Stress: how to beat the blues the easy way

The Medical Nutritional Institute (MNI) is encouraging all South Africans to make 2011 a mentally healthy year by taking a much more proactive stance to managing stress levels.

Stress is a common risk factor for a wide variety of chronic disorders which affects far more individuals than is often realised. According to findings from the first South African Stress and Health Study, South Africa is ranked 7th highest in the world for the prevalence of mood disorders and it is estimated that 10% of us will suffer a mood disorder at some point in our lives[1].

These worrying findings are in line with global trends which suggest incidents of stress and mood-related disorders are increasing dramatically. For example, a recent survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) suggests America is another over-stressed nation, with 32% of Americans living with extremely high stress levels and 44% stating that their stress levels have increased over the past five years[2]. Similarly, a report adopted by the European Parliament suggests that over 27 percent of European adults are affected by mental ill health every year[3].

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported that 450 million people are affected by mental or neurological disorders globally and grimly predicted that mental ill-health will be the leading cause of death worldwide by 2020[4] [5].

“Stress itself doesn’t appear to be taken that seriously by people,” observes Dr Conrad Smith, a GP based in Johannesburg and director of The Medical Nutritional Institute (MNI), “but it is a significant risk factor for a wide variety of debilitating and serious conditions, from alcoholism and substance abuse to serious mood disorders and ischemic heart disease. In fact, many healthcare professionals argue that stress-related disorders are escalating so rapidly because the role played by stress is not being recognised and addressed early enough.”

Smith believes that as far as possible, prevention through proactive management is the key. “We need to be aware of how much stress we are under at any given time and take preventative measures, especially during particularly stressful periods,” he says.

But not all stress is bad for you and a certain amount of stress plays an important role in leading a fulfilled life. “It’s more about routinely looking after your mental health than trying to eliminate every source of stress. While a small dose of stress can actually help motivate us to perform at our best but there are also many times when we can feel overwhelmed, unable to cope and need a little extra support.”

Overwhelming stressful circumstances include moving house, divorce, the death of someone close, losing a job or suffering a serious illness or injury. “These are recognised stressful events, but we also need to be more conscious about the stress and emotional depletion caused by frequent daily living situations, such as starting a new job, writing exams or taking on an additional workload.”

Becoming aware of, and coping with, the smaller but far more frequent stressful events in our lives, will improve our overall mental health and can help avert the development of serious stress-related conditions. “Anti-depressants and other therapies have a vital and necessary role to play when it comes to treating chronic moods disorders, but ideally, the optimum goal should be preventing the onset of these conditions by proactively managing stress levels and maintaining mental health,” says Smith.

The good news is that there are numerous steps one can take that provide an improved physiological advantage during stressful periods. “The best way to manage stress is by using a combination of techniques,” says Smith. “Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, practising relaxation techniques and seeking support through personal relationships are all proven ways of keeping daily stress levels low. During a particularly stressful period, when you’re in overdrive and experiencing mental exhaustion, irritability, mood swings and forgetfulness, these methods could be complemented with, non-prescription supplements that have been proven to be clinically effective and safe. Reputable products will assist in stabilising and improving mood and also boost levels of mental alertness and concentration, enabling us to manage the extra stress better.”