Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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Stress, broccoli and running shoes
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The press carried a story this week that more than 11,000 Scots young people (under 25s) are on incapacity benefit due to ‘stress’. Severe stress, and the constant pumping of cortisol into the system, is extremely debilitating and does undermines health. Dr Harry Burns, the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, argues that one of the reasons why the life expectancy rates are so low in Scotland’s deprived areas is that many inhabitants have an elevated stress response. He puts this down to a number of socio-economic factors but he also thinks feelings of pessimism and lack of hope also contribute to the spiral of stress and negativity.
However, it is also true to say that our society is putting out some damaging messages about stress. Stress is now commonly seen as something which is inevitably bad for you and to be avoided at all costs. Somehow we have got it into our heads that people shouldn’t be challenged by anything; we are unduly concerned if people aren’t feeling happy all the time and experiencing bad feelings as a result of life’s inevitable ups and downs. No doubt it is this type of thinking that is leading one Scottish local authority to consider having ‘mental health wardens’ in schools.
I’ve had an interest in stress for years as I used to run stress management courses regularly for a Scottish local authority. In these course I would argue that some stress was beneficial – without some degree of stress it was all too easy to waste away in a safe, but ultimately stultifying life.
However, I read a fantastic book recently called ‘Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain’ which takes the argument about stress a stage further. The author, John Ratey, a psychiatrist, argues that ‘stress is not a matter of good or bad – it is a matter of necessity.’
Ratey argues that we can’t grow and adapt as human being unless we’re stressed. It is stress that helps us develop physical and psychological resilience and the resources we need to overcome the inevitable difficulties in life. If we have small everyday stresses in our life, this keeps our system functioning properly and allows us to survive the bigger stresses which will come our way sooner or later.
Ratey quotes interesting research carried out by Dr Mark Mattson, chief neuroscientist at the National Institute of Aging in the USA. His work shows that restricted calorie intake through ‘meal skipping’ can prolong life essentially by stressing the system. Mattsons’ work also gives a different slant on why vegetables, like broccoli, are so good for us. The argument is usually made that vegetables are good because they contain antioxidants. But Mattson’s argument is that it is more because they contain ‘toxins’:
‘Many of the benefical chemicals in plants – vegetables and fruits – have evolved as toxins to dissuade insects and other animals from eating them. What they are doing is inducing a mild, adaptive stress response in the cells. For example, in broccoli there’s a chemical called sulforaphane, and it clearly activates stress response pathways … ‘
Ratey also points out the while mild stress is essential for optimal human functioning chronic stress is bad and really undermines the functioning of the brain. One of the best ways to counteract the negative effects of stress is to exercise. Indeed Spark is a fascinating insight into just how important physical activity is for our mood, our cognitive abilities – in fact for just about everything.
So if we want to help all these young people too stressed to work, we must help them get out of the house and become active. We also need tostart giving out more positive messages about stress and what it can do for us.
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