Why you should never relax straight after a stressful encounter

Dr Mithu Storoni combed through hundreds of clinical papers on stress before writing her book ‘Stress-Proof’

Dr Mithu Storoni combed through hundreds of clinical papers on stress before writing her book ‘Stress-Proof’

There’s one strategy that Dr Mithu Storoni favours above all others when it comes to protecting yourself against the negative effects of stress.

It’s not breathing deeply, counting to ten, or any other well-repeated instruction you’re probably tired of hearing by now.

In healthHackers® episode 39, the physician and author of ‘Stress-Proof: The Scientific Solution To Protect Your Brain And Body - And Be More Resilient Everyday,’ explained her preferred technique for coping in the aftermath of a stressful event by using the example of being summoned into your “slightly unpleasant” boss’s office on a Monday morning.

“That boss bites your head off,” she told me.

Mentally replaying a tense chat with your boss will keep you in a state of stress, Mithu told me

Mentally replaying a tense chat with your boss will keep you in a state of stress, Mithu told me

“Now, you stay in that office for exactly three minutes and at the end of those three minutes you open the door and you leave the room.

“Your boss knows you’ve left the room. You know you’ve left the room. But does your brain know it’s left the room?” 

According to Mithu, that encounter will have made you acutely stressed. And when you’re in that emotional state, you might begin immediately playing the experience over and over again in your head.

“Because the memory is so fresh, the very same pathways in your brain that are active during the stress response continue to remain active for as long as you replay the scene,” she told me.

That means that even when you decide to relax, get a cup of tea and sit back down at your desk - if that chat with your boss is still whirring around in your head - it’s causing your brain to keep your “stress-related circuits” active.

After the initial three minute conversation with your boss, you could easily spend the rest of the hour thinking about it.

“In the seconds after an acute psychological stressful reaction your emotional reactivity is on high alert,” Mithu explained

“In the seconds after an acute psychological stressful reaction your emotional reactivity is on high alert,” Mithu explained

“The rumination on that one event is affecting your perception of stress because - if you’re taking an hour to recover - your brain is perceiving that the episode must have been really intense.”

Now picture having another four short stressful events or encounters (each lasting three minutes) that same day. They could be triggered by deadlines, difficult clients or a road rage moment on your way home.

“In reality, you will have had 15 minutes of stress [in total],” Mithu told me, “but at the end of the day because you have dwelled on it and ruminated about it, you will have had five hours of perceived stress.”

And that is not good news for your body. 

While some degree of stress is protective (it helps us know when to run away from danger, for example) too much of it creates a cocktail of chemical reactions in the body with far-reaching physiological knock-on effects. 

When stress becomes chronic, it can weaken the immune system, increase blood sugar and blood pressure, increase the risk of a heart attack, fertility problems and more.   

So what does Mithu - who spent two years combing through hundreds of clinical research papers on stress and then condensed them into her book of top tips and information - recommend you do instead of dwelling on that difficult chat with your boss?

“As soon as the episode is physically over… immediately immerse yourself in something that’s so gripping… that your mind does not have time to wonder and revisit the scene.”

Playing a game on your phone can help “stem the tide” of your stress response

Playing a game on your phone can help “stem the tide” of your stress response

Mithu suggested actions that will cut short your period of rumination include: playing a game on your phone, it could be Tetris - which is apparently good because it gives you instant reward so you stay motivated. Or you could go and exercise (nothing too intense or it’ll send your stress hormone - cortisol - even higher). A long walk or jog will do.

It’s all about “stemming the tide,” she explained.

“In the seconds after an acute psychological stressful reaction your emotional reactivity is on high alert and you are fuelling the fire at that moment by dwelling on it and replaying it.”

“If you distract your mind for a moment, your emotional reactivity will climb lower and… it will be slightly easier to control the rumination and to actually rationalise what happened.“

A jog or walk can cut short your period of negative rumination

A jog or walk can cut short your period of negative rumination

I asked Mithu if this distraction technique merely ends up delaying the repetitive negative thoughts until you get home from work.

But, she assured me, any later rumination wouldn’t be as harmful because you will be thinking more rationally by the time you get home and have a greater sense of self-control.

If Tetris and jogging are never going to be your ‘go-to’ behaviours in times of stress - Mithu has a wealth of other evidence-based quick tips and tools for you to try. Listen to her outlining some unexpected ones - including smelling lemons, eating yogurt or looking at pictures of nature - in episode 39.

While stress can sometimes feel inescapable - Mithu pointed out we are all calibrated differently. 

“Some people do really well with stress, whereas other people become shaken with things which maybe, to you, seem quite trivial,” she said.

“Many studies suggest that it’s perceived stress that really is the all important marker.” 

Therefore, if you don’t perceive a scenario as stressful (even when others do) it might just give you the edge - and lead to a healthier body and mind. 

Good luck with that!


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This episode is sponsored by Chuckling Goat - ‘the gut health experts’ who are kindly offering healthHackers® viewers 15% OFF using the code HEALTHHACKERS at the checkout. This offer is only valid for the next 15 DAYS and ends at midnight on August 30th. Head to chucklinggoat.co.uk.