When I bought Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s The 4 Pillar Plan: How to Relax, Eat, Move and Sleep Your Way to a Longer, Healthier Life last year, I never envisaged I’d be interviewing him six months later but that’s exactly what happened when I wrote an article for The Sun back in January on ways to embrace doing nothing.
The idea for the piece was sparked by my inability to switch off, which was reconfirmed just a tad as I devoured the chapter on how to relax. Soaking up every single word, it became glaringly obvious that I was still spinning far too many plates and placing enormous pressure on myself alongside trying to manage a nasty chronic illness, which has left doctors bewildered for more than three years (I have suspected MCAS).
Unsurprisingly, if you’re a ‘doer’ by nature it’s very easy to take on too much and feel as though you’re being pulled in all directions – certainly, being kept up at night with anxiety is something I’m familiar although I think the weird chemical reactions going on in my body may have something to do with this too.
So when I caught up with Dr Chatterjee, star of BBC One Series Doctor in the House, I was over the moon to discover that he’d just published a new tome devoted entirely to stress.
The Stress Solution: The 4 Steps to Reset Your Body, Mind, Relationships and Purpose, follows the same format as The 4 Pillar Plan and is divided into four sections: purpose, relationships, body and mind.
Dr Chatterjee advises readers to pick one or two of the easier self-help interventions from each segment, before building up. “It’s not about perfection in one particular pillar – you are aiming for balance across all four,” he writes.
As Dr C points out, stress can have devastating long-term consequences for health with too much of it contributing to the development of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s and playing a part in insomnia, burn-out and depression.
“We are living in the middle of a health epidemic,” he says. “In fact, the World Health Organisation calls stress ‘the health epidemic of the twenty-first century’”.
I was sent the book as part of the day job but quickly realised its content would help many of my readers. This is how I got on…
REVIEW: THE STRESS SOLUTION
Dr Chatterjee writes in an easy-to-understand, engaging style – no complex medical jargon here – and, refreshingly, his books are peppered with personal and patient anecdotes which makes the contents entirely relatable. Unsurprisingly, I flew through this book. Every page is brimming with words of wisdom.
Credit: Susan Bell
THE POWER TO GENERATE STRESS
Dr Chatterjee introduces us to his ‘Cupboard of No Return’. It’s essentially a kitchen wall mounted cupboard crammed with the ‘shrapnel’ of everyday life, from a golf ball and stacks of unopened envelopes to a broken screwdriver and a child’s glove. “The chaos in the cupboard is the cumulative result of dozens of isolated stressful moments in the daily life of me and my young family – from when my daughter lost her glove, to when a picture fell down and I was too busy to put the hammer back in the shed,” he reveals.
Dr Chatterjee describes the cupboard as a problem not only because it’s the result of stress but also because it has the power to generate moments of anxiety and frustration for instance, if his family want to play a board game and they can’t find the pieces or he’s rushing to get out the house and his daughter only has one glove. He later explains that the cupboard has become a headache because he’s left it so long it’s now overwhelming. “The only way I’m going to deal with it is by not viewing it as one huge job to tackle but realising I can break it down into a series of tiny actions…The stress in your life is no different to this.”
THE POWER OF YOUR EMOTIONAL BRAIN
Dr C explains that when we’re stressed our logical brain steps aside and the emotional brain takes centre stage, which is the correct response when we’re in dangerous territory. The problem is the more frequently you feel stressed, the more powerful your emotional brain will become, while your rational brain will be deskilled.
“If your emotional brain has grown too powerful, you’ll start to sense danger even when there’s no danger present. The smell of a summer barbecue is misinterpreted as a house fire. A rushed email from your boss is interpreted as a prelude to sacking. An innocent glance from a friend seems sarcastic and hostile, full of hidden meaning.”
HOW TO REFRAME YOUR LIFE
Dr Chatterjee urges us to examine how we choose to interpret a stressful event and, instead of being negative or operating from a ‘victim mentality’ to reframe our outlook to a positive one, which is important if we’re in the middle of a micro stress dose swarm and our emotional brain is dominant.
“Without a proper, practised strategy, you’re likely to spiral quickly into a whirlpool of irrational negativity. If you don’t actively try to reframe the experience, you’ll often find that your stress levels increase during the day as your emotional brain continues ruminating on what’s happened to you and keeps finding ‘evidence’ that your life is a mess.”
Ruminating, he adds, is when we tend to dwell on situations that we find distressing or upsetting, or when we replay a problem over and over again in our mind. “You will be training your emotional brain to become more powerful, which in turn makes it more likely that you will spend time ruminating in the future, and so more likely that you will become anxious.”
Dr Chatterjee has three tips for effective reframing which are:
- Writing down the experience to adopt a more rational and distant viewpoint
- Focussing on the cause so, if someone cuts you up while driving, think about why they might have done it instead of the effect on you. For instance, their mother might be unwell or they may have had a row with their partner
- Replaying the event as though you’re an observer or, say, a sports commentator. This forces you to take a broader, less me-focused view and helps prevent you from catastrophising.
VERDICT: The Stress Solution
Up until my health fell apart I’d always been a glass half full kind of character but now, especially when I’m mid-flare – which has been a weekly three-day occurrence of late – I sometimes struggle to think positively and I’d be lying if I said I never worry about how the future will unfold, despite trying to be mindful. However, since reading this book I’ve started to look differently at my health and break things down into smaller, manageable chunks, focussing on what I can control instead of what I can’t.
We’re only human. We all have stress. And sometimes, it can be hard to distinguish when it’s building up to unhealthy levels. We keep going and going and then something breaks. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, need to put steps in place to manage stress, or are simply wondering how to find balance in life, The Stress Solution is your bible. My only wish is that it had been written five years ago as I believe my go-go-go lifestyle was, ultimately, the undoing of my physical body!
The Stress Solution (Penguin Life, £16.99) is out now. Dr Rangan Chatterjee is host of the iTunes #1 podcast ‘Feel Better Live More’.
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