Manage stress like a pro. Hear it from the experts. 

12 February 2024 dot 6-minute read
Healthy Mind Expert guide Managing stress
Stress management skills are important for success (Credit: Getty Images)
Stress management has become a vital skill for success, especially when navigating the challenges of our fast-paced world.
As we know, stress can have a profound impact on both our physical health and our mental wellbeing. 
We have invited experts to help us better understand stress and provide tips we can all apply to our daily lives. By practising these strategies, you will be able to tackle stress more effectively whether you are contending with workplace pressures, personal challenges, or simply looking to improve your quality of life.
Let’s dive into it.

Meet the experts:

Stress response and healthy lifestyle habits - Dr Tan Ming Wei

Question: How can the body's stress response become a health problem?
Dr Wei: Stress can lead to irritability, anxiety and panic attacks, depression or worsening of existing mental health problems. It can also cause headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain, indigestion, eating or sleep disorders.
Question: What self-care tips can you recommend coping with stress or maintain mental toughness in the long term?
Dr Wei: There are many ways of coping with stress, such as leading a healthy lifestyle which includes physical exercise and healthy eating.
  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day reinforces the circadian rhythm to help get adequate sleep.
  • A good work-life balance may be difficult to achieve, but it is key to a person's mental well-being, allowing them to perform to their full potential at work and preventing burnout.
  • Take time to unwind and participate in outdoor activities you enjoy alone and with friends and family. Talk with them about your concerns and share your worries. Learn to be kinder to yourself and not be too hard on yourself.
  • Relaxation techniques have effectively reduced the body's blood pressure, inflammatory chemicals and stress responses. Deep breathing exercises, yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices are good relaxation techniques.
  • Lastly, avoid or limit alcohol intake. It may appear to help in the short term as alcohol depresses brain function. However, it may increase stress hormones and lead to dependence and alcoholism in the long run.
Practised the foundation of good sleeping daily to manage stress. (Credit: Getty Images)

Sleeping habits and self-care - Tony Estrella

Question: Tony, how have your sleeping habits changed from when you first started working to life today as a health innovator?  
Tony: When I started working at age 21, I still focused on sleeping despite the demands of a working life. But I was short-sleeping (sleeping less than the minimum recommended hours per night) and eating late at night, which I have since learned were "life-shortening habits". However, I did learn to become very connected to my circadian rhythm, which allowed me to feel physically rested in the morning despite not getting 6.5 hours of sleep.  
Fifteen years later, I started journaling my lucid dreams, where I was aware that I was dreaming and could also actively control myself in my dreams. During this time, I also started studying sleep science and the latest in best clinical practices.  
By 2013, I learned and practised the foundation of good sleeping daily, which I now teach others today. I give talks on Sleep Science, including Lucid Dreaming, for parents, corporate health and wellness programmes, and wellness offerings provided by exclusive hotel groups for their guests.  
Question: What is on your self-care checklist?   
Tony:  Beyond good sleep, my regular habits include:   
  • Twenty minutes of medium-to-high-intensity exercise 
  • Eating more of a vegetarian diet
  • Creating blocks of time during the week to spend with my family  
  • Focusing on sleep hygiene to have good lucid dreams at night 
  • Translating my lucid dreams into creative writing 

Mental health, stress eating and sleep quality - Dr Anabelle Chow 

Question: Is stress a mental health problem?
Dr Chow: Stress is a natural human response. Experiencing stress is healthy, allowing us to respond quickly and appropriately. Defined by the World Health Organization as "a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation", stress can be a source of motivation at work. So, stress itself is not considered a mental health problem. However, experiencing overwhelming amounts of stress over sustained periods can contribute to mental health issues.
Question: Is there such a thing as good stress? When does it become a problem?
Dr Chow: Good stress, or eustress, is beneficial to us. It presents similarly to distress, but our perception of it is positive. For example, slight nervousness, faster heartbeats and quick thinking are symptoms of eustress or adrenalin, which motivates us to perform the task at hand, making us feel excited and more attuned to our environment.
This excitement helps us concentrate, view tasks as meaningful, and even encourages us to take on new challenges. This may lead to better performance in school or at work.
However, increased performance correlates with increased stress until a point. When stress becomes prolonged or presents with high intensity, it can feel overwhelming and uncontrollable. This affects our cognition and mood and can eventually lead to health problems.
Question: Why does stress trigger emotional eating, and how can you curb it? 
Dr Chow: Stress hormones are produced under stress, but the ‘happy hormones’, endorphins and dopamine, are also reduced. Foods high in sugar and fat can be a source of comfort and pleasure because they trigger the release of happy hormones. However, food as a source of comfort does not relieve our stress, and you may crave food repeatedly without effectively doing anything for stress levels.
Awareness of the instances when we eat emotionally is typically the first step. The next step is to be able to pause when we notice these moments unfolding instead of automatically reaching out for snacks or thinking we are hungry when we may not be.
After we notice and pause, we ask ourselves whether we are truly hungry or stressed. Our body naturally tells us when we are hungry – the stomach grumbles, and we feel a sort of aching or emptiness in our bellies. Take a sip of water and wait for a bit.
If the physiological signs do not turn up after a while, it shows our body does not need the food; instead, we think that we do. Find sustainable ways to relieve stress in these moments – take a break (with a physical environment change), do some stretches or mini exercises, squeeze a stress ball, or share a laugh with a colleague.
Question: What signs or symptoms of stress do people ignore or may not know that can lead to burnout?  
Dr Chow: Burnout is the accumulation of unresolved stress that has built up. Unlike stress, which heightens one's senses temporarily, someone who is burnt out is usually chronically stressed. They find it hard to detach, wind down or relax, and feel like they cannot focus or have lost their drive. These feelings are associated with a specific role or responsibility that they have, like work or caregiving.
Question: What is the relationship between sleep and stress?  
Dr Chow: Sleep is a way for the body and mind to recharge. A large portion of our body's recovery systems and the brain's consolidation of information happens when we are asleep. Under stress, the body functions are heightened, and more stress hormones are reproduced, increasing alertness.
If we try to sleep when we are stressed and not sufficiently relaxed, this can be what disrupts our sleep. Our body and mind do not get enough rest and "reset" to adequately perform the next day, which can result in further stress.
Question: If we don't get eight hours of sleep today, can we make up for it tomorrow by sleeping more?
Dr Chow: If this is a one-time occurrence, that may be possible! However, if we are consistently in the cycle of losing sleep on some nights and playing catch up on other nights, the constant disruption in our circadian rhythms can have detrimental impacts on our health.
Research has found that trying to ‘"undo’" our sleep debt by sleeping longer on some days does not prevent or mitigate the impacts of less sleep on our minds and bodies. A consistent and regular sleep schedule is vital for physical and mental health.
Question: How do you get sleep quality during times of stress?
Dr Chow: During stressful periods, ensuring we follow regular routines and schedules is crucial. Get sufficient activity and fatigue built up in the day, effectively set time to wind down before our bodies touch the bed, and reserve our bed mainly for sleep. This means no phones, ‘scrolling’, working, or lying awake in bed.
If you are awake for more than half an hour, get out of bed and do something that helps you wind down. Condition yourself to associate your bed with sleeping and sleepiness.
Question: Are there self-care ideas that can help you cope during a stressful moment or maintain mental toughness in the long term?
Dr Chow:  A tip that would be helpful is to reflect on or insert small pockets of positive moments every day. When we talk about positive moments, we refer to moments when we engage in activities that lift our moods or spirits. These moments can be unexpected, by others, or deliberate ways we know help us feel a little more relaxed or happier. 
Reflect on whether there were any positive moments in our days, and plan to insert some in the next day if our days are lacking a little fun or joy. Switch up these activities or moments now and then because over time, the same ‘positive moments’ may not have the same effect of lifting our moods.

Bonus! Reducing the impact of stress at any life stage

Stress brings about changes that affect nearly every organ system. Excessive or prolonged stress can lead to anxiety, digestive problems and sleep deprivation. It also increases the risks of depression and cardiovascular disease.
Individuals who practise these healthy lifestyle habits can build resilience and ensure their stress levels stay within a beneficial range.
  • Get 7 hours of sleep
  • Eat 4-5 servings of fruit and vegetables.
  • Perform 30 minutes of physical activity a day.
  • Spend 15-20 minutes outdoors daily.
  • Switch off devices 1 hour before bedtime.
Joining a wellness programme like AIA Vitality can provide valuable benefits for managing stress. Engaging in activities with like-minded individuals reduces isolation and provides a support network for sharing experiences. The rewards that members receive for achieving health goals serve as a bonus to the social connection they gain from taking part in the programme.

This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

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