Tracy Robinson: Stress, exercise and relaxation

Dr Tracy Robinson is a senior research fellow at the Monash Centre for Health Research & Implementation. As a registered nurse and a doctor of psychology, she has extensive experience working in the field of mental health and supporting the wellbeing of young people. We’re most grateful to her for once again providing an article for this term’s newsletter.


We all have stress in our lives that comes from a variety of sources. At this time of year, many young people are preparing for exams and may become quite worried and anxious about their marks and final results.

Most of us tend to think of stress as a problem but it would be unrealistic to think we could live a totally stress free life. In fact, stress can work as a powerful motivator and if we did not have some in our lives we would feel bored and unchallenged. However, if we have too much stress in our lives we can become ‘distressed’, and excessive or chronic stress can increase our risk for a host of health problems including cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression. Put simply, stress is an imbalance between a person and demands of their life and occurs when we do not feel we have the resources to cope with these demands.

For this reason, stress is an individual experience – it is triggered by different things in different people and depends largely on how we view a situation and whether or not we believe we can cope. Different people display stress in different ways. For example, children and adolescents might complain of headaches, stomach pain or dizziness when they are feeling stressed (although it is important to first rule out any underlying physical problems). So it is important to know how stress affects our bodies because once we recognise the warning signs we can then either change the stressor or else change the way we respond to it. 

The first step in this process is to decide if the situation or problem is a ‘real’ stress trigger or if it just feels like one.

For example, you cannot change the fact that all students must sit for exams at school, so it is more effective to prepare as best you can rather than endlessly worry about something you cannot change. A lot of people tend to ignore problems in the hope that they will go away but actively solving and coping with problems as they arise is associated with better emotional health and wellbeing. Putting things off for later doesn’t really work because the longer we wait, the more we tend to worry. Similarly, arguments with parents and friends don’t go away until we deal with the issue or until we all apologise, decide to forgive each other and move on.

While it is important to try and fix problems, sometimes nothing can be done to change the situation and it is important that we not worry endlessly about things we cannot change. It can help to understand what happens to our bodies when we are under prolonged stress. When this occurs, our body produces a hormone called cortisol. This hormone has an important role in memory, learning and even our immune systems. It is released in response to stress and when in balance it helps our bodies to function in a healthy manner but if someone in under chronic stress they have high levels of this hormone (which is why it is often called the stress hormone).

Exercise is one of the most effective ways of reducing cortisol levels and dealing with stress. If a young person is stressed about an assignment, then going for a run or doing some exercise can really help because we are all able to think more clearly after we have used up those stress hormones. Finding enjoyable activities and building them into our routines is one of the most effective stress busters – as is having a good belly laugh and being active with friends. 

We need to ensure that all young people continue to do things that make them happy even when they are stressed and busy and this could be as simple as listening to music or else going to the movies. As parents, we have a vital role in modelling a healthy and balanced lifestyle and in ensuring that young people set achievable goals and limits.

This is not an easy thing to do in our busy world - but one key thing is to try and maintain a balance between work and play. Given all the balls that parents have to juggle, we often find it hard to make time to immerse ourselves in things we enjoy. Allowing ourselves to indulge in relaxing activities (like having a bath) is really important because when we effectively manage our own stress we reduce the stress in our relationships.

 Knowing what stresses us can also help us avoid some of these situations (like sitting in rush hour traffic). Putting aside 10-20 minutes a day to relax can make a big difference to how we feel and cope with the rest of the day. Learning to say ‘no’ when we need to is another way we can start to make time to manage our own stress.

Remember, learning to relax doesn’t come easily and, like any other skill, it takes quite a lot of practice before it feels natural. You could try making a list of things that help you feel calm and give yourself permission to schedule in some of these activities every day. Ultimately, these are life skills that can produce enormous benefits for our children – if only we can give ourselves permission to indulge, however briefly, in the activities that soothe us every day!