It is a truth universally acknowledged that the 21st century human being in possession of all modern comforts must be in want of stress relievers. 

The wilful butchering of Jane Austen’s iconic line apart, many modern men (and women), even if blessed with the good fortune mentioned in the original quotation, will nod their head in mute agreement. Stress has become a shadow that follows most of us, if not all of us, like a curse; stress at the workplace, stress about managing finances, stress of coping with relationship woes, stress about parent management…it seems as if the shadow lengthens or shortens depending on the time of the day. Stress is often compared to a poltergeist – devious, underhand and able to sneak in unobtrusively; before you realise, the damage is done. 

Little surprise then, that several ailments and lifestyle diseases that affect us today and make our shoulders sag further are blindly attributed to stress.  The internet and the media too are full of stories (this one included) about what stress is, how to combat it and how not to fall prey to it – the information overload indeed stresses you further!

Relax. The best way to lead longer, happier lives is to fine-tune your awareness of your own mind and body and not get sucked into a well of conflicting data.

For this purpose, we decided to tackle head-on 10 common lifestyle diseases that are prevalent today and get experts to demystify the role of stress in each one of them.

1.     Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

One of the most common endocrine disorders in women, affecting up to 10 per cent of women of reproductive age worldwide, PCOS is often believed to be caused by erratic lifestyles, heavy workload and poor diet. Patiala-based Dr Sonali Gupta, Consultant Gynaecologist, believes the link between stress and PCOS is rather direct due to a hormone called Pregnenolone. “This hormone is produced when one is stressed for long periods of time to enable the body and mind to cope with the after-effects of such pressure. This causes a chain reaction in the hormone levels; the production of other hormones such as estrogen is lowered as the pathways used by the hormones get overcrowded. This hormonal imbalance plays havoc with the menstrual cycle leading to some of the symptoms of PCOS including ovarian cysts, erratic or no periods and the release of androgens which can cause acne and facial hair.” She also cautions that though stress is a big contributing factor in PCOS, many other genetic and lifestyle aspects are also responsible. Nevertheless, reducing stress levels go a long way in shrinking of the ovarian cysts and triggering a reversal of PCOS.

2.     Common headaches

Though headaches are considered to be the most common symptoms of stress, both acute and chronic, it is not true that all headaches are due to stress. Neurosurgeon Dr Arvind Malhotra of Columbia Asia Hospital, Bangalore, says the myth about stress being responsible for all headaches is perpetrated because ‘tension’ headaches are the most common among adults. Stress busting activities like deep breathing, long walks, meditation or simply doing the things one really loves, often makes such headaches vanish in a jiffy. “But it is important to remember that headaches are not just a result of stress, though stress may aggravate the symptoms. Headaches are also caused by poor posture, inadequate rest, depression, hunger and other factors. If headaches persist for more than a week, don’t attribute it to stress and dismiss it,” he warns.

3.     Hair fall/Hair problems

It is not without reason that people say stress makes them want to pull out their hair. If information out there is to be believed, that won’t be necessary. Get stressed and hair will fall by itself! But is it really true that stress is a major cause of hair fall and related hair problems such as scalp infections, dandruff, brittle hair and dryness? Doctors clarify that it is not mild stress like the ones experienced with jobs or relationships that leads to hair fall. Usually, it is only high emotional stress or stress triggered by other causes like diabetes, thyroid disorders and certain types of medications that leads to hair fall. Sometimes stress triggered by life events like pregnancy, childbirth and surgery can also have depressing effects on the hair.

The good news though, according to Mysore-based practitioner Dr Rajgopal, is that stress-related hair loss is often reversible. He has a word of warning though. The more you worry about hair loss, the more hair you will lose! So the first advice you should give yourself in this case is really to stop stressing – most likely, the hair will be back.

4.     Diabetes

Diabetes may be a minefield littered with myths but you will not find many disputing the effect of stress on blood sugar levels. Doctors often use the ‘fight or flight’ analogy to explain how stress increases the risk in diabetics. To put it simply, when you are stressed, the blood sugar levels rise. This is because the body releases stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine because it feels you need more energy to combat with the stress. This is the ‘fight’ response; you cannot fight if your energy is low, so the body is helping you meet the challenge. But you can also use the same hormones for ‘flight’ because they enhance your ability to flee. The assumption is that the balance will be restored, regardless of whether you chose to fight or flee because you will use up those hormones to perform that action. But for people with diabetes, there isn’t enough insulin to take the load of these hormones and hence, blood sugar levels do not come down naturally. The only way to tackle such an increase, according to Internal Medicine consultant Dr Latha Muthanna of Columbia Asia, is to directly reduce the stress-causing hormones like adrenaline and corticosteroids or indirectly combat them with diet and lifestyle changes.

5.     Sexual dysfunctions

That stress causes sexual dysfunctions is a well-known fact. But what is often ignored is that stress causes sexual problems not just in men as it is widely believed but also in women. Delhi-based gynaecologist Dr Chetna Jain warns that while stress may be the direct cause of erectile dysfunction in men, in women, the effects of stress on sexual functions is much harder to discern. It may show up in poor arousal, lack of orgasm and sometimes, painfully dry intercourse. "Often, it is also a result of related ailments like diabetes and depression," she adds.

Interestingly, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley recently claimed that they found exactly how stress causes sexual dysfunction and infertility. According to this research, stress increases the levels of a reproductive hormone in the brain and this in turn hinders reproduction by inhibiting another hormone in what the researchers’ term as a 'double whammy' for reproduction.

6.     Depression

Dr Arvind has an interesting take on stress and depression, often projected to be a cause-and-effect relation. He says stress could be either good or bad for you and it is "lazy" to blame everything on stress. Stress goes some way in keeping us alert, motivated and primed to respond to danger. "And yet, when that invisible line is crossed, it is this very motivating factor that leads to depression. Remember that even seemingly positive events like marriage, a new job or a child birth can be stressful and lead to an episode of major depression." This, he clarifies, does not mean that stress is the only cause of depression. "About 10 per cent of depression cases are caused without stress triggers -- the reasons could vary vastly."

What has to be remembered is of course stress is different for different people. What is stressful for one person might be simply adrenaline rush for another.

7.     Obesity

It is often stress that makes you reach out for the second cookie or make you forget that New Year resolution and head to the chocolate section in the supermarket. It is a proven fact that eating habits are the first casualty of stress. As Dr Rajgopal says, it is a vicious cycle. "Stressed out people eat inappropriately. This causes weight gain and that aggravates stress all over again." He also warns that excess consumption of carbohydrates increases the presence of a chemical called serotonin in the body. No doubt this makes one feel good but it again works in circles -- it encourages cravings for sugary and fatty foods, thus contributing to obesity.

8.     Hypertension

Undoubtedly, stress can lead to heart-related ailments as well as hypertension and high stress levels indeed are like a precursor to contracting hypertension. But Delhi-based Internal Medicine specialist Dr Satish Koul clarifies that though being in a stressful situation can temporarily increase one's blood pressure; science has not yet proven that stress is the cause of hypertension. Some scientists have noted a relation between coronary heart disease risk and stress in an individual's life, health patterns and socio-economic status, but again a host of subjective factors such as unhealthy diet habits, lack of physical activity, excess consumption of alcohol, smoking and intake of drugs may have a stronger effect than mere everyday stress.

9.     Skin diseases

It would come as a surprise to many that the inexplicable skin breakouts they suffer sometimes could be a direct effect of stress in the mind. Current research makes it pretty clear that stress activates immune cells in the skin, causing such inflammatory skin diseases like psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. But what researchers are yet to figure out is exactly how stress increases the frequency and intensity of these skin diseases. As Dr Koul emphasises, stress can lead to many psychosomatic disorders and can overwhelm you before you can figure out the reasons.

10.  Cancer

A new study published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation shows that stress hormones may increase the risk of contracting cancer by indirectly weakening the immune system and by encouraging tumour growth and spread. Bangalore-based cancer survivors and wellness practitioner couple Vijay and Nilima Bhat believe that to be the precise view advocated in the science of Psychoneuroimmunology. "Any stress will lead to some physical or psychological ailment because it supresses immunity, thus exposing the person's health to unknown breakdowns. Cancer is no different," says Nilima.

Ultimately, Nilima believes, from a holistic health perspective, the body is self-healing and the immune system, our inner healer, is its most powerful medicine. The biggest enemy of this immune system is stress. Once the stressors are identified and resolved, the immune system quietly goes back to its job. As a cancer survivor, she should know!

Published in the May 2012 issue of Smart Life, a health and lifestyle magazine published by the Malayala Manorama Group. (

Native Americans revere the dragonfly for its fluttering swiftness. The Japanese see it as a symbol of courage and happy creativity. And for the Navajo tribe of America, the winged insect represents purity and fluidity. When Akram Khan’s on stage, it seems everything the dragonfly embodies, seamlessly fuses into his pulsating soul — only to set it free.

To say that it is an astonishing experience to watch him twirl and flutter with razor-sharp precision, reach high and low in the blink of an eye, twist in agony and float in happiness, is to state the obvious.

His most stringent critics cannot deny the magnetic pull of his performances; nor can they question his prodigious talent. His admirers, of course, haven’t stopped praising him from the time he burst onto the international scene when he toured the world with Peter Brook’s Mahabharata in the late 1980s. He was 14 then.

Today, the Bangladeshi-origin British dancer-choreographer is quite the poster-boy of contemporary Kathak. Much feted in Britain and worldwide, Akram Khan’s patented style of melding fluid, sensuous contemporary moves with the footwork, whirls and spins of classical Kathak has made his cross-cultural productions a study in movement. Speaking to Sunday Herald, Akram says he never consciously set out to ‘contemporise Kathak’.

“As I was trained in both classical and contemporary, I was bound to get confused. It is this sense of confusion that I have embraced; but Kathak essentially remains the starting point for most things that I do.” Elaborating further, he says, though he did not set out to modernise the classical form, his dance vocabulary has evolved because of Kathak’s very fluidity. “It is formless and yet has form; Kathak, to put it simply, is like water.”
It is this sense of constant volatility and throbbing movement that haunts you when you watch ‘Vertical Road’, his most ambitious production till date. The choreography draws you inside a screeching vortex where everything, including the dancers themselves, seems to be just wisps of a life-weary imagination.

The haunting feeling of long-forgotten pain and raw memory is accentuated by Nitin Sawhney’s potent music that alternates brilliantly between the chill of the desert night and the searing heat of its day. Khan says his inspiration was a poem about transformation by Persian poet Rumi, which he stumbled upon. “ ‘Vertical Road’ started out as an exploration around the theme of angels and verticality but ended up touching on the notions of transformation — as a journey with no beginning and certainly no end.”

I wonder how difficult or easy it is to give physical form to such abstract thoughts. “I don’t believe anything is ‘abstract’ in art. Artistes are storytellers and it is how artistes tell their story that fascinates me,” he says. He believes it is this compulsion to tell a story that inspired him to conceptualise his latest production that is making waves across the dance world. 

In ‘Desh’, Akram not only journeys back to his roots but also presents his own life journey. A full-length solo after many ensemble productions, ‘Desh’ ostensibly is to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan but for Akram, it is also an idea held close to his heart for several years. “I have been getting more and more curious about my roots…but returning to my roots was not how I look at the journey I made to Bangladesh.

One can never return to somewhere, because that place does not exist anymore, except in our memory. But we can move forward towards a place that seems familiar, yet new. That’s what I felt when I visited my parents’ birthplace — it was familiar, yet new.”

‘Desh’ is Akram sharing with the world the physical as well as the metaphorical journey he undertook and a showcase of the people he met along the way — a fisherman, a political journalist, a student, his father, and finally, himself.

“I wanted to explore the notion of parallel journeys, a journey where we all collide somehow, where our paths cross either momentarily or over years... And by default, reveal the rhythm of the people of Bangladesh, the colours of their country, the smell of their chaos, and their unshaken sense of hope against all odds.”
His sense of conviction in his work is too strong to raise doubts about and yet, I ask him whether he has ever quailed when purists accuse artistes like him of meddling too much with classical forms. “To me, no dance form is pure. Take classical Kathak for instance. The form demands my weight and centre to sit more on the back of my feet, on my heels.

It requires enormous accuracy, much like classical ballet. When I dance modern, my weight has to shift to the front of my feet as if I’m always falling forward or being torn off my axis. Here, I have greater physical freedom to express myself… in the sense of almost losing control. But that does not make it purer than Kathak and neither does Kathak become holier simply because it believes in exactness!”

It is perhaps because he is so comfortable straddling such different worlds that when you see him on stage, it appears as if he is assuredly juggling with ideas, discovering what it is to be real and at the same instant, recognising the lightning that imagination really is.

He does all this silently while his body talks. It gets tossed into the air as effortlessly as it gets churned into deepening circles. The chains break and finally, he flaps out into nothingness. The mind once again conjures up the dragonfly.

Published in Sunday Herald on 06.05.2012. Find it here:
A still from 'Vertical Road'
A still from 'Desh'