A Psychologist On The 4 Pillars Of Wellbeing And Their Role In Managing Stress - Women's Health

A Psychologist On The 4 Pillars Of Wellbeing And Their Role In Managing Stress

Lockdown may have led to many of us feeling more anxious at home, but when it comes to managing stress it’s time to get back to the basics. Below, experienced psychologist Dr Leanne Hall breaks down sleep, nutrition, exercise and social connection and how they impact stress.

by | Oct 6, 2021

With many of us stuck in what has been one of the longest lockdowns experienced here in Australia, the uncertainty of this time has led to a growing sense of anxiety and unease. The global pandemic has seen many of us have to trade our office for the home work space and with our colleagues only visible in the daily Zoom meeting and online realm, the sense that we need to be constantly “plugged in” has blurred the line between work and leisure. With little to breakup the work day by way of outdoor lunches, gym classes or a communal office coffee, we’re working harder and longer hours than we were previously, making the threat of burn out a possibility. 

But while many of us have been quick to recognise an escalating feeling of stress in our own lives, compounded by daily reports of rising case numbers and hospitalisations, it’s not all doom and gloom. The fact is, you don’t have to overcomplicate things when it comes to looking at ways you can manage stress during such times. As Dr Leanne Hall, an experienced psychologist and therapist who specialises in mental health suggests, the key is getting back to basics by taking a discerning eye to your sleep, nutrition, exercise and social connection. 

If you’re unsure where to start and just how these four pillars of wellbeing impact and are influenced by stress, you’re not alone. Thankfully, we asked Dr Hall to share her tips on how we can best manage stress by looking at these pillars. 

Women’s Health: As an experienced psychologist and therapist, what are some of the most common causes you identify in patients dealing with stress?

Dr Leanne Hall: Firstly, I feel it’s important to state that stress is extremely normal. It’s something all of us must navigate at certain times. While most of us can bounce back from a stressful situation, some people struggle. For those who have a difficult time managing stress, there are a couple of common causes. 

  1. They experience difficulty setting and maintaining boundaries. While there are lots of reasons some people find saying ‘no’ difficult, such as not wanting to let other people down, or be seen as incompetent, this can lead to chronic and ongoing stress. 
  2. Low resilience. Some people have trouble ‘bouncing back’. This often manifests as increased irritability, ruminating on negative thoughts, a sense of despair and at times feelings of hopelessness. Low levels of resilience can trigger prolonged responses to stress, even after the stressor has gone. 

In terms of common causes of stress, in my experience the top 4 causes are:

  1. Relationship difficulties/conflict, including relationship break downs, and family issues.
  2. Financial difficulties and worries
  3. Work related stress, workplace bullying, job insecurity, career uncertainty. 
  4. Physical co-morbidities: chronic health conditions, permanent or temporary disability

Covid-19 has in some ways shone a spotlight on mental health, but it’s also been a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. How is the pandemic contributing to issues of stress?

The pandemic has created several challenges for many people: financial stress, job insecurity, concern about loved ones, social isolation, uncertainty about the future. It has also caused a fundamental shift in our daily lives; with certain things we took for granted being taken away. 

The instability caused by this means that our usual coping skills in some instances are not working. Of course, many of those coping skills we are unable to access; for example social connection, planning a holiday. What is required is a shift in values – and the development of alternative coping skills that rely more on self-awareness and inward reflection. This can mean that values become realigned towards an appreciation of things that we once took for granted (going for a walk, spending time with loved ones). 

You’ve identified four key pillars of wellbeing and their role in managing stress. Could you talk us through each pillar and how it plays a role in managing stress?

Sleep: Good quality sleep is restorative. Not only does it allow time for the body to rest but provides an opportunity for internal systems to be ‘reset’. Poor sleep increases cortisol (stress hormones), which can impair cognitive functioning and lead to physical problems, weight gain, hypertension, heart disease.

Nutrition: 90% of serotonin (feel good hormone) is made in out GUT. This means that what we eat has a direct impact on the hormones that impact mood and stress. Foods high in soluble fibre including fresh fruit and vegetables assist the GUT in producing serotonin, whereas foods that trigger inflammation such as sugar, saturated fats, alcohol, and caffeine (in large amounts) can impair these processes.

Exercise: Physical movement and exercise triggers dopamine and endorphins. Both of these hormones help to reduce stress and elevate mood.

Social connection: Social connection and social support may moderate certain vulnerabilities and improve resilience to stress. In addition, it triggers oxytocin (the love/bonding hormone) which has anxiolytic effects protecting against the impact of mental and physical illness (such as stress, anxiety and depression). 

What is one area that you find most people overlook when it comes to stress management?

I would say sleep and nutrition. These are things that get overlooked during times of stress, often due to a perceived lack of time. However, what many people forget is that poor sleep and nutrition impair our ability to manage stress. 

When it comes to stress management, are there any tools or strategies you find effective to use in daily life?

  1. Time management: keeping yourself accountable to a routine that’s realistic. 
  2. Focusing on the 4 pillars. Working on improving sleep, nutrition, and moving the body (walking is a terrific way to do this. It’s free, easy, convenient and connects you with nature). 
  3. Experimenting with relaxation techniques: meditation is not for everyone. Experiment with various techniques, with a focus on finding FLOW (engaging in a task with all of your attention, staying in the moment). Examples include gardening, colouring in, puzzles, reading, cooking. 

In terms of supplements, is there anything you’d recommend helping combat the negative effects of stress?

Melrose Health’s Stress Support is a new nutrient powder formulated to help combat the negative effects of stress. The blend contains key essential vitamins and minerals, and herb extracts ashwagandha, holy basil, and rhodiola. These herbal ingredients have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine to improve memory and cognition, support healthy sleeping patterns and relieve general feelings of debility. 

By Jessica Campbell

Jess is a storyteller committed to sharing the human stories that lie at the heart of sport.

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