress, but we need to recognise which one we are going through, before devising strategies to combat it

That time of year when stress goes through the roof is upon us: the annual appraisal season. It is common for managers to be stressed about assessing their team members, and the appraisees to lose sleep over what is in store for them. This is over and above the stresses and challenges that regular life and work throw at people. 

While just a few decades ago we didn’t know much about the causes and symptoms of stress, there is now a body of scientific knowledge and plenty of research that shows the many wats that impacts us, including our health, wellbeing, mood, diet, digestion and sleep. 

Stress is a natural physiological response of the human body when faced with challenges, demands, or perceived threats. When a person perceives that demands exceed their personal and social resources, they experience stress, says Dr. Vinayak Agrawal, director and head of clinical cardiology and cardiac imaging at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram.

“When we are faced with a situation or trigger which our brain perceives as dangerous, our response would generally include a fight, flight or freeze response. Stress is an automatic physical, mental and emotional response to a challenging event,” adds Ruchi Sharma, a clinical psychologist at HCMCT Manipal Hospital in Dwarka.

Despite the clear risks it poses to our health and wellbeing, not all stress is bad. It can be productive and help us adapt quickly to situations. This kind of good stress is called ‘eustress’. Neutral stress is known as ‘neustress’ while distress is the most harmful kind. 

“It is the bad stress we need to worry about. When bad stress is of high intensity but for a short duration, it is called acute stress. When it is low intensity stress that lasts for a prolonged period of time, it is chronic stress. It is this chronic stress that seems to be the cause of most problems, including disease and illness,” explains Agrawal. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared stress a health epidemic of the 21st century because of the serious and widespread impact it has on humans. Among the most common causes of stress are major life changes, challenging workplace dynamics, strained interpersonal relationships, conflicts at home, communication difficulties, financial troubles, social media and academic pressure and much more. In fact, normal life is a constant source of stress, points out Agrawal. 

“Traffic woes, unemployment, layoffs, competition and deadlines, bad relationships, health and epidemics like Covid-19, floods, earthquakes, pollution, war, crime, violence, drug abuse, toxic technology and information overload are all plausible causes of stress,” says Agrawal. 

Some of the common physical symptoms of stress include headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, sleep disturbances, digestion problems, irregular bowel movements and unhealthy eating habits. 

People undergoing stress can feel confused, anxious, depressed, sad, restless, overwhelmed, demotivated and can also be socially withdrawn, says  Dr. Vaibhav Chaturvedi, a consultant for psychiatry at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital in Indore. Chronic stress weakens the immune system and can also lead to high blood pressure and, consequently, a higher risk for heart disease.

While breath work, meditation and medication are popular ways of dealing with stress, one of the most effective stress-busters is physical exercise. “Exercise can be extremely beneficial to combat stress,” says Spoorthi S., a fitness expert at Cult.Fit. “Engaging in physical activities such as exercise and/or sports results in increased endorphin levels. Exercise promotes better sleep and reduces muscle tension, contributing to overall stress reduction.” 

One of the most effective forms of exercise to combat stress is yoga, say doctors and coaches—as it is a physical activity, meditation and breath work. A 2020 study titled, How Does Yoga Reduce Stress? A Clinical Trial Testing Psychological Mechanisms found that yoga interventions of increased mindfulness, interoceptive awareness, spiritual well-being and self-compassion reduce perceived stress; it can also reduce stress reactivity. Yoga’s emphasis on mindfulness, and the meditative aspect of it can create a sense of calm, improve focus, and break the cycle of stressful thoughts by encouraging present-moment awareness.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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