Blog post

We’re not designed to be this stressed

Once coined a ‘ticking timebomb’, stress in a pandemic will blow like an A-bomb … unless we go back to basics

Brits don’t sleep enough. The majority of us are overweight or obese. Almost everyone is chronically dehydrated. A third of us get no exercise. We get drunk here more often than anywhere else.

These facts long predate 2020. As fondly as we remember life before face masks and R numbers, we can’t pretend the country was in great physical shape. 

As we know, restrictions in the name of COVID-19 are here for the long haul. That’s a lot of additional fear and uncertainty to pile on top of a lifestyle that’s custom-made to stress us out and weaken our defences.

We need to take action to keep stress at some kind of (new) normal. And it’s as simple as going back to basics.

What is stress?

Any lifestyle guru or yogi who suggests we can get rid of all stress is misinformed or, more frankly, spouting nonsense. There is no getting rid of stress, we might as well aspire to stop breathing. 

Stress is a normal biological response. It’s a short-term response to a loaded situation. Stress occurs when the brain processes what it can see and hear, and does a comparison study with memories of similar such situations. Within milliseconds, it calculates the probability of pain, discomfort or danger and makes an instinctive decision.

When the body’s stress response activates, our muscles tighten; our blood pumps faster, and the hypothalamus – the portion of the brain that controls the fight or flight response – switches on

Regardless of whether we fight or take flight, the body starts pumping helpful hormones, including adrenaline, to prepare us, sharpen our instincts and capabilities. For example, we’ll run faster for longer if a bear’s chasing us. And we’ll have more brain power than usual if we have to hit a tight deadline. Some stress is useful and measurably improves physical and mental performance.

Acute versus chronic stress

The relationship between short term or acute stress, and long term or chronic stress is key. 

The stress response is supposed to be acute. It’s essentially a blast of survival hormones to get us through short term peril. The stress response was loaded into our physiology back at the dawn of time – it gave early hunter gatherers an edge on their prey (and the instincts to stay alive longer).

The physiological and psychological transformation we experience during acute stress isn’t designed to last. The body doesn’t want to keep pumping blood at this rate; it can’t continue producing adrenaline; it doesn’t want muscles to stay tense and rigid. The actions that occur via flight and fight responses re-establish normal physiology. 

But if we fail to rid ourselves of acute stress, we enter progressive state stress that over time becomes chronic. And when something becomes chronic, you know it’s not good

Pre-COVID, chronic stress-related breakdowns replaced lower back pain to become the UK’s commonest cause of short term absenteeism. It also replaced cancer to become the UK’s commonest cause of long term absenteeism.

Our bodies were designed to appropriately respond to the acute stresses in life. To manage more chronic causes of stress we need to ensure we have the resources to deliver.  If a person’s foundational lifestyle habits are in check, it’s easier to cope with stress and return our physiology to normal. Exercise relieves the tension in the muscles and rests the stress hormones. Healthy meals stabilise our blood-sugar, which is a common cause of nutritional stress. Drinking water rejuvenates cells and the brain. During sleep, we learn from the experience and bolster our defences for next time. 

These are the resources we’re supposed to apply. But if a person’s foundational lifestyle habits are in disarray, stress lingers on. A poor diet, lack of exercise and insufficient sleep can suspend recovery from stress. Flooding a stressed body with processed foods, caffeine or alcohol will only exacerbate things.

Back to basics

Seven to nine hours sleep and two litres of water. Cutting down sugar, processed foods, caffeine and booze … 

It sounds like a laundry list of doctor-rules, but this rundown represents lifestyle habits that humans spent millennia cultivating; precisely because they give our minds and bodies their best chance of staying healthy, performing well, recovering efficiently and managing the impact of stress.

We call these behaviours the basics because they’re staple habits upon which humanity thrive.

R&R: recovery and resilience

We build emotional intelligence and sharpen our defences against stress in REM sleep, a stage of sleep which is the first casualty of a poor night’s kip. With 70% of the population averaging less than seven hours sleep – and 41% averaging less than six – too many of us fail to spend sufficient time in resilience-restoring REM sleep.

Alcohol disrupts our sleep and robs us of the REM component. And like processed food and snacks, it’s loaded with chemicals and sugar. Because our bodies are not designed to consume manipulated/ unnatural foods, we still don’t really know how to deal with them. For example, when we drink alcohol or comfort eat during times of stress, the excess sugars trick the body into expecting a banquet. Consequently, we release way too much insulin, which is driving both the obesity and diabetes epidemics.  

Once the body realises its mistake, it goes into panic mode. It releases its stress weaponry to correct the insulin imbalance.  But if our stress weaponry is already dealing with other causes of stress, this simply pours petrol on the fire and drives us towards breakdown.

Always a consistent help in the fight against stress is water. We need to remember that our bodies are 60-70% water and our brains 75% water. Our physical and cognitive capabilities are sharpest when we’re hydrated – we’re more able to cope

Exercise is the natural antidote to a stressful situation. The body’s stress response causes muscles to tense-up and tighten in preparation for battle. The expectation – dating back to our caveman days – is that we’re about to fight or flee for our lives. In other words, the body anticipates an intense blast of exercise. If we don’t give the body some of what it’s expecting, tension and strain persist. 

Exercise is, like stress, where the physiological meets the psychological: physical activity releases endorphins and ramps up the feelgood factor. Also, through tiring our muscles, we’re more likely to get better quality sleep – and so a positive cycle begins.

Keep stress at bay under COVID’s cosh

The above is a brief run-through, but it’s safe to say that during the tough times of a new normal – where we face an unpredictable future, political and social unrest, restrictions and redefined relationships – we need to be wary of the stress that will result. 

It’s not sexy or glamorous, but the most effective, long term way to bolster our stress defence isn’t more complicated than a solid foundation of sleep, diet, exercise, hydration and avoiding harmful agents where possible. It’s getting the basics right

As evidenced by the nation’s health stats, our habits are set deep. Changing a lifestyle’s foundations isn’t easy during the good times – so it’s not going to be a breeze as we navigate the most stressful period in modern history. 

The government is asking employers to take a lead role in encouraging and supporting better habits in their employees. For one, raising the bar on health means a more resilient workforce and, for two, we urgently need to de-risk those people who are most vulnerable (due to weight and disease) to COVID-19 complications.

At CorLife, we help employers by helping employees get a handle on their health, lifestyle and goals. And it has never been more important