Stress seems to have become an inevitable element of modern life. There is no one official definition, but most of us know all too well what it feels like. Being under pressure is part and parcel of how we live now. There are never enough hours in the day. The deadlines keep on coming. There are always bills to be paid. Work and family responsibilities are omnipresent.
I think it’s important to realise that stress per se isn’t always necessarily negative. Stress is what gives us that adrenaline boost – sometimes called the fight-or-flight response – that’s enabled the human race to survive thus far. There are usually clear physical symptoms – a pounding heart, fast breathing, tense muscles – that fade once the threat has passed. But with periods of prolonged stress, the body stays in this ‘high alert’ status, which is when the problems start. Physical manifestations of stress include exhaustion, headaches, dizziness, sleep problems and nausea. These are often accompanied by symptoms of mental stress, such as anxiety, depression and difficulty concentrating.
Because it’s impossible for most of us to avoid stress, we need to find ways to combat stress instead. National Stress Awareness Day provides a much-needed opportunity to think about our wellbeing, and to learn more about stress management. Rest assured, there are lots of ways to manage this modern malaise – read on for my tried-and-tested round up.
Exercise won’t magically make your stress disappear, but I find regular physical activity will certainly combat stress and anxiety. You don’t have to run marathons or take up triathlon. Find something that’s fun, matches your abilities, and can fit into your daily schedule. Start small if you need to. I find a lunchtime walk in the fresh air can work wonders. Can you fit in a few lengths of the pool after work?
If you enjoy the company of others while you keep active, check out your local gym or sports centre. Most will offer a wide range of group exercise classes. I suggest you experiment to find out what sort of physical activity alleviates your personal stress. Some people combat stress best with a high-energy cardio workout such as Les Mills BODYCOMBAT. Others, like me!, prefer the slower pace of Pilates or yoga, which help to calm and relax the mind as well as the body.
It’s a cruel irony that although stress often causes insomnia, deep sleep is an effective stress management tool. Sleep helps the body to repair itself, both mentally and physically. Lack of sleep makes us tired, stressed and depressed. But often, when we’re stressed, sleep seems impossible. So how can we break this vicious circle?
A sleep ritual is a good place to start – as is good ‘sleep hygiene’. This simply refers to the behaviour and routines you follow while preparing to go to sleep. Firstly, try to maintain a regular sleep schedule. You can’t ‘catch up’ those Monday-Friday late nights with a lie-in at the weekend. Your body needs routine and, I must admit, I love a bit of routine.
Next, make sure your bedroom is a sleep-inducing environment. Keep it cool, dark, quiet – and tech-free if you can! Introduce a pre-sleep routine, such as switching off social media at least an hour before bed, or taking a warm bath. Avoid stimulants such as alcohol and caffeine.
Nourish & nurture
I know eating a balanced, healthy diet is a key way to combat stress. It’s tempting to reach for a sugary treat or a glass of wine when we’re anxious. But that’s really not the sort of fuel a chronically stressed body needs. Adrenal function is significantly influenced by blood sugar levels, so stay away from the sweet stuff. Consume more lean protein, to help slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream. Increase your intake of fruit and vegetables. Small, regular meals are best for maintaining energy levels and mood. So don’t let yourself get too hungry – and stay hydrated with plenty of water.
Just say no
One of the simplest and easiest ways to combat stress is to just say no. Most of us try to do too much, at home and at work. Honestly, I know only too well! Being more selective about your commitments can dramatically reduce your stress levels. Learn to recognise what you can comfortably handle – and then stop. Politely decline requests and invitations to do more, be more, contribute more. You cannot be everything, to all people, all of the time. Set your limits, and then stick to them.
Rushing through life non-stop, all of the time, is the fast track to stress. The practice of mindfulness is a great way to slow down and ‘be present’ – to focus on the here and now. Mindfulness can be very successful in combating symptoms of anxiety and depression. I think it can help us to understand ourselves better, and enjoy life more.
Mindfulness allows us to reconnect with our bodies and the sensations they experience. It involves taking note of what is happening inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment. When we stop noticing the world around us, and disappear “into our heads” it’s easy to become stressed. Appreciating the present moment improves our mental wellbeing, as we experience afresh things we have been ignoring or taking for granted.
Spend time with friends and family
Nobody on their deathbed looks around and declares: “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” Spending more time with family and friends is an effective way to combat stress, for a number of reasons. Firstly, being part of a network of friends boosts our sense of belonging and self-worth. For women in particular, spending time with friends and family stimulates the production of oxytocin. This hormone and neurotransmitter has multiple functions, but is associated with empathy, trust and relationship-building. It’s thought to be involved in the ‘tend-and-befriend’ response which is the opposite of the fight-or-flight associated with stress.
Another advantage of socialising with people you like is laughter. When we’re enjoying ourselves, we tend to laugh and smile. Laughing relieves tension by relaxing your muscles, and is a proven stress reliever. And it’s not just a mood-elevator. In the long term, laughter can even improve your immune system, as well as combat stress.