All of us experience stress — the feeling of being under excessive mental or emotional pressure. Some people seem able to deal with high levels of stress, and even say they thrive on it, while others buckle under the strain.
Stressful events can have a profound effect not just on our minds but also on our bodies and emotional health. Stress can be triggered by the perception we are out of control of the big and small issues in life, or when we feel threatened, physically or mentally. Many of us find new situations difficult to cope with, especially if they are unexpected ones. So how can we minimise the effect stress has on our wellbeing?
1. Be positive
It is easy to slip into negative thinking when you are stressed and wound up; even small problems can cause anxiety. We can all think of situations where a small event tipped us over the edge because we were already overwhelmed by other things. With an effort, though, you can look at it the other way round.
Professor Cary Cooper, an occupational health expert at Lancaster University, suggests writing a list at the end of each day of all that went well or was enjoyable, and taking a moment to consider things for which you should be grateful which you may have forgotten.
2. Avoid information overload
The number of people in the UK working more than 48 hours a week has gone up in the last decade to almost four million, according to a study commissioned by the TUC. No wonder 440,000 people were diagnosed with workplace-related stress in 2014-2015. You don’t have to work longer to be a star employee, you just need to be clever. Graham Allcott, author of How To Be A Productivity Ninja, believes ‘a big part of workplace stress is the volume of information’. ‘For someone doing a management job in the 1980s, information overload would be six pieces of paper in their pigeonhole, but now it’s emails, texts and messages 24/7. Lack of control over this, and the gnawing self-doubt that somewhere in the mass of information is something that’ll blow up on you, is where a lot of stress comes from,’ he adds.
‘A lot of people would say stress helps you with deadlines but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. When you’re on a deadline the stress forces you into a state psychologists call ‘flow’ — you have to work on this one thing, you can’t think of anything else. But through mindfulness you can get that focus and Zen-like calm without the stress.’ Allcott recommends clearing your inbox every day, no matter how long it takes, and focusing on to-do lists to give yourself a sense of priority.
‘Take time once a week at least to project plan. Thinking for an hour or two is much better than working like crazy all the time without focus,’ he says.
‘The more you can have a little boss in your head telling you what to do, the better.’
3. Have a cuppa
Something as simple as having a cup of tea can lower your stress level, studies have found. Aside from the comforting effects of a strong, hot brew, scientists at University College London found test subjects who drank black tea four times a day for six weeks had less of the stress hormone cortisol in their bodies, and were able to overcome distress twice as quickly as a control group given a placebo.
4. Hit the sack
Stress is one of the most common causes of sleep disruption, according to Göran Kecklund, associate professor at the Stress Research Institute, Stockholm University. He says stress is part of everyday life and it is normal to experience occasionally disrupted sleep while under pressure.
‘The dangerous situation appears when stress is causing chronic sleep disturbances,’ he says. ‘Chronic stress is, in itself, a cause of many diseases, for example coronary heart disease, and poor sleep is believed to be one of the key mechanisms why long-lasting stress is related to severe health problems.’ These include high blood pressure and a compromised immune system. To counteract stress, Professor Kecklund first suggests looking at your work-life balance. ‘Everybody needs time for recovery and relaxation. The type of activity in itself is probably not important — as long as it is stimulating but not perceived as demanding.’
5. Make time for yourself
Take some you time. Allocate one or two nights a week for activities you enjoy. Take up a new hobby, return to an old one, form a quiz team or have a regular ‘date night’ with your partner. Make this time sacrosanct – recognise you deserve and need time for yourself no matter how busy your life is.
If you are that person at the office who always puts work first, who everyone knows can be relied upon to stay late and perform the urgent tasks, make it clear this will not happen on the nights you have chosen.
‘Learn to say no to your boss in a way that’s fine,’ advises Susan Leigh, counsellor and hypnotherapist. ‘Give your boss the choice to prioritise, tell them what you already have on and let them decide which should come first.’
6. Take a different view
Chris Kresser, a specialist in ancestral health and paleonutrition, advocates looking at stress positively and reframing your attitude to make it work for you.
He emphasises treating threats like challenges, and looking to see if there is an opportunity in something stressful such as losing your job or having a health scare. Being made redundant can be used to reevaluate whether you are doing what you really want to do and if there are other business opportunities you would rather pursue. A health scare is a good motivator to decide to take better care of yourself, for instance.
He also suggests taking a long-term view. ‘Ask yourself whether what you’re upset about will matter in a month, a year or a decade,’ he advises. ‘Will this event matter? Will you even remember it?’
7. Devote time to helping others
When you feel down, do some good. Go to a pet rescue centre and take an abandoned dog for a walk — a win-win situation, as being around animals also lowers stress levels — or bag groceries for a food bank near your home.
‘Helping people who are often in situations worse than yours will help you put your problems into perspective,’ says Professor Cary Cooper of Lancaster University, on the NHS website. ‘The more you give, the happier and more resilient you feel.’
8. Enjoy park life
That being active is good for us is hardly news. Keeping fit protects us against a whole raft of diseases, but did you know it also helps our mental wellbeing?
Something as simple as going out for a walk can help ease mild depression and minimise anxiety.
Physical activity causes chemical changes in the body that help bolster positive feelings. Scientists at the University of Queensland found visiting a park for just 30 minutes a week reduced the risk of developing heart disease, stress, anxiety and depression.
Dr Danielle Shanahan, a researcher at the university’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, said: ‘If everyone visited their local park for half an hour each week there would be seven per cent fewer cases of depression and nine per cent fewer cases of high blood pressure.’
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