It’s no secret that people are the most stressed they have ever been. The pressures of modern life are affecting our bodies in a way that is different to the stressful situations our ancestors found themselves in. Heavy work-load, money worries and societal expectations are just a handful of the things which can, if left unmanaged, build up and cause us a great amount of stress. We then find ourselves in a perpetual state of ‘fight or flight’ which is much harder to control.
Young people, in particular, are suffering widely from this rise in stress. The increased importance of exams, worries about an uncertain financial future, and still yet the expectation to ‘be young’ and sociable are all impacting our young people’s mental health in a negative manner. Many more people are being diagnosed with mental illnesses and suffering from the effects of prolonged stress — burnout.
But is there a new way to manage our everyday stressors? Can we really effectively nip this problem in the bud when it first appears, rather than further down the line when stress has become unmanageable?
Most of us have heard of the rising trend of Mindfulness — the act of calming yourself, focusing on the present, and letting your muddled thoughts slip away. For many, this has worked and has become a part of people’s everyday routines. There are now hundreds of apps, books, videos and articles to help you get started on the road to mindfulness. In fact, if you visit your GP about your mental health, chances are they will recommend trying a course of mindfulness techniques.
However, this act of remaining in the present isn’t easy for all. With nothing to focus on, except certain parts of your body, it can be hard to properly switch off. With practice, this can be mastered over time. But is there a quicker, more immediate way of dealing with a stressful situation?
New research published in the journal, Nature Human Behaviour, believes it has found just this.
They studied 134 volunteers, exposing each one to a stressful situation. In stressful situations, a hormone called cortisol is released. High levels of this can cause a range of health problems, including high blood sugar, immune system suppression and hypertension. What’s more, cortisol also suppresses the part of the brain that controls emotional regulation and cognitive control.
After each volunteer was exposed to a stressful situation — being videoed while immersing their hands in icy water — some subjects were then asked to spend some time thinking about a positive experience. The rest were asked to spend time thinking about an emotionally neutral event.
The results showed that the ‘happy’ group felt better and only experienced a slight increase of 15 per cent in their cortisol levels. In contrast, the ‘neutral’ group experienced a huge 85 per cent leap in their cortisol levels.
Interestingly, the happy thoughts were able to cut through the suppressors on the emotional regulation and cognitive control parts of the brain, which was confirmed with an fMRI scan.
This simple task of remembering happy memories may seem obvious to some, but it also highlights the importance of widening the focus of the brain in a stressful situation, such as a panic attack.
As a sufferer of panic attacks, I know how difficult it can be to distract yourself during the moment and convince yourself this feeling won’t last forever. However, by using a positive memory as solid grounding to focus on, perhaps those attacks can be shorter and less intense when they do happen.
Research shows that those who are able to lower their psychological levels of stress during difficult situations are healthier in mind and body — as expected. Many of us practice the method of distraction, clearing your head, or even self-medicating through alcohol, food or drugs. Maybe, as these new findings suggest, the simple act of remembering a happier time can be much more effective than initially believed.