In the fast-paced beat of today’s busy life, stress can feel like a tough opponent, but it also holds the power to bring about positive change. Beating stress doesn’t mean avoiding it altogether instead, it is about mastering the skill of turning its energy into a driving force for productivity and personal development.
In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Dr Ayushi Shukla, Consultant – Psychiatry at SRV Hospitals in Dombivli, shared, “Stress is like a constant companion on the journey of moving forward. It acts as a signal, a steady reminder that challenges require our attention. Rather than letting it overwhelm us, we can choose to see stress as a catalyst for growth. Embracing stress means understanding its subtle cues and unraveling the hidden messages it carries. Resilience becomes our most valuable companion. One should believe that each challenge holds an opportunity, and every obstacle is a stepping stone toward personal and professional growth.”
She suggested, “By fostering an awareness of our thoughts and emotions, we attain the clarity to respond thoughtfully, rather than merely reacting to stressors. Mindfulness acts as our guiding beacon and reveals the avenues for creative problem-solving, turning stress into a forge for innovation. Overcoming stress isn’t about making it disappear; it’s about reshaping how we interact with it. It involves recognizing stress as a powerful force that, when accepted and directed thoughtfully, transforms into the driving force behind productivity.”
According to Dr Ashutosh Shah, Consultant Psychiatrist at Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai, although the term “stress” is used to characterise significant events at several levels of brain structure (molecular, cellular, circuits level, cognitive, emotional and behaviour) and within the body (immune, metabolic and endocrine); it has been difficult to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous definition of the term “stress”. He explained, “When an individual’s brain and body is unable to meet the excessive demands placed by a stressor, the individual starts to experience “distress”. Several harmful chemical byproducts are generated within the cells which lead to physical damage and destroy the brain and body cells. This process if continued unchecked over a period of time could lead to multiple health risks (anxiety and depressive disorders, addictions, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, heart disease, cancers, dementia).”
He elaborated, “The brain is the organ responsible for ensuring one’s survival. By design, it is built to recognise and respond to any potential imagined or actual life threatening events. As the brain is not designed to recognise accuracy of the information, each individual could have different perceptions of the same stressor. The genetic protective and vulnerability factors differ between individuals as well as their past experiences that shape their brains’ perception of the world. Hence there is always going to be an inter individual difference in experiencing stress (aka stress threshold).”
What is stress, how different individuals could have different stress threshold and what is it that an individual could do to thrive under stressful situations?
Dr Ashutosh Shah answered that individuals could develop a health buffer to deal with stress and this buffer can be developed using a lifestyle that promotes brain and body health. It includes –
- Eat well: Traditionally cooked balanced meals which are healthy for the heart, eat at fixed time intervals, eat to satisfy hunger not taste buds, maintain minimum 12 hour fasting between dinner and breakfast. Hydrate yourself well, avoid excessive tea, coffee or stimulant consumption. Ideally no tea, coffee or stimulant consumption after 2pm.
- Move well: Children should get a minimum of an hour of intense physical activity every day; adults a minimum of 30 minutes brisk walk daily. Sitting for long hours has the equivalent health risk as smoking. So stretch and move your body with periodic breaks once every hour to prevent neck, back, hand and eyes fatigue.
- Sleep well: Sleep is an active process which repairs and restores your brain and body and makes its ready to face the challenges of the new day. A minimum of 9 hours uninterrupted sleep beginning 3 hours after sunset is recommended for children. For adults a minimum of 7-9 hours uninterrupted sleep is recommended. Sleep removes a lot of toxic chemical byproducts that are generated during the day in the brain and body. Any interference in this cleaning process would impair the functioning of the brain and the body and compromise the ability of an individual to deal with stressors. Restrict screen exposure (TV, mobile, computer) 2 hours before intended bedtime.
- Stay away from substances that harm your brain and body: Alcohol, nicotine, cannabis, cocaine, opioids, amphetamines and synthetic designer drugs, sleeping pills (alprax, restyl, calmpose, zolfresh, nitrest and other benzodiazepines).
- Maintain good health: Do periodic medical examinations as recommended for your age. If you have any chronic medical condition like hypertension or diabetes mellitus, maintain optimal control of these medical conditions.
- Compartmentalise your time and activities: Ideally daily – 8 hours sleep, 8 hours work, 2 hours for house chores, 2 hours for family and friends (eat at least one meal a day together as family), 2 hours for commute and 2 hours for self (hobbies, play, exercise, homework). Take periodic vacations and don’t work during the vacations! Set realistic and achievable goals in life and work. Know well your limits and don’t over stretch yourself. Breakdown work structure and target easier tasks first. Prioritise your tasks using a grid of urgent and important activities. Focus on tasks which are important and not urgent which would lead to your professional growth. Delegate unimportant and urgent. Ignore tasks which are unimportant and not urgent. Seek help for tasks which are urgent and important. If a problem occurs, accept it instead of brooding over it. Then figure out what is/are the controllable factors and focus on these controllable factors. And don’t forget that it requires teamwork to solve problems both at work and in personal life!
He concluded, “Despite adhering to aforementioned lifestyle, if an individual feels distressed in a stressful situations for more than a month, and it interferes with their productivity or social functioning, such an individual should not hesitate to consult a psychiatrist. There are effective and safe medications which could gradually help restore health for the individual and subsequently help the individual deal with the same stressful situation without experiencing distress. Remember stress is not your enemy, it’s how you react to the stressful situation that determines your success.”