Time out: Dr Rangan Chatterjee on resetting your body and mind

Dr Rangan Chatterjee says it takes a few simple changes to our everyday habits to help us manage stress, and avoid what the WHO calls the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’, writes

Time out: Dr Rangan Chatterjee on resetting your body and mind

Dr Rangan Chatterjee says it takes a few simple changes to our everyday habits to help us manage stress, and avoid what the WHO calls the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’, writes Esther McCarthy.

Chatterjee is a man on a mission - to help us reduce and manage the amount of stress in our lives.

Dr Rangan Chatterjee is a man on a mission - to help us reduce and manage the amount of stress in our lives.

The alternative, he believes, is literally killing us, and his experience as a GP has caused him to rethink how modern medical practice works.

Stress, he says, is the great epidemic of contemporary life, and it is harming us physically and emotionally.

“It’s thought that up to 80% of what a GP like me sees in practice every single day is in some way related to stress, which is an incredible statistic,” he says.

“Every day I see things like anxiety, insomnia, poor memory, inability to concentrate, low libido. Even things like obesity, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes — all of these seemingly separate problems actually at their root cause have stress as a key driver.

“The World Health Organisation is calling stress the health epidemic of the 21st century,” he says.

His alarm at how modern living is affecting us is of real concern to him and certainly backed up by the hives of activity both inside and outside the busy Dublin hotel where we meet.

Over his 18 years in general practice, and experience on BBC TV’s Doctor in the House, the Manchester-based 42-year-old has learned what does and doesn’t work when it comes to reducing stress in his patients. Real changes are attainable — and not as difficult as we think. He has shared them in a new book,

The Stress Solution, (Penguin, €19.99) which offers steps to reset your body, mind, relationships and sense of purpose.

“At this time of year people are trying to get healthy. We think about food. Think about our gym patterns. And I understand that, but what we often don’t realise is that the reason we are engaging in certain lifestyle choices whether it’s too much sugar, too much alcohol, is a compensation for the stresses in our life.

“We’re so busy, so the tips and tools of my book are literally tried and tested. They’re the things that I’ve been using for years with my patients. These are busy people with busy lives. Most of them take less than 10 minutes a day. Most of them are free. I want to show people that it’s not as hard as you think it is to lower the stress in your life.”

In order to understand what stress is doing to our health, he feels we need to understand what the stress response is and how it affects our minds and bodies.

“About two or three million years ago when our stress response was evolving, it was there for one reason and that was to keep us safe,” he explains. “If you were being attacked by a wild lion, the stress response kicks into gear and series of physiological processes take place in the body.

“Sugar starts to go up in your bloodstream. That’s going to help you run faster. Your blood becomes prone to clotting, because then if a lion attacks you and cuts you, you’re not going to bleed to death.

"Your emotional brain goes into high alert. That’s a really good thing. Your blood pressure goes up because it means more blood will get to your brain to help you make better decisions.”

But modern stress triggers, he adds, have changed, and the stress response is at risk of being set off regularly by everyday events in our lives.

“We’re no longer having our stress response activated by wild animals. They’re being activated by our lives — overflowing e-mails, competing demands.

"Two families where parents are both working and trying to get back from work to pick the kids up from school. Social media channels were trying to keep up to date with. Constant news updates.

"All of these things mean that many of us are getting stressed out not by lions but by our lives, and our body is reacting in the same way.

If you have sugar going into your bloodstream day in day out, that’s helpful in the short term but it’s harmful in the long term. It can cause weight gain, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes.

"If your blood is clotting day in, day out, that’s going to predispose you to a heart attack or a stroke.

“If you have too much stress, your brain freezes and you can’t think of anything.

"In the short term, cortisol makes your brain work better, in the long term if you’re getting stressed day in, day out, cortisol kills nerve cells in the memory centre of your brain.”

He has spent years seeking and researching other solutions. They don’t take a lot of time or money, he adds.

“One idea I really like is this whole idea of a personal stress threshold. We can deal with multiple doses of what I call in the book micro stress doses (MSD). These are little hits of stress that in isolation we can handle. When you add them up on top of each other they get you closer to your threshold. When you hit your threshold, that’s when your back goes, that’s when your neck goes. That’s when you feel angry, irrational.”

He says that many of us leave the house in the morning having been exposed to up to 15 MSDs, and there are changes you can make at the beginning of your day.

“One strategy is to remove the amount of MSDs. The other is to say life is stressful, so we need a strategy throughout the day to make sure we stay away from our threshold. One tip is to not look at your phone first thing in the morning. It’s such a game-changer for so many people. If people can bookend the start and the end of the day, where they don’t look at their tech, I think it’s really helpful. If you look at your phone first thing you’ll go to reactive mode straight away.”

A morning routine, he believes, should have three components — mindfulness, movement and mindset. Mindfulness could be deep breathing, meditation or even just sitting in silence.

Movement could be yoga, press-ups or star jumps, whatever you prefer to get the blood flowing. And mindset is about setting yourself up for a positive start to the day.

“Affirmations are short statements, very powerful, that you repeat over and over again, to help feed your brain information that everything is OK.

“In the morning I’ll sit for five minutes or if my six-year-old daughter has sensed that daddy’s up and she’s come downstairs, I’ll sit and hold hands with her and we’ll say affirmations together.”

He also feels that having a tech-free lunch break is of great value, especially if tech is part of your working day. And he feels that face time with friends is vital.

“My friends and I get together for a golf weekend twice a year. It’s not about the golf, golf is the glue that gets us there. Even if I’m physically exhausted going into it, I come back feeling refreshed. Your friends nourish you in a different way.”

Chatterjee has had to learn to manage stress in his own life. Juggling a busy practice with family life —he is married with two young children — means a morning routine is very important.

He grew up in a medical background and followed his late father, Tarun, into medicine.

“My dad was a doctor, he was a consultant at Manchester Royal Infirmary. I grew up in South Manchester.

"My dad’s family were doctors so I grew up around medicine. I have always had an inclination to care for people, to help other people.

"Being a doctor was a natural sort of decision to make.”

But having trained to be a kidney specialist, he yearned to go into general practice — much to the dismay of his father, he smiles.

“I found we’re getting too super specialised in medicine. I didn’t want to just see kidneys for the rest of my career. I wanted to see everything. But I felt I was putting sticking plasters on people’s problems and that really motivated me to change. I thought I can’t just give out pills for the next 40 years. I think life is tough now for many of us.

“I felt I could help people get to the root cause of our problems rather than just put a sticking plaster on. And I enjoy my job more now than ever before.”

Three-four-five breathing

Dr Chatterjee believes that breathing is a powerful tool, giving your brain information that you’re not in danger.

“My favourite is the three-four-five breath. It’s something I came up with about five years ago that I use with my patients. You breathe in for three [seconds], you hold for four, and you breathe out for five. When you do that, you activate the relaxation part of your nervous system. You become more relaxed.

“That breath takes 12 seconds. Five times takes a

minute. I use that every day myself. I’ve got teachers who are really anxious, find work stressful, to do it at lunchtime. I’ve got people with panic attacks and anxiety attacks who use this to good effect. If people don’t have much time, do one minute of three-four-five breathing. You will feel better.

“Breathing through your nose is better than breathing through your mouth. It’s more efficient, we get increased oxygen intake into our blood, and it’s just better for our stress levels. But I wouldn’t want people to worry too much about that.

“I would concentrate on doing the three-four-five breath first.”

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