If you’re a patient at Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s surgery, you might not present with an obvious stress issue. But chances are your IBS, your anxiety, insomnia, low libido or perimenopausal symptoms will have stress at their root. “As a GP, 80, per cent of what I see every single day is in some way related to stress,” Dr Chatterjee tells us.
His book The Stress Solution the 4 Steps to Reset Your Body, Mind, Relationships and Purpose examines the causes and symptoms of stress and provides some eminently doable lifestyle tweaks to work into everyday life. His approach focuses on bringing your overall stress levels down incrementally via a toolbox of techniques. Applied throughout the day, they are designed to keep you below your personal stress threshold, where problems begin, as he explains in the video.
Being a GP, Dr Chatterjee is a realist and bases his advice on what he has seen working in his practice and in his own life. He knows, for example, you're probably not going to give up caffeine entirely but keeping it to before 12 noon is likely to give you a better night’s sleep and stop you reaching for the caffeine and sugar the next day because you're tired.
When he came into the Get The Gloss offices, we took the opportunity for a consultation. Here's what he tells us in the video.
1. What does stress do to the body?
The stress response affects every organ and system in the body, our blood sugar, our brain our immune system and even our gut, says Dr Chatterjee in the video. Many conditions he sees every day are in some way related to stress including menopausal symptoms , IBS , insomnia and low mood.
2. How do I not let stress get to me?
We’ve become so busy jumping from task to task that we’ve lost the connection between our bodies and our brain; we've lost the ability to feel what stress is doing to us, says Dr Chatterjee. Taking time to reconnect with our bodies helps us to realise when our shoulders are tight, or back pain is increasing – all indicators that our stress levels are rising.
From the moment we wake, we experience many micro-stress doses, from our alarm, to the news headlines, to bills and emails. The more of these we have each day, the closer we come to our own personal stress threshold. When we go over that threshold, that’s when problems arise. We feel anxious, over-reactive and emotional. So it’s important to have strategies to keep us away from that threshold, he explains. A stress-free start to the day helps...
3. How do I start my day without getting stressed?
Make sure you have a morning routine, he advises. It can be five minutes or even an hour depending on the time you have, but it should incorporate the three Ms: Mindfulness, Movement and Mindset. Dr Chatterjee’s own routine lasts about 15 minutes and involves a little meditation, some movement (such as yoga) and repeating affirmations .
Commit to a phone-free golden hour where your phone is off or on airplane mode, he says. If the first thing you do is check your messages you go into reactive mode, bringing you closer to your stress threshold
4. How do I fix stress-related headaches?
When we are stressed, our breathing changes explains Dr Chatterjee. We breathe faster and with our chest (a more shallow breath). Try to breathe more deeply with your diaphragm.
Try the 3,4,5, breath, where you breathe in for three, hold for four and breathe out for five. By making your out-breath longer than your in-breath you activate the relaxation part of your nervous system, which helps to switch off the stress side of it. Doing this breath exercise five or six times can help lower the stress response and often if your headache is due to stress, you’ll start to feel a little better, he says.
Dr Chatterjee has seen how constant screen use is a common cause of headaches for many of us. Another tip is to leave your phone in a drawer, close your laptop and go for ten-minute a walk away from your screen.
Lastly, think about whether your headache might be caused by a stress-related change to your body such as tight shoulders, he says. A massage or a workout might help.
5. Can stress make my hormonal symptoms worse?
Yes and there’s a good reason, says Dr Chatterjee. The sex steroid hormones (e.g. oestrogen and testosterone) and the stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) are both made from the same precursor - LDL cholesterol. When we’re stressed, the body prioritises cortisol over sex hormones , which affects our hormone balance. This is why PMS, perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms can be adversely affected by stress. Dr Chatterjee often addresses hormonal issues in patients by tackling stress levels first.
6. How do I make sure I don’t bring my stress home?
Use your journey home to try to get into a more relaxed state, advises Dr Chatterjee. If you drive home, skip listening to the news which might gee you up. If you are on public transport, use the time to listen to something inspiring such as music, an uplifting podcast or a meditation app. This will not only help your stress levels, but your relationships with your family will be more meaningful and deeper if you have switched off your stresses by the time you get home.
Many people use alcohol to unwind, but it can impact your sleep, he cautions. Try a very quick workout such as two minutes of skipping, a minute of star jumps or dancing with the music turned up.
The stress response primes us for physical activity – it’s there to help us run away from a predator. Nowadays it’s our email inboxes that are stressing us out and we’re often sitting down for another six hours afterwards. So, short bursts of exercise can help us discharge that stress.
7. What are the best supplements for stress?
While Dr Chatterjee always prefers that we address stress with lifestyle first, some supplements can be useful, he says. Magnesium is known as the relaxation mineral and many us have sub-optimal levels of it. He’s seen how a good quality magnesium supplement can help particularly with menopausal symptoms, or if you have trouble sleeping or switching off.
There’s increasing research to show that the health of our gut impacts our stress levels. Dr Chatterjee recommends a high-quality probiotic supplement to some of his patients.
An evening bath can help you switch off at the end of the day and many people benefit from adding Epsom salts as a way of taking magnesium through the skin.
8. How do I get to sleep when my mind is racing?
Adults need a bedtime routine just like children, points out Dr Chatterjee. We need that switch off between day and night. A bath can be a powerful signal to the body that it’s time to wind down.
Switching off your technology for the final hour before bed is beneficial not only for avoiding the blue light which can keep you awake but avoiding the emotional stimulation to the brain.
Deep breathing can help relax the body. Try the 3,4,5 breath as above or box breathing - breathe in for four, hold for four, breathe out for four, hold for four more. Do these five or six times and you will start to really relax, he says.
9. How do I go to sleep earlier?
Many of us think we naturally do our best work at night, but there are only very few cases where people are genetically predisposed to being a night owl. In the majority of cases, it’s our lifestyle that makes us night owls; too much caffeine , too much light exposure in the evening can shift our body clocks.
Simple techniques can reset your body clock to help you fall asleep earlier and awake refreshed. Enjoy caffeine before noon - remember that if you have a large cup off coffee at noon, a quarter of the caffeine will still be in your blood stream at midnight.
Get at least 15-20 minutes of natural light during the day and limit electronic light exposure in the evening. Use night mode on your device or invest in some 'blue blocking' glasses if you do have to go on your laptop in the evening.
10. What’s the best exercise for stress?
Anything you want, says Dr Chatterjee. Because the stress response primes us for movement, we have to give our body some of that activity. For some, a ten-minute walk or 20 press ups will be enough. Exercise not only helps us destress when we’re stressed it makes us more resilient to stress in the future.
For more stress-relief tips see The Stress Solution by Dr Rangan Chatterjee, the 4 Steps to Reset Your Body, Mind, Relationships and Purpose £10.57