Every day we face stresses of one kind or another.
Sometimes we cope just fine, barely noticing any difference.
That slight tension when you hit the traffic jam and worry you will be late.
The hallway hustle (as I like to call it) when attempting to cajole two unhelpful children out the door five minutes later than planned.
These little stresses are all easy to deal with on their own but when they are added to bigger life stresses, job worries, financial stresses, health issues, family, well it all adds up.
It has been estimated that two-thirds of all the illnesses seen by General Practitioners in Britain are stress related.
Stress is generally understood to be related to worrying that we cannot cope. It usually occurs when we imagine that we can’t cope, when we start to think negative thoughts about what might happen.
We all experience stress and our bodies react in the same way to both imagined stress (worry that we can’t cope) and real situations (when faced with an immediate danger).
The flight or fight response is the bodies reaction to stress and a hormonal and chemical reaction.
When we face stress the body prepares for fight or flight (think of cave men facing a saber tooth tiger and deciding to either fight for dinner or run away as fast as possible). Our reaction means that we are ready to run or fight. This reaction is designed to be acted on straight away and then the chemicals reduce, allowing the body to relax. So if you decide to run you use up all that adrenaline and eventually when safe you are able to stop and recover.
Today when faced with stress we rarely fight or flight, instead we worry for weeks at a time and our bodies stay in stress response for all that time without relief.
In stress response your heart rate will increase, the blood vessels contract increasing blood pressure, the digestive functions close right down and the muscles contract.
With blood flow constantly rushing to our contracted (tense) muscles and not our digestive system we find food difficult to digest, we get churning stomach, headaches, constipation, loss of appetite etc.
Staying in this state for long periods of time will mean that we may experience sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and recurrent infections.
So stress is pretty detrimental to our long term health, and most of the time we don’t even know we are suffering from it!
Sometimes it all gets too much to cope with and we can easily find ourselves in overwhelm, that point when you suddenly realise that actually, right now you can’t cope.
Building things into our daily life that combat the effects of stress like exercise and relaxation can really help us to relieve the problems associated with stress. Doing something daily even if you don’t think you are stressed means that when life does get tough you are more prepared to deal with it.
I always think the best way to deal with stress and overwhelm is to focus on the
things you can control.
If stress is a response to worrying that we can’t cope then surely focussing our attention on what we can cope with (even if that is something really small) then we take control of how our body responds.
If stress is about a reaction to negative thoughts then doing something positive about something we can control (even if that is something really small) then we can take control of how our body responds.
If stress is about the body responding with fight or flight response then doing something to release those fight or flight chemicals (even if that something is really small) then we can take control of how our body responds.
So here’s my top ten ways to stress proof your body, deal with what it throws at you and generally kick stress into touch. They may be obvious things that you need to do but how often do you sit down and take some time to assess how well you deal with stress? Take some time now to think about how you can build some of these things into your life so when stress hits, it never gets to the point of overwhelm.
It’s obvious really if you are able to relax you are able to reduce the harmful effects of stress.
Active relaxation – not just sitting in front of the TV – is an effective way to unwind, reduce anxiety and bolster your stress defences.
It produces a reduction in blood pressure.
Long term effects of relaxation include an enhanced feeling of control and a more positive outlook, both blunt the body’s natural stress response.
There are many different relaxation technique that can help reduce the effects of stress and help you avoid it. The most common thread with all techniques is that they are calming and improve breathing, relax the muscles and clear the mind.
Simply breathing deeply and allowing your muscle to relax is one small thing you can do to improve relaxation in your daily life. Taking a five minute break, meditation and massage when done regularly will also help.
If you really find it hard to relax or you recognise that it really doesn’t happen very often start building small steps into your day, deep breathing before sleep for example, your body will thank you for it.
It’s not always easy to relax. If you find it particularly hard meditation techniques can help.
Meditation can be really simple and easy to fit into your day if you start with something basic like walking meditation
Apps like Headspace are also really good for building daily practice easily and well worth a try if you want something you can build into your daily routine in under 10 minutes.
3. Be more active
Of course I could go on about the importance of exercise all day so I will keep it brief!
One of the best ways to reduce the effects of stress is physical exercise. As it is probably the most beneficial way of burning excess ‘stress chemicals’ accumulated in our bodies, almost any physical exercise will reduce the ill-effects of stress.
Exercise that makes you feel hot and sweaty is the best for releasing the frustrations associated with stress, so build this into your regular routine. If that seems too much or you are currently feeling overwhelmed it is possible you need to start slowly building up your fitness levels with more gentle exercise like yoga.
The more you exercise the fitter you become and the more able your body is to cope with stress and the pressures everyday life puts on you.
A short walk will allow your body to release some adrenaline and kick start your body’s relaxation state afterwards.
4. Daily habits
Stress can be reduced by making some simple lifestyle changes that will help you cope much more effectively with day-to-day stresses.
Think about the things in your life that cause you stress, can you make any changes to your lifestyle to help relieve these elements?
Stress is a feeling of lost control, focus on what you can control and you will feel better immediately.
Simple things like preparing for the day ahead the night before can make life seem loads more manageable. If a regular part of your routine is stressful what can you do to make it easier?
5. Be more organised
Once you have identified what needs to change in your life to make it less stressful getting organised will help.
Pick the one thing that bugs you the most and sort it.
You only have to start with one thing that is the most frustrating and is bothering you. Find some time to tackle it.
Whatever you need to do to feel you are on top of just one area of your life.
Taking control of that one thing will help you address stress.
When was the last time you got a really good night’s sleep?
Stress can impact your life in many ways, including negatively affecting the quality of your sleep. It makes sense: You lie in bed, worrying and feeling anxious, which makes it almost impossible to relax and quiet your mind enough to fall asleep.
Unfortunately, this cycle will only continue to get worse: If you don’t sleep enough at night, your body boosts its levels of stress hormones. The brain chemicals connected with deep sleep are the same ones that tell the body to stop the production of stress hormones. As a result, when you don’t sleep well, your body keeps pumping out those hormones. The next day, you feel more stressed, the following night you find it harder to fall asleep, and so on.
If your regular sleep pattern is all over the place your body will struggle to deal with stress.
Regular sleep is key to stress recovery so lights off and alarm clock on at a regular time, sleep in a blacked-out room, no electronics in the hour before sleep.
Start with regular lights out and wake up times and your body will soon see the benefits, relaxation before bed is vital so find what you need to ensure you are able to drop off to sleep quickly.
7. Nourish your body
What you put in your mouth plays a huge part in our body’s ability to fight disease. Food is our only source of energy and it is important to keep you blood sugar levels constant in order to have enough fuel to deal with the extra energy our body needs to cope with stress.
Eating regularly - a small meal often - is the best way to ensure that your body has all the energy it needs to cope with the day ahead when you are particularly stressed.
It is difficult for the body to digest food efficiently if your body is in flight or fight mode because all the blood flow and energy is in your muscles not your digestive system.
If you eat good clean natural food this will also help, anything processed will just put further stress on the body and not give you the nutrients your body needs.
Stress can deplete the body of vitamins too so make sure you are eating a broad range of foods with plenty of vegetables.
8. Eat slowly
When the body is in stress mode, blood flow is diverted to the muscles to make them ready to fight or flight, meaning your digestive system is impacted and digesting food is more difficult.
Take time out to eat and digest your food, make sure you stop and eat slowly. This will help your body to relax and blood flow to return to the stomach.
Eat as many meals as possible sitting quietly rather than on the run or at your desk, you will soon feel the benefits of being able to digest food properly.
9. Think more positively
The way we think effects our behaviour, if you continually think negative thoughts this will ultimately result in negative actions.
When we are stressed we are more likely to think negatively. Have you ever found yourself thinking that now that your day has started disastrously the rest of the day can only get worse?
Next time you catch yourself doing it STOP! Take a deep breath and try focussing on something more positive instead.
The best technique I have come across for this is keeping a gratitude diary, just note down three things you are grateful for every day, it works really well if you do this either at the start of the day to set your intentions for the day ahead or at the end of the day just before you go to sleep.
10. Let it go
If you are feeling really stressed taking a step back can really help, when things are getting on top of you it can be really hard to acknowledge this step.
If you feel as if you need to do everything all at once, it’s time to let something go.
Just one little thing that you know you can do without, think hard about what you are expecting yourself to achieve, is there one thing that can wait? One thing that you can ask someone else to do for you?
Let go of what is not important and you can focus on what is.
Commit to just one of these tips at a time to help avoid stress and overwhelm.
Which one are you best at? I would love to hear if these tips have helped you.