Dossier: Stress and relaxation

Don't demonise stress!

Is stress a new concept? How has it changed over the years? Can stress management courses help? We explore frequently asked questions in an interview with Professor Ulrike Ehlert.

Text: Michael Suter, photos: Filipa Peixeiro

Is there a difference between the stress you feel speaking in front of 300 people and what you feel dealing with a child whining at the supermarket checkout?

Stress is very personal. What stresses one person may not matter a jot to someone else. Regardless of whether the stress factor is a crying child or stage fright – the body’s response is the same. The levels of the neurotransmitters noradrenaline and adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol rise and your breathing and heart rate speed up. This reaction is stronger in some people than others. It is influenced by our genetic makeup, but also by external factors such as our upbringing.

How can I tell if I’m putting myself under too much pressure?

There are two unmistakable signs: poor sleep and increased irritability. Taking these signs seriously is the first step towards tackling stress and preventing consequences such as burn-out, depression, cardiovascular disease or pain.

When is external help recommended? Who can I turn to for help?

Generally speaking, we initially try to deal with stress ourselves. However, if we notice it’s not working, and our colleagues, friends or family start to ask when we’re going to be less stressed, then it’s time to seek external help. Your first point of contact should be your family doctor, who can refer you to a psychotherapist if necessary.

Can I train myself to become more resistant to stress?

Yes! The faster you’re able to shake off negative moods and the longer you’re able to maintain a good mood, the easier it is to handle stress. Psychologists call this hedonistic emotion regulation. You can work on this.

All I have to do is talk myself into it?

That’s a big part of it. If you’re faced with a new challenge: remind yourself of previous successes and times when you overcame difficulties. And rank the importance of things for yourself every day. Ask yourself: how are you and others affected by the situation that you find stressful? Will it have a negative impact on your children, partner or your job? Probably not. So you can afford to take a more relaxed approach. It also helps if you reassure yourself that you don’t always have to be perfect.

“Remind yourself of previous successes and times when you overcame difficulties! And rank the importance of things for yourself.”
Professor Ulrike Ehlert

Many people try to master their daily stress through yoga or mindfulness exercises.

Techniques like these can have a positive influence on the body’s stress response. Slowly inhaling and exhaling signals to the brain that you have time to breathe. This releases fewer stress hormones, and the body relaxes. However, progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training, etc. only work if you do them regularly.

Is there one method of relaxation that works best?

Yes – the one that suits you and that you enjoy doing! It can even be gardening or cooking with friends. You have to find out what works best for you. Studies have shown that sport, healthy eating and getting enough sleep can also help you handle stress better.

Is the ultimate goal a totally stress-free life?

No! We shouldn’t demonise stress. A moderate amount of stress makes life exciting. Being relaxed all the time would be dull and boring. I suspect that a totally stress-free life would actually be stressful.

Professor Ehlert, as a stress researcher you’ve no doubt found your own personal recipe against stress long ago.

Not at all. I’m often stressed! For example, when my professional schedule is disrupted by an unforeseen event, or when I’m expected to handle several jobs at the same time.

And how do you relax?

What works best for me is cooking an evening meal with my partner and chatting while we cook.

Our daily lives are getting faster and faster, not least because of digitalisation. Do we suffer more from stress today than previous generations?

I don’t think so. There’s always been stress – it just took a different form.It seems that more and more people are finding their working life stressful in recent years. In the past, however, some women had one child after another, watched their children die, and had their hands full with a big family. And men often had to do very physically demanding work.

“There’s always been stress – it just took a different form.”
Professor Ulrike Ehlert

What characterises stress today?

We do tasks more quickly and are expected to be available at all times. We seek success, confirmation and youthfulness even in old age. What’s more, stress has become a lifestyle factor. If I take everything in my stride, it may mean I’m out of the loop or unimportant. If I’m swamped with work, how can I keep calm? First you have to rank the importance of things for yourself.

... what’s important in life?

No. What’s important for you on a particular day. For example, if I have a meeting that will have a subsequent impact on the work of five colleagues, that’s what needs my full attention. Otherwise there could be problems later because I wasn’t paying attention. However, if I buy the wrong pasta in the supermarket that’s less important. It’s worthwhile setting priorities and planning accordingly.

You say that we often take the wrong approach to problems.

That’s true. Many people find it hard to define problems and solve them systematically. If you’re stressed, panic takes over. You no longer think about your problem in a purposeful way. First, you have to describe your problem in two or three sentences. Then you set a clear goal. Next you have to consider different solutions before considering in the next step which solutions could work and what the consequences will be. Only then should you choose one of the solutions and apply it (and only this one) and then consider later: did it work? This approach will help you eliminate a lot of stress in everyday professional life.

“Many people find it hard to define problems and solve them systematically. If you’re stressed, panic takes over. You no longer think about your problem in a purposeful way.”
Professor Ulrike Ehlert

Can stress management courses help?

Definitely. These courses usually have three objectives: Don’t try to be perfect and assess the importance of situations correctly, solve problems systematically, and remind yourself of past successes in stressful situations.

Professor Ulrike Ehlert 

Professor of clinical psychology and psychotherapy at the University of Zurich.