Last week was International Stress Awareness Week and in our first blog we looked at the nature of stress, how it manifests itself and the signs to look out for. Our second blog now, crucially, looks at what we can do about stress and how to prevent it becoming a major threat to our wellbeing.
The good news is there are things we can all do to reduce stress and they don’t have to be huge changes. In fact when we’re stressed, the last thing we may feel like doing is introducing another big change or lifestyle overhaul! The theme of World Mental Health Day this year was ‘Do One Thing’, so maybe if you are experiencing any symptoms of stress, you might choose one of the following per day to try, and see if it makes a difference:
Hydrate – drinking plenty of water is one of the single best things you can do for your health. Especially if you find you’re drinking more caffeine or alcohol than usual (both of which are diuretics, apart from their other detrimental effects), try switching out at least one of your drinks for water. Staying hydrated will give you more energy, make you less prone to reaching for sugary snacks, and even help you sleep better, as some of the reasons we wake in the night are related to dehydration.
Get physical – we all know exercise releases endorphins and makes us feel great, but when we’re stressed and overwhelmed it can be one of the first bits of self-care that falls away. The trouble is especially if you’ve fallen off the exercise wagon, getting back on it feels daunting and carries fear of failure and even pain! Also, it’s easy to tell ourselves: ‘I don’t have time’. So start slowly and small. Do a few simple exercises like sit-ups and press-ups before your morning shower. Walk around the block at lunchtime. Run up and down the stairs or do a few star jumps before bed. Anything that gets your body moving relaxes the muscles and releases stress. Only ten minutes a day adds up to over an hour a week.
Have fun – do one thing each day for the sole purpose of enjoyment. Ideally choose something that either relaxes you or makes you laugh. Again it doesn’t have to take a long time: ten minutes of reading a magazine, or listening to a funny podcast, or stroking the cat, is fine.
Say no to something – we add to our own stress when we take too much on, and once we’re stressed it becomes more difficult to see through the ‘brain fog’ to what’s important. If you struggle to say no, try saying ‘not yet’. Can you put off a task until a later date, to take some pressure off yourself? Note: This isn’t procrastination, it’s careful management of your time and your mental load. Second note: if the thing you’re saying no to is fun and / or social, think again.
Limit exposure to technology – modern technology is brilliant in so many ways but the trouble with being always on is, well, that we’re always on. Look at your tech behaviour and consider whether it’s increasing your stress levels. Do you check your emails at certain times of the day, or do you always have your inbox open in the background? Do you have social media apps on your phone and find yourself checking them at unusual times e.g. when you wake in the night, or when out on a walk or at dinner with family? Do you feel anxious at the thought of switching off the phone and / or laptop for an hour and being uncontactable? Take a break from tech.
In fact even if you don’t think you’re stressed, why not try one or two of these tips anyway? Unfortunately we live in a culture where we have accepted that modern life comes with stress and so we don’t take steps to ease it until it becomes a fairly major problem. Prevention is better than cure, especially when it comes to the end point of stress, which is burnout. If your stress has already reached an unmanageable level, or you are feeling helpless, hopeless or having intrusive thoughts, consider seeking professional help.
Stress might be a natural part of life, but being aware of our own stress and keeping it at healthy levels is the best way to maintain your wellbeing and stay at your best – which in these challenging times, especially, we all need to be.
Written by Joanna Williams, Head of Counselling at Professional Help.