Getting the balance right to manage stress

Most people know that too much stress can have detrimental impacts on your health, but new Deakin research shows how you react to stress is also worth considering. 

Whether it’s work or family issues, a major new purchase or an upcoming event, there’s no denying that change and uncertainty can result in stress, and people experience stress for different reasons and in different ways.

Researchers at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) found that how the body responds to acute psychological stress can predict future health and disease outcomes. Those with either the highest or lowest responses are at the greatest risk, according to a recent study led by IPAN’s Dr Anne Turner.

a woman wearing glasses smiling for the camera
Dr Anne Turner, Senior Lecturer, IPAN.

Dr Turner’s research has revealed the importance of a just-right ‘Goldilocks’ response to psychological stress, with danger in a too exaggerated or too subdued reaction.

For the study, Dr Turner’s team crunched the numbers from 47 international studies into acute stress responses published over the past 25 years, evaluating data collected from more than 32,000 people.

Results showed that those with the most exaggerated responses to psychological stress were linked to an increased risk of future cardiovascular disease. Those with the most subdued responses were linked to an increased risk of future mental health issues and obesity.

‘We found that medium-sized stress responses had the lowest risk of future adverse health and disease outcomes,’ Dr Turner said.

The study was the first to bring together a variety of stress responses in the one review, examining both nervous system responses (indicated by heart rate and blood pressure) and endocrine system responses (indicated by levels of the stress hormone cortisol).

‘The way both systems are activated in our bodies is integral to our response to physical stress. This is how the body prepares to deal with the threat encountered, to return the body to a steady state once the threat has passed,’ she says.

‘Unlike physical stressors, psychological stressors don’t require that physical fight or flight response that kicks in, but our body still reacts in a similar way, which can take a physiological toll.’

Dr Turner hopes to investigate whether stress responses are set in stone or can be modified through lifestyle changes.

Get the Goldilocks feel: top five ways to bring your stress levels down

  • Maintain a healthy diet. Focus on including plenty of fresh food and water each day, while minimising highly processed, sugary, fatty or salty foods.
  • Be physically active. Try to be physically active on most – preferably all – days of every week and minimise the amount of time spent in prolonged sitting.
  • Get enough sleep. Try to develop and maintain good habits that help you to have a good night’s sleep each night. This includes shutting off phones and devices well before bedtime.
  • Maintain strong social connections. Even when working from home or spending more time indoors, use video calling platforms such as Skype and Zoom to keep in touch with family and friends.
  • Take time out to relax and de-stress with whatever activities work for you – be it through mindfulness sessions, spending time in green space, listening to music, completing a jigsaw puzzle or colouring in exercise, or gardening.

Anne says further research must now look at exploring what made people an ‘exaggerated’ or ‘subdued’ responder to stress, allowing for better predictions of who is at risk of particular health issues and how that could be mitigated.

‘Some potential drivers we’re looking at include physical activity levels, fat carried around the waist, early life adversity, and genetic makeup,’ she said.

Click here for more information about Deakin IPAN’s research into physical activity and nutrition or follow us on Twitter @DeakinIPAN