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10.11
2022

Understanding stress to better overcome it

Moving house. Becoming a parent. A job that is ever more demanding yet offers little stability. The climate emergency, COVID-19 and war in Europe. The images that are conjured up when we think of the word ‘stress’ are different for each of us. But what exactly is stress? When does it become a problem? And most importantly, what can we do about it? Psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr Monica Hubschmid Dumauthioz gives us her perspective.

None of us particularly enjoy feeling stressed. Yet it’s worth reminding ourselves that stress is not inherently bad. In fact, stress evolved as a survival mechanism to help us react to life-threatening situations. When our ancestors came face to face with a sabre-toothed cat, their neurological sensors activated their sympathetic nervous system, releasing adrenaline and cortisol. With an increased heart rate and oxygenated muscles, they were better able to either fight or take flight.

The trouble is that everyday situations trigger this same cascade of physiological events, even when we’re not in any kind of danger. We might feel stressed when we feel powerless, when our responsibilities feel overwhelming, or when we don’t have time to do what is asked of us.

A small dose of stress can be stimulating and lead to productivity – thus helping us to achieve our goals – as long as we find time to regenerate and wind down. When we don’t, stress can become chronic and lead to mental health disorders. As many small stresses accumulate in our system, we can become so vulnerable that even a tiny trigger can lead to a major, disproportionate response. When someone is out of balance and unable to regenerate themselves, this can lead to disorders like anxiety, depression or addiction, all of which can result from chronic stress.

Many are the triggers that can provoke a stress response. A few examples in the workplace include the sheer amount of work on our plates, time pressure, having to multitask and conflicts with others. There is also the omnipresence of smartphones in our lives, blurring the distinction between work and home, as we often check our work emails first thing in the morning and right before bed.

While major events like a severe accident or living through a natural disaster would stress any of us (and may lead to PTSD), in our day-to-day lives our response to stress depends on our life experience and our resilience. Through my practice, I’ve observed that burnout is more frequent for some personality profiles, notably those who place a lot of importance on their jobs and are keen to prove themselves. Those who have had difficult childhoods – who’ve had to care for others early in life, for instance – are more prone to this, as they are less able to monitor their own well-being barometer. Keen to perform well, they will extend their hours until, in the long run, chronic stress leads to burnout.

A small dose of stress can be stimulating and lead to productivity – thus helping us to achieve our goals – as long as we find time to regenerate and wind down.

The good news is that there are many solutions to stress, both on a personal level and within our societies. Pharmaceuticals are not a good solution because they can add addiction into the mix. For example, benzodiazepines, a type of sedative medication, have all too often been prescribed to treat stress despite their high physical and psychological dependency profile. This medication can be effective to get someone through a severe mental health crisis, but stress itself is not a mental health disorder and calls for other, non-addictive solutions.

The first is that we need to see the bigger picture. Stress starts very early on in life. We know that if a woman is stressed out in early pregnancy while the foetus is forming, it can impact how a baby responds to stress – and ultimately lead to a more stressed-out baby. It makes sense, then, that taking good care of pregnant women is an absolute priority.

Next, we need to support parents so that they, in turn, can support their children. What happens in our childhood strongly influences our stress response as adults. We need to give parents the tools to help children identify their emotions and to support them through stressful events, so that they become resilient adults.

Even as adults, there’s a lot we can do to develop resilience to stress. Technology, which has the potential to add to stress, can be part of the solution when used wisely. We now have apps on our phones that help us to meditate, boost our mood or monitor metrics like our heart rate or sleep cycles. Companies like Resilient are developing solutions that aim to give employees an indication of their stress levels. It will be fascinating to see the results of their trial to understand how technology can help in our connected society.

As individuals, the single most useful thing we can do to develop our resilience to stress comes down to what philosophers have preached for millennia: know thyself. If I can identify what stresses me and what destresses me, I can make changes in my life to get away from constant stress. It’s crucial that we make time to regenerate and recuperate. For example, finding a little bit of time for the hobbies we enjoy gives us a huge return on investment.

Finally, it’s crucial to seek help when we need it. Adverse life events, stress and mental illness happen to all of us; a strong support system and professional help can make all the difference. Talking openly about your stress is the first step to recognising, addressing and solving the problem.

Seeking help

  • If you need help, contact your General Practitioner or come to the general emergency at the Centre Médical d’Epalinges. You can also contact a psychiatrist and psychotherapist directly, depending on your health insurance.
  • If you need urgent help for your mental health, you can call the Centrale Téléphonique des Médecins de Garde (CTMG) on 0848 133 133 or visit the emergency mental health department at the CHUV, which is open 24 hours a day, all year round.
Dr. Monica Hubschmid Dumauthioz
Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist at Centre Médical d'Epalinges, Vidy-Med Group
Monica Hubschmid Dumauthioz grew up between the German- and French-speaking parts of Switzerland and is fluent in French, German and English. She graduated from Lausanne University in 1999 with a degree in Medicine. She specialised in psychiatry and psychotherapy, obtaining her FMH (Swiss Medical Association) qualification in 2008 and completing her training in consultation and liaison psychiatry in 2014.

After working for several years at the CHUV in consultation liaison psychiatry, she opened her private practice within the Centre Medical d’Epalinges at Biopôle in 2014. Monica specialises in perinatal psychiatry, focusing on the mental health of women during and after pregnancy.

The Epalinges Medical Centre of the Vidy-Med Group
The CME is based around a medical and surgical emergency centre for adults and children aged 4 and over, with A&E doctors on the premises. A team of specialists in traumatology and surgery, already on call for the two other medical centres of Vidy and La Source, is available if necessary, as are a further 90 other specialists of the Vidy-Med Group, 30 of whom have their practice in the CME. This proximity enhances the possibilities of integrated healthcare offered by the CME but also by the entire Vidy-Med Group.

The Epalinges Medical Centre can provide radiology and laboratory examinations, both scheduled and in cases of emergency, on site. The CME has a physiotherapy centre offering classic treatment and an intensive rehabilitation programme for chronic back pain, as well as a dermatological and dermatosurgical centre. Vidy-Ortho has a branch at the CME offering orthopaedic equipment, including splints, orthopaedic supports and compression stockings. The CME also provides a chronic wound consultation with 2 specialist nurses, under the supervision of an experienced dermatological surgeon.

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