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Don’t ignore the silent killer. Find ways to beat the stress you’re feeling

An eight-city study has found that most people suffer from some degree of stress, and how they deal with it makes all the difference.

health Updated: Jul 30, 2017 08:42 IST
Sanchita Sharma & Roshni Nair
Sanchita Sharma & Roshni Nair
Hindustan Times
“The unexpected finding was that 79% of the high stress levels were caused by the person’s own personality traits, with clear external triggers present in less than 6% of cases,” says Dr Samir Parikh, director of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Healthcare. (Getty Images / iStock Photo)
Key findings
  • Poor adaptive behaviour is the biggest cause of stress, found an eight-city study of 2,463 people across India.
  • 48% of those surveyed had high stress, while 22% had mild stress.
  • 79% of the high stress levels were attributed personality traits.(Source: Fortis Healthcare 2017)

A 25-year-old software engineer jumped from the fourth floor of a Pune hotel this month, fearing layoffs. A 21-year-old techie hanged herself from the ceiling fan in her rented home in Mysuru.

Both were at the cusp of promising careers and appeared to have everything going for them. Yet they chose death.

Why do some people kill themselves, while others take setbacks in their stride and move on?

It’s not the quantum of stress that is the problem, but how you deal with it. Everyone experiences stress at varying levels, but whether it breaks or makes you depends on how you process it.

Poor adaptive behaviour, the kind that leaves people incapable of dealing with real or perceived problems, is the biggest cause of stress. It can lead to unexplained aches and pains, palpitations, appetite changes, sleeplessness and depression, finds an eight-city Fortis study of 2,463 people across India.

“More than circumstantial or situational factors, how stressed you are depends on your ability to cope. Most people deal with everyday stresses without the need for counselling or medicines,” says study author Dr Samir Parikh, director of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Healthcare. “The focus should be on building a person’s communication and social skills by encouraging them to be assertive, think positively and achieve a work-life balance.”

Trouble in degrees

Yoga, meditation - and a dose of humour - can all help relieve your stress.
Signs of stress
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Tiring easily
  • Losing concentration
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sleeplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Irritability(Source: Fortis Healthcare 2017)

Most people suffers from some degree of stress, found the study, with 48% of the people surveyed having levels high enough to necessitate counselling and treatment. Around 30% people were not stressed at all, and 22% had mild stress.

“The unexpected finding was that 79% of the high stress levels were caused by the person’s own personality traits, with clear external triggers present in less than 6% of cases,” says Dr Parikh. “This tells us that early screening and strengthening of problem-solving behaviour will help a large population manage stress without counselling, which is relevant given that India is so short of trained psychiatrists and counsellors.”

In India, an estimated 8% to 10% of the population lives with some kind of psychiatric disorder, ranging from stress to anxiety, depression, schizophrenia or substance abuse, but the country has only 0.3 psychiatrists per 100,000 people, compared to 1.7 psychiatrists per 100,000 in China.

“The majority of stressed people only seek professional help when things have completely broken down. You wouldn’t wait for your car to break down to take it to a mechanic. Similarly, don’t wait for things to reach the worst possible level before seeing a counsellor for stress,” says Dr Kedar Tilwe, consultant psychiatrist at Hiranandani Hospital in Vashi, Navi Mumbai.

Lift your mood! “The majority of stressed people only seek professional help when things have completely broken down. You wouldn’t treat a car that way,” says Dr Kedar Tilwe, consultant psychiatrist at Hiranandani Hospital, Navi Mumbai.

How much is too much?

Dr Sandeep Vohra, senior consultant psychiatrist at New Delhi’s Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, has developed a tool for early screening. “It started with an incident at the Mumbai airport in 2003 when a Central Industrial Security Force [CISF] constable shot dead his deputy commandant for repeatedly denying him leave. CISF got in touch and I modified the international Vera Pfister scale to turn it into a culturally and socially accurate stress-measuring ‘stressometer’ to screen jawans,” says Dr Vohra.

What makes this stressometer different is that it can screen large populations for both the levels of stress and their sources. Based on the findings, it can offer suggestions on how to deal with the problem, including red-flagging cases where the person may need professional treatment.

“Many people are stressed without knowing it and this is an effective screening tool to identify underlying stress so that steps can be taken to defuse it,” says Dr Vohra. His online screening test costs Rs 200 and is being used by hospitals and corporate houses to identify stress in patients and employees.

Stress affects work and accounts for more than a third of all work-related illnesses and almost half of all working days lost to illness, reported the BMJ. “Stress often manifests itself in symptoms that have no physiological basis, such as headaches and other psychomotor pain disorders,” says Dr Parikh.

The role stress plays in heart attacks has become common knowledge – countless bad actors have died clutching their hearts on hearing bad news in popular Bollywood films – but fewer know that it can adversely affect several parts of the body.

It causes high blood pressure (hypertension) that raises the risk of heart disease and stroke; increases acid secretion in the stomach, which may cause ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome; suppresses the immune system to increase susceptibility to infectious diseases; aggravates allergies such as asthma; and causes anxiety and depression that raise the risk of addictions such as smoking, alcohol and drugs.

Dealing with it

Top causes of work stress
  • Feeling insufficiently rewarded
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Unhelpful colleagues; unsupportive management
  • Job insecurity(Source: Fortis Healthcare 2017)

Since escaping unwelcome situations is impossible, developing healthier responses is a good alternative. “One way of doing this is by invoking the relaxation response by doing things that calm you mind and body, such as meditation, yoga, walking, breathing exercises, working out, or listening to music,” says Dr Vohra.

Meditation, for example, lowers heartbeat and respiration rate and the body’s rate of oxygen consumption drops steeply, lowering lactic acid in the blood, high levels of which are a biomarker for anxiety and panic attacks.

Communication and active listening are key tools in the fight against stress. “Listening carefully instead of assuming also goes a long way towards preventing and easing stress within interpersonal relationships. No matter how much of an introvert you are, you should also consider reaching out to someone you can trust and talk to openly,” says Dr Tilwe.

Supportive friends and family are huge stress busters, as is financial independence. The worst way to cope is by turning to alcohol, tobacco or tranquillisers, which are not just addictive but also raise the risk of depression and suicide. “The key is to identify where your stress comes from and then work on minimising it,” says Dr Tilwe, “rather than ignoring it and hoping it’ll go away.”

First Published: Jul 28, 2017 21:54 IST