Fiona Phillips explores the latest scientific research into the perception, experience and management of stress.
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The World Health Organization has declared it
the health epidemic of the 21st century.
Last year, it accounted for nearly half of all sick days.
The rush-hour is very stressful.
Well, I'm losing my hair!
Life is a constant battle with traffic jams,
trying to find parking spaces, losing keys, crowded trains, delays,
juggling work and family, as well as trying to make ends meet.
In our busy 24/7 connected world, there is plenty to stress us out.
In this programme,
we're going to find out exactly what presses our stress buttons.
What's going on? You can't come out like that.
-Are you going to handle it?
And what we can do to help manage our levels of stress.
-It is very good if you are feeling quite anxious.
'I want to reveal the very latest scientific research on stress...'
-That is incredible, the differences is stark.
'..I'll be putting myself on the front line to show you how stress
'affects our bodies and our brains...'
42 divided by 5.
I can't remember what you've said.
'..and I will be finding out if a very stressful chapter in my life
'has permanently damaged my health.'
I would like to say I'm looking forward to getting the results,
but I'm really not.
But what if the right kind of stress
could actually be good for us?
I'm going to show you how to turn stress into your secret weapon.
Stress can be seen as something very positive and drive success.
You're faking it till you make it so, Fiona, say, "I feel excited."
I feel excited!
I want to find out the truth about stress.
There is a silent plague we all need to guard against.
It is linked to a number of serious health issues - anxiety, depression,
cancer, and heart problems, costing the economy billions of pounds.
It's something we all suffer from -
According to the latest surveys,
almost half of us feel we're too stressed.
And I am definitely one of those people.
Yes, as rosy as my life might seem to others,
I suffer from trying to do too much in too little time.
And when I check the news, there's more stress - war, famine,
and political instability, events completely out of my control.
And then I get these horrible stress feelings.
You know the sort of thing -
churning butterflies in your stomach,
racing heart, sometimes sleepless nights,
which makes us feel even more out of control.
And I'm not alone.
One study suggests that millions of us
regularly feel close to breaking point.
So why do we have all this stress and where does it come from?
To discover the origins of stress,
I've come to this zoo near Birmingham
to get up close and personal with our primal past.
I'm being joined by three stressed out volunteers.
Steve, a busy courier,
Paulette, a single working mum,
and Andy, a self-employed plumber.
We're meeting stress expert Professor Anna Whittaker,
who's going to demonstrate exactly what stress is.
-Hi, Anna. How are you?
-Yeah, not bad, thanks.
-Now, you're our stress expert.
And I see you're accompanied by some strange-looking thing there.
-What is that?
The vest is our body rig and it picks up, through sensors,
your heart rate and also body temperature and breathing rate.
And we can see all of that because it connects to the computer and we can see what's happening.
-OK, so we need to get the bodysuits on, don't we?
We're going to have an animal encounter.
That's going to be the stress, so we have snakes and tarantulas.
That goes through there.
Anna is using the body rig to measure to the split-second
exactly what happens when our volunteers are stressed
in the most primitive way -
by being introduced to some of the zoo's most dangerous residents.
Oh, my God.
Their bodies have an immediate physical response.
The heart rate starts spiking.
OK, that was quite a big response there, Steve.
The breathing rate increases and the body temperature rises,
all signs of acute stress.
-Are you going to handle it?
If it moves, I won't be able to, honestly.
And we really physically heard your breath quickening, actually.
'This acute reaction lasts for just a matter of seconds.'
-It's all right.
Stay nice and still. Here you go.
'Once our volunteers realise the threat has passed,
'their bodies start to return to normal.'
You might feel your heart racing and feel really anxious,
but actually your body is doing what it's built to do.
So, why does all of this happen?
Well, acute stress is actually our body's primal emergency reaction,
otherwise known as fight or flight,
and it evolved for good reason - to save our lives.
It harks back to the days when we lived in caves
and got stalked by predators.
When we sense danger, the fear centre of the brain,
the amygdala, senses a distress message to the control centre,
which in turn tells the adrenal glands to start pumping
stress hormones into the bloodstream.
This makes our heart beat faster,
pumping blood to the muscles and increasing our breathing
to get extra oxygen into the brain to sharpen our senses.
This primal response happens so quickly that before our brain
has even seen the threat,
the body is primed, ready to fight or run away.
Our ancient stress mechanism can give us superhuman powers -
to be faster and stronger and surprise us
with what we're capable of achieving.
So, stress is one of the most extraordinary and vital
survival mechanisms we possess.
In fact, without it, we probably wouldn't be here.
The thing is that in the modern world,
we no longer face the occasional threat of a wild animal.
Instead, we're constantly bombarded by a host of triggers.
None of them life-threatening,
but all launching the same stress response.
We've asked our volunteers to use the body rig
so we can track their typical day.
The onboard camera is synchronised with the rig to record every moment,
so we can see exactly what is causing them to spike.
Courier Steve is driven by deadlines.
At 7.30, his heart rate is already spiking.
I might go to London, I might go to Glasgow, Edinburgh.
He can spend up to 12 hours a day stuck in his van.
Most of these jobs are time sensitive, so that generates stress.
The body rig records a heart rate rise as Steve gets stuck in traffic.
Well, I've now gone down to ten miles a bleedin' hour.
This sort of stress can lead to spiking blood sugar levels
and higher cholesterol.
Where does he think he's going?
What's going on here? Look, you can't come out like that.
It's 11.55, another spike as his technology lets him down.
Hello, have you any idea where this place is? Hold on.
Oh! What's happened to this?!
-Are you getting ready?
It's 7.50 in the morning and single mum Paulette
is already under pressure.
I left £5 somewhere, son,
but I don't know what's happened to it. I'm always losing stuff.
Paulette enjoys her job,
but it comes with demanding patients and lots of paperwork.
It's a busy GP practice. Some days, you can't sit down for five minutes.
But it's money worries that really make her feel stressed.
I hate looking at my bank account.
Trying to make ends meet, it's a struggle.
Finances are a cause for concern for many of us,
which, over time, can lead to anxiety and depression.
Life isn't any calmer for our final volunteer, Andy.
He's a self-employed plumber and father of four kids.
With this trade, you're only ever as good as your last job,
so I can do brilliantly on one job
and struggle on another and it is stressful.
It is 8.33 and his day starts off badly.
Already, his stress hormones are pumping.
Like many of us, Andy's mobile is a blessing and a curse.
All right, mate.
With each call, his heart rate spikes.
As soon as the phone starts ringing, you stop what you're doing
and you're on the phone, because you can't do two things at once.
His jobs are overrunning.
There were some instructions with that sink, wasn't there?
Because this is like a Meccano set, that is.
And it's another late night, leaving less time to see his family.
So, how did our volunteers get on?
The data from the body rig showed both Paulette and Steve
having multiple and very familiar stress triggers -
time management issues,
financial fears, workplace worries.
A minute to spare. One minute.
But it was plumber Andy who displayed
the highest levels of stress.
Including his moments of physical exertion,
he was stressed for a massive 44% of the day.
With our bodies experiencing so many stress triggers
throughout an average day,
what sort of effect can this have on our brains?
To find out, I've been invited back to school
to be put on the spot in a very public way.
-How are you?
-All right at the moment, thank you.
We're going to give you a maths test today to see
-how your brain copes under pressure.
So I'm going to give you some questions and I'm going to
-give you three seconds...
Three seconds to answer them.
-But no paper to do my sums or anything?
-No paper, no pen.
Number one, 12 x 6 - 18
-..¸ 3 + 11
Oh, my brain's going, bleurgh! That's easy as well.
14 - 8 x 12
'Flooded with stress hormones, I lose the ability to focus.'
-47 - 3...
-My brain's going!
-..¸ by 4.
-I didn't even hear that.
-Go to the next one.
28 + 42 ¸ 5
I've lost... I can't remember what you've said, I can't even...
My brain's really...
95 - 35...
Oh, dear! I am really good at mental arithmetic, I promise you!
If I'd have done it under a different situation,
it would've been brilliant, but, no, actually my brain just froze.
It seems there's a mismatch between the way we're programmed
to deal with stress - to run or to fight -
and the kinds of stress we face in our modern lives.
Small amounts of acute stress keep our bodies
in a super-alert state to deal with whatever life throws at us.
But too much stress means the rational part of our brain
is hijacked by the primal part and our ability to think clearly
becomes overwhelmed by our emotional response.
This means that we can lose control,
triggering an emotional outburst or a complete meltdown.
You know, like most people, I wouldn't tend to put myself
in a situation that would make me panicky or stressed.
I think we tend to fear stress and maybe start avoiding situations
that might make us feel stressed,
like job interviews or public speaking.
So is there a way of changing the way we deal with our stress
so this sort of response doesn't happen and we feel more in control?
I've come to this activity centre in Thetford
to meet Professor Ian Robertson,
a neuroscientist and clinical psychologist
who's been studying the brain for over 40 years.
-You must be Ian.
-Nice to meet you, I think.
-Nice to meet you. Yeah.
I hear you've got something rather nasty up your sleeve.
I'm going to get you a bit anxious and a bit stressed,
-cos you see that zip line there?
-You're going to be coming down that.
-How does it make you feel?
-That's literally just made my stomach lurch.
-Are you a bit nervous?
-Yeah, I can feel my heart going.
-The heart's going.
-Yeah, it was that zip wire word that did it.
-Yeah, yeah. It's very high, 30 metres.
-Thank you, Ian(!)
-So have you got ways of me coping with this?
I've got a way you can do this, that you can master this.
-So will we go up?
-If we have to, if we have to.
-Let's do it.
-Right. If you hold on to here.
Are you sure this is going to keep me in?
This is going to keep you nice and safe.
'The technique that Ian wants me to try is based on the idea of being
'able to change my perception of the threat from negative to positive.'
I don't understand how people pay to do this, I really don't.
I just think if you've got a nice life, why ruin it?
-All right, you're good to go.
-What do you want?
-Look at you now.
-Yes, look at me now.
You're going to be hanging from this.
Thank you! THEY LAUGH
OK, beating heart, twisting stomach, dry mouth, sweaty skin -
-what are these symptoms of?
-Stress, I guess.
-They're also symptoms of excitement.
Our emotions, excitement, anxiety, anger,
they're all the same bodily symptoms, so you can perform magic.
-You can change these from one emotion.
-OK, from anxiety...
-Just by writing that little line of code in your mind, saying...
-So stand up straight. Power pose, the Superman pose.
-And say, "I feel excited."
-But I don't, Ian. OK.
-I feel excited.
-Yeah, I feel excited.
-You do. You do.
I really feel excited.
When you stand up straight like that, you're faking it
till you make it, you're tricking your brain into creating
-a different emotion.
-So, "I feel excited." Say it once more.
-I feel excited.
-Great! You're going to go up there. Head for it.
OK. Oh, God!
STEPS CREAK Even this bit, I really don't like. Oh, my God.
'Ian's method relies on the fact
'that as far as our body is concerned,
'anxiety and excitement are the mirror image of one another.'
Oh, I really don't want to do this! Oh!
I feel my stomach lurching, lurching, lurching.
-I'm going to attach myself...
-My legs are going now, too.
'They both make our hearts race and we breathe faster.
'The difference is all in the mind.
'So according to Ian, this means it's possible
'to control your anxiety with three simple words.'
OK, OK, I feel, I feel excited!
I did it! I did it! I did it!
-Hey! Oh, my God.
Actually, now I am excited. Now it's over.
-Can I give you a hand up?
-Ian, you are a genius, because, honestly,
I was up there and I was thinking, "I really don't think I can do this"
and then I did that thing and I said, "I feel excited," and I just went.
-Well done, that's fantastic. Fantastic.
So how did I manage to face one of my fears,
control my stress and enjoy it?
One of the hormones released into our brain when we are anxious
or excited is noradrenaline,
produced in a tiny area called the locus coeruleus.
This part of the brain is sensitive to how much carbon dioxide
is in our blood, so we can regulate it by taking a few slow breaths.
And we can control it further by adopting a confident,
head-up posture which not only helps deepen the breath, but also affects our mood.
Too little or too much of this stress hormone
and our brain underperforms,
but once we hit that sweet spot where we're challenged,
but not overwhelmed, we're capable of performing at our best.
It's all about tapping into the energy of a stressful situation.
If we can learn to control our stress by turning anxiety
into excitement, can we also use it to improve our performance?
To find out, Ian is going to replicate an experiment
from the Harvard Business School,
putting a group of office workers into a very stressful situation.
Well, hello, everyone.
Thank you so much for coming, giving up your time,
because I know you all work in pretty stressful jobs.
I think we might have something to help you out.
-This is Professor Ian Robertson.
And you have something up your sleeve, don't you?
Yeah, we're going to make you very stressed...performing karaoke.
But we're going to break you into two groups and I'm going
to give two different strategies to the two groups.
I hate karaoke. That would make me really stressed.
When we're feeling anxious,
our instinctive approach is to try to de-stress and calm down
and that's what one of our groups is going to do.
Now, I want you to try and just relax yourselves.
-I want you to say out loud now, "I feel calm."
-I feel calm.
The other group is going to try Ian's technique of tricking
their brains into turning their anxiety into feeling excited.
I want you to say, "I am excited." OK?
-Say to me now.
-OK. I am excited.
# Spirits move me
# Every time I'm near you
# Whirling like a cyclone in my mind... #
The karaoke software is scoring each performance.
What Ian is interested in is whether being excited rather than calm
helps our volunteers follow the rhythm and notes of the song
# ..I can find
# Baby, I want you, come
# Come Come into my arms
It's much harder to say, "I feel calm," because calmness,
-the symptoms are the opposite of those of excitement or anxiety.
It's much easier to do this little bit of jujitsu to trick the brain
into reinterpreting anxiety feelings as excitement feelings.
OK. So really we're expecting the best performers to be the ones who said, "I feel excited."
That's what we're predicting.
These feelings are, actually, they're an energy I can use.
-And I can rise to the challenge! I can rise to the challenge,
-So you're making the most of your stress really by doing that.
-Making the most of your stress.
-CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
So, Ian, the results are in.
The "I am excited" group, their karaoke score was 5,780,
whereas the control group were 5,650.
So we got better performers, the median score, for the people
that said, "I feel excited," before they performed.
So the next time you're heading to a big meeting or have to face
a difficult situation, don't try and get rid of those anxious feelings.
Instead, turn them into excitement
and it might help you do even better.
Harnessing stress to your advantage can be key to feeling less anxious.
Successful athletes, performers and businesspeople do this all the time.
But how do they optimise their stress to turn out world-class performances?
To discover their secrets,
I have come to this athletics stadium in Birmingham.
On the track is Ellie Stevens, a middle distance athlete.
After being unable to compete through illness and injury,
she lost confidence in herself and stress hampered her performance.
That's when she called in sports psychologist Tom Bates.
So, Tom, when Ellie first came to you, when you first met her,
-what sort of state was she in?
-Well, she was just
in quite a stressed state, because there were
some challenges that she was going through,
which were essentially preventing her, blocking her
from doing what she loved
and so my job with Ellie was to help her to realise that she can go on
to achieve what she aspires to achieve.
Tom's taught Ellie to think about her stress in a more positive way.
It's such a key phrase now, "I'm stressed out. I'm really stressed."
You hear people say that all the time
-and what you think, you will become.
We can't exceed our own self-image.
And the way that we see ourselves becomes our reality.
If I expect it's going to be a hassle today for me at work,
if I expect there's going to be lots of pressure,
if I expect to get stressed every time I get in that traffic jam,
and I can't cope with that, then I'll live out my expectations.
Over the last few months,
Ellie's performance has improved dramatically.
Tom believes that by changing our perception of stress,
we can all perform at our peak.
You know, elite athletes, performing at the highest level,
don't perform in the absence of stress.
They have learned ways to reframe and use stress as a sign
that their bodies are getting ready to perform
when their best is needed.
It's not possible to be able to control what the crowd think
or what the TV pundits are saying about us.
We can't always control the situations we find ourselves in,
but we can always control our response.
Mind-set defines performance.
Stress can be seen as something very positive,
and stress can drive success instead of it being a hindrance,
and it's all to do with the way that we see it.
Well, I've learned a loud,
clear lesson about stress today - it's the way we use it that matters.
It can mean the difference between a bad performance
and a gold medal, or an A in your maths exam or a D.
Stress can be a really empowering tool. It's down to us.
It can empower us as long as we learn to use it properly.
We've seen how stress can help improve our performance,
but some brand-new research suggests we might also be able to use it to treat serious health issues.
It's all to do with using our reserves of something called brown fat.
I've come to the Big Chill Swim in the Lake District
to meet Professor Michael Symonds
to find out about this extraordinary new research.
Michael, brown fat - it sounds horrible! What is it?
Well, brown fat - I suppose it gets a bad press because it's called fat.
-And brown, but, actually, it's a really good fat.
Without it, I doubt if you and I would be here, because brown fat
is switched on when you're first born,
and it's switched on then because it has a unique capacity
to produce really large amounts of heat, and just to put it in context,
if you compare, say, one gram of brown fat with one gram of muscle
or one gram of white fat...
-..it can produce 300 times more heat.
'All of us have reserves of brown fat.
'Michael's theory is that when we're stressed,
'the brown fat is activated, which in turn burns calories...
'and what better way to stress the body
'than jumping into a lake of freezing water?
'Using a thermal imaging camera, Michael scanned the bodies of
'the swimmers before they took the plunge.'
Our swimmers are there...
..in freezing temperatures,
so what's going to be going on with their brown fat?
I think the temperature of the water is about seven degrees C.
Not far off the temperature we have our fridges at.
That's right, yeah, and swimming up and down for about ten minutes,
that's going to switch on your brown fat, because if it doesn't,
I think you'd be struggling to cope with the cold.
Now, the thermal imaging camera is used to look at the heat
produced by the swimmers' bodies after they've been subjected
to the short, sharp stress of the cold water.
If, as expected, the cold has switched on their brown fat,
then it should show up as two white patches either side of the neck.
So, Michael, can we see the brown fat from our swimmers?
So, we'll start off by just looking at the image before.
You'll see here there's a small,
white area here that corresponds to where the brown fat is,
and then we'll go and look at the image after,
and you can see that this area is bigger.
It's bigger, yeah. Yeah, definitely.
'All the swimmers who were tested showed the same result -
'that the stress induced by the cold water activated their brown fat.'
So when the newspaper headlines say,
"Stress can help you lose weight," they're correct?
In terms of acute stress, yeah.
Michael is currently researching ways to switch on brown fat
without such extreme measures.
If successful, it might be that stress could help people
who are obese or have diabetes to manage their weight.
So, acute stress can be invigorating and sharpen our performance,
but when we're permanently stressed,
it not only causes uncomfortable physical and mental sensations,
but it can tip over into the real killer - chronic stress.
Acute stress now and then is fairly normal,
but when we're constantly stressed,
it can lead to the over-production of cortisol.
Also known as the steroid hormone,
cortisol has an effect on our blood sugar levels to give us more energy.
When we're chronically stressed, our cortisol tap is turned on
all the time, and this can have a serious affect on our health.
It weakens parts of our immune system,
making us more vulnerable to disease.
It increases our blood pressure,
which puts a strain on our arteries, and that can lead to heart disease.
And it's been linked to serious mental health issues,
such as anxiety and depression.
I have suffered from this type of stress,
the type that you can't get away from because it's totally out
of your control, and it can go on for weeks or months or even years.
I remember a period in my life where I went up into my office,
sat at my computer screen and literally sort of rocked
back and forth and back and forth cos everything had become too much.
I was getting up at, sort of,
3.30 in the morning for breakfast television,
I had two very small boys - one was a baby, one a toddler -
my mum and dad were, within a couple of years of each other,
diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer's and I was trying
to care for them at a distance and look after the children
and keep my job going and sometimes speak to my husband.
I wouldn't be surprised at the impact that all that stress
in the past has had on me.
'To find out if my long-term health has been damaged,
'I'm having a sample of my blood taken for analysis.'
-It's going to be a sharp scratch, yeah?
-Are you OK?
'It'll be sent to Newcastle University's Institute for Ageing,
'where they'll examine my white bloody cells.
'I'll be getting the results in a couple of weeks.
'Lots of stress, as we all know, can often lead to bad lifestyle habits,
'which can further damage our health.
'Like many of us, what I reach for may be doing me more harm than good in the long term.'
-First of all, chocolate.
A Scotch egg.
-A Scotch egg!
-An old favourite.
And then I'll go for a burger or French fries.
I've got a bag full of hot, spicy chicken wings.
A milk shake, definitely.
When we're feeling stressed out, lots of us comfort eat.
We eat not because we're hungry, but to boost our mood.
The problem with most comfort foods is they tend to be
packed full of sugar and fat. That is so tempting!
Not good for your health, though, never mind your waistline.
So why is it, I wonder, that we tend to crave sweet,
fatty foods when we're feeling stressed out?
To tackle this question, we're going to do an experiment involving
one of the most stressful hobbies in the UK - being a football fan.
Supporting a football team can be a stressful old business, you know!
I'm a Chelsea fan and even if we're winning,
there's a lot of stress involved over disputed penalties,
corners, fouls, or, of course, if the other side wins,
so I'm on my way to meet a scientist who's been using the emotional highs
and lows of sports fans to research how that can affect how we taste our food.
Now, they don't realise it yet, but these football fans from Doncaster
and Grimsby Town are going to be guinea pigs for a special taste test
devised by Professor Robin Dando of Cornell University.
What we're interested in looking at is if there's a link between
how we're feeling and our sense of taste, so, today,
people are going to be very heavily invested in the scoreline.
The home team is doing very well and they're playing their local rivals,
so what we're hoping to do today is give the same sample
to fans of the home team and fans of the away team,
and then see if they perceive it differently.
This of course relies on...
We're keeping our fingers crossed that somebody wins and it's not a draw.
And what are we going to be giving them, food-wise?
-So, they're going to be trying lemon curd flavoured doughnuts.
That's made me feel better already!
According to Robin's research, how we taste our food is altered
by our emotions, including how stressed we feel.
What we're interested in is what effect stress actually has
on how food tastes and whether this explains why we choose
certain types of comfort food.
At the end of the match,
Robin's plan is to carry out a taste test with both sets of fans.
What we're expecting is that the fans whose team has lost will be more stressed out.
All that's needed is a goal.
-So this is a good opportunity.
A great goal!
So, will the fans from the losing side taste Robin's doughnuts
differently to those on the winning side?
All right, guys - who fancies a doughnut?
Would you fancy a doughnut at all to celebrate your win today?
'We invited fans from both sides to eat a lemon curd doughnut
'and rate how sweet it tastes, and also how sour it tastes.'
-Yeah, and you're a Rovers fan, I can tell.
-There you go.
-Guys, sorry. You're on the losing side. Do you want a doughnut?
Have a doughnut.
'We then asked the fans how stressed they feel.
'So, what were the results?'
This is to help you get over your sad defeat today.
'The fans on the losing side rated the doughnuts as tasting
'more sour and, crucially, less sweet than the wining side,
'who literally experienced the sweet taste of victory.
'These results are consistent with a large-scale study
'that Robin's done with sports fans in America.
'Being stressed seems to make food taste less sweet.'
And would that be, then,
why we would crave sweet things as comfort food?
Yeah, so that would mean when we consume something, you know,
moderately sweet, it's not as pleasant any more.
You don't get the same positive feeling from it, and you're likely
instead to go for something which is more intensely sweet,
something like a classical comfort food,
which, unfortunately, tend to be much worse for you.
When we tracked a typical day with our three volunteers earlier
in the programme, we found that the most stressed individual, Andy,
was powering his way through the day
with the help of sugary snacks and coffee.
When we tested his levels of cortisol,
the damaging stress hormone,
they indicated that he was starting to show signs of chronic stress.
Work is the main trigger for Andy,
so it's difficult for him to escape that pressure.
But he can make some simple lifestyle changes to stop
his stress levels spiking unnecessarily throughout the day.
To help Andy cope with his stress better,
I've brought him along to meet nutritionist Christine Bailey.
-Hi, there. How are you?
'Christine believes there are certain foods that can satisfy
'both our comfort eating cravings and reduce our stress response.'
-We need you to tell us, don't we, Andy?
..Foods that are good for stress, cos I know when I'm stressed out, like, for example,
this morning, rushing around, I grabbed a cinnamon bun.
-Andy, what would you do?
-I just crave fried chicken. I shouldn't, but I do.
When you are struggling with stress, then really what you need is foods
that are going to keep your energy levels and your blood sugar stable.
'Sugary comfort foods cause our blood sugar levels to spike
'and then dip, which can make us feel more anxious, not less.
'Christine's got some alternatives.'
Blueberries are very high in vitamin C, full of antioxidants,
very protective and are going to give you that sweet,
you know, taste in the mouth without a craving for sugar,
without upsetting the blood sugar levels.
-They are nice.
'But what about snacks that help alleviate some of the symptoms of stress,
'that help to dial down the amount of cortisol our bodies are releasing?'
-So we've got pumpkin seeds...
All of them, very good source of protein,
so they're going to help stabilise your blood sugar,
and the walnuts contain omega three fats as well,
so very good for the brain, very good if you're feeling
quite anxious, and these are great sources of magnesium.
Now, we know magnesium is very good to help us keep calm,
so very good for anxiety, and these would be a good portable snack,
so when you're working, you could take some of these with you,
-Yeah, yeah, definitely. Little Tupperware box.
-You will be so laid-back, you won't know yourself!
-Nice and chilled - great for the brain as well.
-Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
Christine has another suggestion for Andy - to cut back on coffee.
If you're already stressed,
flooding your system with caffeine will just make you feel even worse.
Too much caffeine can cause insomnia,
nervousness and an increased heart rate.
In fact, all the symptoms of stress!
Christine recommends a healthier alternative.
So, green tea is very high in something called L-theanine.
It's an amino acid,
and what we know from the research is that it actually helps improve
your concentration, your focus and keeps you feeling calm,
-so very good when you're feeling anxious, Andy.
-What do you reckon?
-I think it's an acquired taste.
So, the advice for Andy, and actually all of us,
is avoid comfort foods and opt instead for healthy,
nutritious foods that can genuinely help your body cope with stress.
And here are some other tips.
Don't skip breakfast.
Studies show that if you do,
your cortisol levels will rise to increase your blood sugar levels.
Carry a bottle of water with time markings to make sure
you keep hydrated throughout the day.
Dehydration puts your body under more stress,
and that means more cortisol.
Eat vitamin C-rich produce like oranges and berries,
which will all help to boost your immune system.
Stress is part and parcel of our daily lives and few of us
can escape it, but there are some simple ways
to keep unwanted stress under control.
Steve and Paulette are joining Andy on
a three-week stress reduction regime using three manageable techniques.
They're all working at improving their diet, and they're all
going to increase the amount of physical exercise they do.
I'm not spending megabucks on the gym.
I just walk around the block three times,
through this lovely park, and at the end of the third lap, I go up
and down the stairs three times and then go round the block again twice.
Regular exercise releases feel-good hormones, endorphins.
These counteract our negative feelings and anxiety,
which means we release less cortisol.
Like Steve says,
you don't have to spend money or take up marathon running.
Simple things like walking more briskly, doing a few steps
and stretches in the park, or using a skipping rope
for five minutes a day can all make a big difference.
Not only will our volunteers be doing more exercise
and eating better, they'll also try out mindfulness.
Now we take our attention to the movement of the breath,
around the belly or the chest.
It's a technique that has its roots in meditation.
It's ability to treat various health issues is gaining momentum in the scientific community.
I want to find out why it's being raved about as an effective stress-buster.
These days, it's not just adults that complain about stress -
increasingly, youngsters are affected by it, too.
I've got two teenage sons and I honestly think school life
these days is harder than it's ever been with constant tests,
exams all the way through from primary school to sixth form.
Now I've heard that mindfulness is being used in some schools
as a way of helping people to cope with exam stress,
and I'm at one school now which is doing just that.
Maybe feel your heels, or the backs of your legs on the floor.
Really feel in to the different sensations.
And when you breathe out, I want you always to imagine as best you can
as though any stress is just now melting away down onto the floor.
Rates of depression and anxiety amongst teenagers
have increased by 70% in the past 25 years.
In an attempt to reduce these figures,
over 5,000 teachers are being trained in mindfulness techniques.
Just focusing on your breath, breathing in,
go up your finger, out, down your finger.
Well, mindfulness is a technique, really,
that helps you anchor your attention on the present moment.
It's amazing how much time we spend either reminiscing about the past or racing forward to the future,
and both of those two things can cause stress, and that's what
we're trying to avoid, or we're trying to kind of duck under.
So, mindfulness is all about paying attention to the present moment
on purpose, so making an effort to do it, and without judgment.
How are your toes moving?
Being a teenager has always been a tricky time,
but what's changed is the fast-paced environment we now live in
and the strains of living your life on social media.
Now, girls, how do you think mindfulness helps?
Well, I tend to procrastinate a lot when I'm doing homework
or revision, and mindfulness really helps me to focus in,
so I'm not thinking about
what I'm going to do tomorrow or what happened today.
-So you can really stay in the moment and focus?
I found that doing sit-down practices before revising
really helped me absorb more information.
And what sort of sit-down practices would you do?
I would sit down and I would just think about, like,
about how my back feels, how my legs feel, how my hands feel,
and then that really helped me focus in,
on myself, so I could absorb everything that I needed to for the exams.
It's all very well being told that mindfulness works, but I'm still a bit sceptical.
I've come to The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience
at King's College, London,
to find out what the science is behind it.
Here, ongoing research is underway into the effects
of mindfulness in experienced practitioners.
The results have been surprising.
Mindfulness can help us with stress in one particular way, and that is
helping us to deal with this mind that is constantly worrying
-about things. We can call that, sort of, mind wandering.
Science has shown that when we do mind wander, 60% of the time,
it's about worry, and negative mind wandering.
So what are we looking at here?
So it's actually a brain of the same experienced mindfulness practitioner,
and I asked him to switch between allowing his mind to wander
and react to the experiences - worry about things,
think about the future, ruminate about the past - and then,
switching to mindfulness, so, quite literally, plugged in into now.
'The difference in the brain scans is clear to see.'
When we get caught up in our mind wandering and our reactions,
this area are the areas that we call self-referencing - it's the me-me-me experience.
OK. There's a lot of me-me-me going on there.
It's a lot of me-me-me going on.
A lot of this thinking,
me-me-me thinking constantly agitates our mind,
and when we switch into mindfulness and all of that gets relaxed
in the brain, we're no longer running with that commentary...
-That's incredible! The difference is stark!
We've just got so much activity
going on in the mind-wandering brain,
-and yet barely any in the mindfulness brain.
And what effect would that have?
Having less reaction in the frontal lobe?
So, the experience associated with this brain state
is that sense of openness and clarity.
A lot of this thinking,
me-me-me thinking, constantly agitates our mind.
We constantly interrupt those networks by this commenting
what we're doing, the striving on how we should be doing it better...
-What people think of you...
-..Flagellating ourselves for failing,
you know - that's the commentary that mindfulness allows to silence.
Yeah. Gosh. I need that silence! I really need that silence.
That is my brain at the moment - the mind wandering.
Even when I'm speaking, I'm thinking about other things,
and I would love to have that brain, the mindfulness one.
Well, I have to say, I was a bit cynical about mindfulness
at the beginning of the day, and now I am definitely a convert.
I've seen the science.
The mindfulness brain, quiet and just taking in everything that it needs to take in,
and that noisy, noisy mind-wandering brain which most of us have got,
the me-me-me, the "what should I do next, what should I be doing now"... Argh!
So, mindfulness, I think, would be a really useful tool.
It'll take some investment time-wise,
but I think it's definitely worth it.
But having said that, mindfulness isn't the be-all and end-all.
If you have teenagers,
there are other ways of dealing with exam stress.
There are lots of things students, and indeed parents, can try.
Getting into the right mind-set to take your exams can make
a huge difference, sometimes the difference of a whole grade,
so to help students get into the right frame of mind,
we've gathered together some brilliant advice from young people who took their exams last year.
They're a varied bunch with problems varying
from parental pressure to anxiety
and a fear of planning and organising.
All the information, if you want it, is at BBC Bitesize.
It's been six weeks since we tested our volunteers' responses to stress.
Although their stress triggers have stayed much the same,
they're hoping that some of the techniques they've been
trying to help them cope better with stress have worked.
We've tested them again,
and our stress expert Professor Anna Whittaker has assessed the results.
First up is single mum Paulette.
-You all right?
-Yes, thank you.
When we look at your questionnaire results, they're really interesting,
so before you started all the interventions,
-you had very high perceived stress...
..in terms of how you were feeling you could cope. That's gone down a lot.
Your positive mood has increased,
your negative mood has decreased massively.
I've been eating different as well, so I'm feeling a lot better in myself, yes, and I have lost weight!
-So, all round, it's a bit of a new Paulette.
-It is helping me a lot, yes.
Next is courier Steve.
So Steve, looking at your cortisol, you've got a very nice healthy
awakening response and then coming down to much lower levels during the day.
In terms of the questionnaire,
you had acute stress as part of your job, but in terms of chronic stress, you had quite low levels,
and those have stayed nice and low, so that's great.
What do you think's particularly helped? I know you've been exercising more,
you've been watching your diet a bit.
I feel that the mindfulness is probably the most helpful aspect of the whole thing.
It gives you a kind of suit of armour to wear against potential stress situations.
And, finally, it's plumber Andy.
-You're looking pleased with yourself!
-Feeling a bit better.
-So, you and I went round the market.
-The diet change helped a bit?
-Yes, it has. Yeah. It definitely has.
I take more food to work, most days,
so I take three packed lunch boxes - just veg, rice and chicken.
-It's all right, yeah.
So, do you think the interventions have helped you?
Yeah, it has helped, and my mindfulness, like, the...the...
Just taking time out. It is a good thing.
The really good news is the questionnaire data.
I mean, your perceived stress,
which is how do you feel about your day-to-day and how do you
-feel about coping with it, that's nearly halved.
-OK, that's good.
Your anxiety's dropped - nearly halved as well.
-Your positive mood's increased, your negative mood's decreased.
So, has this encouraged you to carry on doing what you're doing?
-Oh, yeah, definitely going to carry on.
-You are going to be so laidback.
-I hope so. Be nice.
-Andy, thank you very much.
So, despite our volunteers having lots they can't control
in their lives, changing a few habits they can control
has had a big impact on their wellbeing.
The volunteers' results are encouraging, but I've been
worrying about the effect that stress has had on my body.
A couple of weeks ago,
I had a blood sample taken and scientists here
at Newcastle University's Institute of Ageing
have been busy working away looking at my white blood cells
to see if stress has taken its toll.
I'm not looking forward to finding out the results.
We often blame stress for making us visibly age faster,
giving us wrinkles and making our hair go grey.
But Professor Thomas von Zglinicki studies how stress ages us on the inside,
how it can actually affect our DNA.
-We've measured the length of your telomeres.
Telomeres are the ends of your chromosomes,
so assume that's a chromosome, and on that there is all your building plans and maintenance plans
for your body written on that.
Telomeres cap the ends, like this nice plastic cap does here,
-so it doesn't dribble off, and you can actually show that.
You can look in the microscope,
so the blue guys are the chromosomes,
the red dot the telomeres, and if you look at that,
each chromosome end has one red dot sitting on it.
Just like the plastic tips on shoelaces,
telomeres have the job of protecting the ends of our chromosomes,
but chronic stress,
stress that's sustained over a long period of time can damage them.
I would like to say I'm looking forward to getting the results,
but I'm really not.
-Let's have a look and see.
Thomas has measured the length of my telomeres to see how I compare for my age.
-So here on the left is people with very short telomeres.
Here on the right is the people with the very long telomeres.
Now let's see where you are.
-There you are.
-That is your telomere.
-So you are...
..not as bad as I thought it would be.
I thought I'd be well to the left.
-No, you are clearly better than average.
-Better than average?
-I feel like doing a dance!
-I won't do that. I won't!
-Please dance. But...
I'm really surprised at that,
because I wander around every day with my stomach lurching,
I'm always dashing from one place to another, I'm cramming things in,
I've got teenagers with all the stress that that brings.
If I make a guess, I would say you might be reasonably well
in dealing with stress, so you don't let it overwhelm you.
So it's about managing it?
-It's about managing it and balancing it, yes.
According to Thomas,
the state of my telomeres indicates that through eating well,
exercising and changing my work/life balance, I haven't caused
any long-term damage to my health, and that is a big relief.
So, at the end of all this,
I now know why we have an acute stress reaction
and how it's designed to protect us...
Oh, my God!
..why we reach for sugary snacks when we're stressed and what foods
would actually be better for us...
Full of antioxidants, very protective.
..and that some stress might not be so bad after all.
In fact, it could have potential health benefits.
I've also found out how to control and harness stress to my advantage.
I feel excited!
So, stress is a complex,
powerful yet perfectly natural response to everyday situations.
Although sometimes we might experience length periods
of stress or chronic stress, we can learn to limit the damage
by using diet, exercise and mindfulness.
The truth about stress is, if we learn to recognise acute stress
and use it to our advantage, we are in control.
The World Health Organisation has described stress as 'the health epidemic of the 21st century'. In this programme Fiona Phillips wants to understand why we are experiencing increased amounts of stress in our lives and what actions we can take in order to reduce it.
Fiona speaks openly about her own experience of stress and her desire to find better coping mechanisms in the hope of improving her health and happiness. A key question driving Fiona's discovery is whether or not some types of stress might actually be good for us and drive us towards better performance and confidence at work and a healthier approach to the pressure and stress we might face at home. Fiona investigates this latest scientific thinking and learns how to turn stress into a weapon rather than a woe, simply by changing the way we perceive it. We reveal exciting new research about stress that could help us to lose weight - particularly those suffering from diabetes or obesity.
Alongside a team of experts and a number of willing volunteers, Fiona puts herself on the front line and in a number of high-stress situations to truly understand the meaning and power of stress, and find out if we can actually learn how to use it to our advantage.
Fiona explores some of the very latest scientific research behind stress and demonstrates a number of techniques and lifestyle changes which are designed to keep our high stress levels in check.