Few of us are immune to the stressful impacts of our modern Western rat race.
No matter our occupation, the social pressures we face to eat well, achieve success, sleep right, look after our families, have an exciting life and accomplish everything we need to 24/7 – week in and week out – is incredible.
Despite this, many of us solider on accepting the impact of stress on our bodies and minds. But as the star of Trust Me, I’m a Doctor Dr Michael Mosley tells SBS Food, life doesn’t need to be this way.
“People just assume that stress is just part of modern life, and in many ways it is.
“But, I think we underestimate the pernicious effects of stress. We know, for example, that stress contributes to diabetes and obesity. What it does is it raises cortisol and that, in turn, has a pretty profound effect on your blood sugar level.
"We know that stress contributes to diabetes and obesity."
“Stress means you sleep badly and that, in turn, adds to you experiencing more stress. Sleep deprivation also makes you crave sugary, carby things. We did an experiment [looking at how a lack of sleep impacts the body]. We found that if you are sleep deprived, even for one night, you will eat around 300 to 400 calories more the next day.”
According to a survey conducted by the Australian Psychological Society in 2014, almost one in two Australians identify their workplace as a source of stress. Family issues, personal health concerns, trying to stay healthy and worrying about the health of others were other major sources facing everyday Aussies.
So how do we manage the negative, stressful side-effects of our current lifestyles without taking medicine to calm down and chill out?
“I am a great believer that there are things you can do about it that are non-pharmaceutical.”
In episode one of Trust Me, I'm a Doctor series seven – premiering on Thursday 1 February at 8.35pm on SBS – Dr Mosley runs a controlled experiment testing three non-medicinal stress techniques.
Mindfulness was the most powerful method of stress relief.
The doctor and his team scientifically analyse the impact of mindfulness, yoga and gardening on the mind and body on reducing our stress levels.
He says for each method, two evaluations were conducted: Participants self-reported their stress levels and the show’s researchers measured the participant’s cortisol levels.
The experiment found that mindfulness was the most powerful method of stress relief of the three methods.
“Mindfulness doesn’t work for everyone but in our study, it was the one that came out on top for reducing our stress levels,” says Dr Mosley.
However, there was one caveat to the results: Dr Mosley says mindfulness is only effective if you enjoy doing it.
“What usually happens when they report studies is that researchers report the average. But averages disguise huge variations.” In the sample group, he explains, the participants who enjoyed mindfulness experienced a much greater reduction in stress than the rest of the group while those who did not enjoy the activity benefited the least.
"Mindfulness is only effective if you enjoy doing it."
“So the most important predictor of whether you would get benefit from practicing mindfulness was whether you enjoyed it.
Mindfulness is about being in the moment, and so few of us are.
“Most of us are usually always having an internal monologue all of the time. We are worried about the things we have done or are about to do and that means we are very distant from our actual environment. And that is very unhealthy. [Internalising] our worries promote stress and anxiety, and a lot of the ills of the modern age.”
Mindful breathing and eating
For the purpose of the study conducted in the show, participants practiced a simple form of mindfulness, which saw them breathing deeply and slowly for 15 minutes, counting each breath.
Although mindful eating was not specifically tested on the show, Dr Mosley says it could also help people to beat stress, as it is based on the same principle of being in the moment.
“Mindfulness may involve you standing and admiring the sunset, or listening to the wind howling through the trees, or absolutely savouring your food and enjoying every mouthful,” Dr Mosley says.
Dr Mosley recalls the stress relieving benefits of mindful eating he experienced when practising ‘mindful chocolate eating’ for his book, The Clever Guts Diet.
“You take a little square of chocolate and you sniff it, you lick it and you look at it. You take about five minutes to admire it, savour it and appreciate it. The same thing goes for a cup of coffee”. To practice the mindful drinking of coffee, “you can feel the weight of it in your hand, feel the heat of the cup, sniff it and savour it. Mindful eating or drinking is about appreciating the textures and flavours, and your senses”.
"You take a little square of chocolate and you sniff it, you lick it and you look at it."
Whatever the application in your life, Trust Me I’m A Doctor proves that mindfulness can reduce stress in some people.
“But the main message of the show is that we don’t have to live with stress.”
“There is something you can do about stress: and it won’t be all about medication and drugs. There are other effective techniques to deal with stress.”
People who live with a mental health condition or are experiencing clinical depression or anxiety are advised to consult their GP.
If you would like support and further information about how to manage stress, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Trust Me I’m A Doctor (season 7) airs on Monday 5 February 2018 at 8.30pm on SBS ONE. Catch-up online via SBS On Demand.