Health January 2016

You’ve got stress. Now what?

Last month, a revision to Japan’s Industrial Safety and Health Act obliged firms to offer annual stress tests to employees. That test, if you have not yet taken one, is likely to reveal that you, like millions of others, are under stress.

The law does not require firms to take further action, however. Once employees learn that they are under stress—on the chance they hadn’t suspected—they will be largely left to their own devices to discover how to relax.

Everyone reacts differently to stress. Moreover, recent research has shown that this difference extends to the sexes, in part because of how men and women react to elevated levels of the hormone oxytocin in the brain.

While women are more likely to report feeling stressed, men are more likely to say they are fine. Yet men die more frequently than women from stress-related illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and autoimmune diseases.

The two main categories of stress that affect the body and its health are acute stress and chronic stress.

Most of us experience acute stress every day, in various forms. This morning, I had three minutes to dash the 200 metres from the Keikyu Line to the Shonan-Shinjuku, through a rush-hour crowd in Yokohama Station.

I made it, just, and although the highs and lows of that experience were not quite the equivalent of an Olympic gold medal-winning sprint, it definitely fell into the category of acute stress (who wants to wait another 10 minutes for the next train?).

Chronic stress is with all of us every day as well, and is much less exciting, but can slowly erode our well-being. Examples might be the worry of caring for an elderly relative, poor relations with a supervisor at work or concerns about how you’re going to pay to fund your children through university.

Both acute and chronic stress can be exhausting, but in different ways, and the physical health consequences can be severe. Health problems linked to stress include heart attack, diabetes, depression, obesity, eating disorders, substance abuse, ulcers, insomnia and autoimmune diseases.

So how can you better deal with stress? Resign from your job, move to the South Seas and spend the day fishing and picking up fallen coconuts?

If you can’t manage that, you’ll have to figure out how to cope. That means identifying your stressors and developing a plan to either avoid them or minimize their impact on your life. As a small example, I decided some years ago that I would not discuss politics with my father.

Although everyone is different, in general some of women’s responses to stress are nervousness, decreased energy and crying. Men’s responses, meanwhile, tend to include insomnia, as well as feelings of irritability and anger.

Exercise is a wonderful stress reliever. It increases the body’s production of endorphins, which ward off depression; inhibits the body’s production of stress hormones; helps relax muscles; and can lead to better sleep habits.

Also important is time management. Nearly all of us feel we don’t have enough time to accomplish everything we need to or want to in our professional and personal lives. You would like to watch your daughter’s ballet recital, but you really need to finish that report before the weekend, and so on.

Aside from photographs of kittens, there is nothing easier to find on the (safe for work) Internet than articles about time management, so I won’t bore you with articles listing “top tips guaranteed to give you 20 extra hours of time per week”. You can Google those yourself.

Everyone’s situation is different; your job, home and domestic circumstances are among the many factors that contribute to the levels of stress you may feel on a given day. However, there are some universal strategies for taking care of yourself, no matter where you work and live.

Getting enough sleep is the starting point for adults and young people. Eating regularly and healthily is important, as is exercising—reasonably—regularly.

Friendships allow you to express your concerns, and open the valve to let out some of the pressure that results from the stresses you are feeling. That’s especially true for men, because we tend to play the tough guy.

Finally, there are times when we can’t deal with our stress by ourselves, and need support. Friends and family can provide that support, as can professional therapists and counsellors.

And of course, there’s the TELL Lifeline. If you need to talk, we’re here to listen.


Tel: 03-5774-0992