LIFE

Four powerful and easy ways to reduce stress

MEL NOAKES
The Self Care Coach

Stress is both friend and foe.  The stress response itself has evolved to protect us from danger, it’s the flight-or-fight response that gets the body ready for action. So if you’re in danger, the brain’s hypothalamus sends triggers to the rest of the body to kick start the chain reaction that allows it to fight or fly.  The adrenals then burst into action releasing hormones, such as cortisol, to raise blood pressure and blood sugar (amongst other things).

Now in the good old days, this worked a charm if you needed to outrun a hungry dinosaur say, but less so if the perceived threat is a looming deadline or difficult boss.

A recent study by Workfront found that 71% of marketers admitted to feeling “burnt out” while 66% said they expect their stress levels at work to increase.  This is just one of many examples I could cite.  The most common causes of stress are related to the workplace, finances, health, relationships and poor nutrition – things we’re exposed to on a daily basis. With our always-on, fast-paced culture, it’s little wonder that stress-related illness are rising and costing the economy over £6.5 billion a year.

Why do we accept this as the norm and allow it to continue?

Stress is defined as “pressure or tension exerted on a material object or “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”.

Photograph by John Canelis via Unsplash

The simple fact is, most of us, at some time, will experience stress and even harness it to our benefit.   However, consistent and long-term exposure to stress plays havoc with our bodies.  Here are just a few of the ways stress impacts your body:

  • Increased cortisol production: Associated with weight gain (especially in the stomach), inability to lose weight or gain muscle, premature aging.
  • Decreased nutrient absorption: Due to decreased enzymatic production from the stomach, pancreas and liver, decreased bile flow from gall bladder, decreased oxygenation and gastrointestinal blood flow.
  • Increased nutrient excretion: Urinary loss of calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, chromium, selenium, and various microminerals.
  • Decreased gut flora populations: Healthy intestinal bacteria are destroyed by stress, which can lead to immune problems, skin disorders, nutrient deficiencies, and digestive distress.
  • Increase in salt retention: Can lead to high blood pressure.
  • Decrease in thermic efficiency: Your ability to burn calories is diminished.
  • Decrease in thyroid hormone: Can lead to a decrease in metabolic activity throughout the body.
  • Increase in blood cholesterol: Stress by itself will raise LDL levels.
  • Decrease in sex hormones: Can mean lower sex drive, low energy, decreased muscle mass.
  • Increase in inflammation: The basis of many significant ailments, including brain and heart disease.
  • Increased swallowing rate: A fast swallowing rate is a likely factor in digestive upset.
  • Increased food sensitivities and allergies: Plenty of anecdotal evidence, most likely due to decreased immunity and leaky gut.

With this in mind, what surprises me most is how few people take measures to reduce stress and accept it as absolute. Of course, our lives are stressful, there is no way that stress is going to disappear, but if you can cope better with it or reduce it, it will be the one thing that really makes a difference when it comes to managing your health and wellbeing.

“We need to learn to differentiate between being stressed and having stress.  They’re totally different.”

When your body is flooded with chemicals to prepare to “fly or fight” what you need to do is to access the relaxation state.  This response puts the brakes on stress and brings your body and mind back into a state of equilibrium.  How you react to stress may influence the relaxation technique that works best for you:

If you tend to become angry, agitated or wound up under stress then it’s likely you are in the “fight response”.  If this is you, then you’ll respond best activities that slow and quieten you, such as meditation, listening to relaxing music, deep breathing, or guided visualisation.

If you tend to become depressed, withdrawn, or spaced out under stress then it’s likely you are in the “flight response” and you’ll respond best to stress relief activities that energise and stimulate your nervous system, such as exercise, massage or something like power yoga.

If you tend to “freeze” or become “stuck” under stress, your need to invoke the fight or flight response so you can choose the best stress relief techniques. To do this, choose a physical activity that engages both your arms and legs, such as running, dancing, or yoga and focus on the sensations in your limbs as you move.

This will help you in the short term, but do you want to know the secret to reducing stress in your life?

Self care. Period.

Prioritising your self care on a regular and consistent basis creates space, supports your wellbeing, means you have time for health promoting activities like proper nutrition, exercise, time out, time with friends – it means you balance your world.  It’s not just a quick break, or a week or two in the sun, it’s about daily, focused and unwavering commitment to looking after your physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.  It won’t remove stress from your life, if only, but it will give you better tools to cope when stressful situations happen.

So here are four powerful and easy self care tools to help you reduce stress for good.

Stressed out vs stress

“I’m stressed”. How many times in the last week have you uttered that statement? I shudder to think. It seems innocuous, harmless and everyone else is saying it so …

But saying “I’m stressed” creates a chain reaction in the body and your unconscious takes it and accepts it as part of your identity, it’s like saying “I’m British” or “I’m a woman”.

But you’re not stress.

You have stress, a situation has caused you to feel stress, but you yourself are not stress. This is a big distinction because recognising the outside source of stress creates distance, gives you clarity and provides space for you to change it.  When you start to notice you’re feeling stressed ask yourself “what is it that’s causing me to feel this way and what can I do about it?”.

Create space for yourself

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  But I bet when you pull up your diary you feel your heart beat increase.  I bet you’re back to back in meetings, double booked, no space between meetings, no space to work, think, eat or pee.  Am I right?  (I know I am!)

So, stop doing that to yourself.

Block time between your meetings to actually travel between them, eat, do the work you need to do, breathe, pee (no I’m serious, I know there are days when you don’t do this).

I had a rule in the end that I never travelled to meetings and I limited personal engagements to 1 per day.  Plus the first thing I committed to was what I did unless it was a significant meeting, personal event or life altering activity that I need to be at more (that happened only once!)

Eating “real” food rather than convenient fast food and high sugar food will reduce stress in your body.

Photographs via Unsplash

Treat yourself with some respect

You know how you never get that cab home after a long day but take three trains and a bus?  You know how you say to someone, “no don’t worry about that, I can move my lunch” or “sure I can come over (even though I’m exhausted and need to have a bath and you’re two hours out of my way)”.  Or when you buy the cheap seats to save some money but turn up on holiday or to a meeting exhausted and unprepared?

Your time, your energy, your needs are important.  No, it’s not selfish. No, it doesn’t make you a bad person. And yes, the world will keep spinning.

Bump yourself to the top of your priority list more frequently and you’ll see your internal happiness increase, your health improve and your productivity positively soar.

Look on the bright side of life

Our internal state of being starts in our head and mental stress starts with your perception of your experiences. Most people get stressed when they feel their situation should be a certain way and it is somehow “different” or “wrong” from that perception (and not necessarily bad).

This process is simply a result of perception and every experience you have, is part of your growth and development.  If the glass is half empty or half full is all down to your perception and your perception can transform in a heartbeat if you choose it.  Ask yourself, is this going to be important to me in a year, five years or ten years time.  It’s not to say you have to be happy all the time, or need to dismiss a stressful or negative situation, not at all.  Feel it, get pissed off, get emotional – but don’t allow that to cloud your ability to learn the lesson and look for the window of light.

When I broke up with a boyfriend of 5 years I was devastated, like, lock yourself in your room and listen to “All by myself” Bridget Jones style devastated.  But somewhere inside I knew I had a choice to think about things differently and even in the maze of snotty tissues and sad songs I decided to believe that if this guy wasn’t right, it meant someone better was waiting for me. I wasn’t wrong. My husband is the best person I’ve ever met and is the ying to my yang, my lobster and makes me happier than I ever thought possible.

I’ve heard people talk about redundancy as a gift as they get the space to choose what they want to do next.  I’ve met cancer survivors who talk about illness as a gift as it helped them focus on what was really important in life.  Does it make the shit times go away?  No, but it helps you bear them a little easier.

What was the most stressful situation you’ve faced to date and what stress busting exercises did you use to help you through?  I’d love you to let me know in the comments.

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