LivingFace-to-face stress: coping strategies

Face-to-face stress: coping strategies

Legend has it that one of the secrets of Cleopatra’s beauty was the donkey’s milk baths. The cinema, above all, has led us to believe that, in ancient Egypt, the monarchs lived surrounded by luxuries and eccentricities, when in fact the living conditions of the general population, including the upper classes, were very precarious. In fact, most died before their thirties, largely because they went long periods without eating anything.

We know this because malnutrition leaves a trace in long bones, such as the femur and tibia in the form of stretch marks. They are the Harris lines, named after Henry Albert Harris, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Cambridge (UK), who first described them in 1926 and which we now know as growth lines. These lines indicate that there has been an imbalance between demands and resources, and that is the definition of stress. In short, the Egyptians would have liked to have milk from a donkey , or any other animal, galore.

Stress, therefore, is as old as hunger, and consists of a natural process of adaptation to the environment that we also share with animals and plants. Indeed, plants face a wide range of stressors during their life cycle, from rain to excess light, insect attack or the presence of pollutants. Therefore, they must activate adaptation mechanisms or suffer the consequences of a harmful environment.

In our case, this process is what helps us perform at work or stay focused on an exam, for example. It is the so-called positive stress . From a neurological point of view, in this type of situation a real hormonal cascade is produced in the brain. The amygdala is a brain region located in the inner part of the medial temporal lobe. It is responsible for regulating emotions, especially fear, releasing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which put our body on alert. Once the threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal.

So far, so good.

The problem comes when the person is subjected to constant stress, since this overactivation involves, “in addition to physical imbalances, higher levels of anxiety and anger, and if it is maintained over time, symptoms of depression may appear”, such as explains Antonio Cano Vindel, Professor of Psychology at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM). It is negative stress or distress. Unfortunately, the health crisis caused by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease Covid-19, has contributed to the exacerbation of these disorders and stress to spread on a global scale.

First was home confinement, which reduced our social circle and left thousands of workers without purchasing power. At the same time, hundreds of people died every day, and many of those who have overcome the disease are still living with sequelae.

The relatives of the deceased, not only because of the virus, could not perform the usual rites and, therefore, carry out the mourning. And at the end of it all came the fear of going out into the street, of contagion.

A year later, there are already dozens of studies that show alarming figures on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on mental health, especially among one of the groups that is under the most pressure: health personnel.

The Mind Covid survey launched by the Carlos III Health Institute (ISCIII) of the Ministry of Science and Innovation, has had more than 9,000 participants from eighteen hospitals in six autonomous communities. The conclusion is that almost half of the health personnel are at high risk for some type of mental disorder. Divided by pathologies, 28.1% present depression; 22.5%, anxiety disorder; almost one in four, panic; 22.2%, post-traumatic stress; and a little more than 6%, substance abuse. In addition, 3.5% have had an active suicidal idea (death wishes and persistent thoughts of wanting to kill themselves).

As a general rule, stress does not improve on its own, nor are there magic formulas to eliminate it from our lives. For Cano, who is also president of the Spanish Society for the Study of Anxiety and Stress (SEAS), “the first thing to do is have good information, and then train.” In this sense, he recommends the contents of the Emotional Wellbeing page of the Ministry of Health, which he himself has been in charge of contributing together with the psychologist Esperanza Dongil, a professor at the Catholic University of Valencia, to reach a general public.

“A very important issue is the interpretation we make of the demands: if we interpret them as a threat, we become more active. On the other hand, if we interpret them as a challenge, we will be more relaxed ”, adds Cano. This is what explains why, when faced with the same job, one person may experience anxiety and, on the other hand, another feels motivated.

Commitment to our profession or interest in our tasks can make us experience positive emotions even when there is stress, especially when we know that our effort will be recognized.

In addition to training these skills, stress management involves resting and eating well, trying not to eat emotionally . A European study coordinated by researchers from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), called MyNewGut, has shown that a healthy microbiota helps regulate appetite; the metabolism of nutrients, such as glucose; body weight; and inflammation associated with obesity. In addition, it has also shown the influence on neurodevelopment and the response to stress, which, in turn, affects the future risk of developing chronic metabolic and mental diseases.

As for rest, many people find it difficult to be without doing anything, but it is necessary to disconnect and have moments of leisure to leave worries behind. Lack of sleep, in the long run, produces exhaustion and low mood, so we must sleep between seven and nine hours a day.

In a time of universal stress such as the current one, experts also recommend constantly stopping reading or watching the news about the pandemic, including those that appear on our social networks.

In recent years, the word mindfulness (‘mindfulness’, in English) has crept into our vocabulary as if it were the panacea for all our ills. Cano is very critical about it and denounces a lot of intrusiveness in this area: “There are people who have no training in psychology and they start to treat it as if they had it. It is as if I start to operate without being a surgeon ”.

For the professor of Psychology at the UCM, mindfulness, as a relaxation technique, is not the most effective.

Lucía Vilar, the fictitious name of a television scriptwriter, was diagnosed with a mild generalized anxiety disorder and her psychologist recommended that she practice mindfulness. And he did, but through an unexpected activity: salsa classes. “It was mentally impossible for me to be thinking about anything other than interpreting the gestures of my dance partner or being attentive to the rhythm of the body during that hour,” she recalls. Over time, you’ve discovered that there are many other activities that help you in the same way that meditation would, especially crafts. “When I cut out magazines to make a collage or paint a flowerpot, I get so abstracted that I forget anything that might cause me anxiety or worry.”

Lucía has also been trying to get rid of the pressure to play sports for a long time. It is clear that a sedentary lifestyle has dire consequences for health, and numerous studies show that physical activity improves resilience. However, there are people who hate sports or who even overwhelm themselves with cardiovascular exercises, because they cause them a feeling of anxiety, which is just what they want to avoid.

For Kike Carbonero, personal trainer in Barcelona, it depends on multiple factors, such as the person’s own profile or even the time of day. “I need to hit, lift all the iron that I can or exhaust myself combining burpees with runs and box jumps with 30 kg on top. Of course, I can do it by listening to Metallica or classical music ”. This trainer explains the case of a client who tried boxing, but ended up finding the key to reducing tension in yoga. Lucía is also giving this millenary practice a chance, but aware that, in reality, she likes sport as a recreational and social activity.

It is precisely this social aspect, surrounding oneself with family, friends or coworkers, has a positive effect on emotional well-being and the ability to cope with stress.

“Social support is a very important help, and it works better than antidepressants,” Cano says. There are people who quit out of shame or fear of annoying, but explaining to your group that you are going through a difficult circumstance helps you reinterpret, and you also realize that there are more people in the same situation. If having anxiety were a weakness… then the entire population would be weak ”, concludes this expert.

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