The other day, I asked a GP friend of mine what, in his opinion and experience, was the biggest risk factor to bad health generally. I expected him to say smoking, or obesity , perhaps lack of exercise but without hesitation he said “stress”.
It got me thinking and stressing about stress and how it can affect every aspect of health. Stress is nasty. It can hold you captive, unable to progress or move forward in life. It can reduce your ability to make decisions and make you feel you have no control of your life.Stress makes you lethargic, lacklustre,bad-tempered,moody and impatient. Worse than that, stress causes changes in your body which raise blood pressure,affects digestion and blood sugars. And ongoing stress can play havoc with you mentally and physically: lower immunity, risk of colds, diabetes, heart disease, back problems,headaches,neck ache, anxiety, depression…and so it goes on. So, the doctor had a point . Although we can’t always change some of the triggers or reasons for our own personal stress, we can surely learn to handle it better and in a way that will not affect us negatively.
First,though, before trying any techniques, don’t fight the one truth about stress: Only YOU create it…it is YOUR reaction to something external and it manifests itself physically and mentally in a negative manner. When you have accepted and embraced that fact, open your mind to the ideas below: they may sound wishy washy or new age but they have been proven to work.Lastly, be patient, it takes time to work, it needs commitment and consistency.You may struggle on for weeks feeling its all a bit of a waste of time but with patience and persistance,one day, out of the blue, you will realise that you didn’t to think so hard about actively reducing stress or work as hard to acheive relaxation and that’s the day you will have found your “nirvana”…and then you can go deeper and further until you learn how to reach a meditative state. There are no set rules…find your own way.
Below are some practical and easy ways you can decrease stress levels daily, but also some techniques that allow a deeper relaxation. Have a go:
- Hug your partner / your kids/ your mum or dad /a pet/a cuddly toy every morning before starting the day. Release of OXYTOCIN makes you feel safe and secure, lowers your blood pressure and stress levels, makes you feel less anxious and much calmer. A good way to start the day, no?
- Walk Walk Walk. A healthy way to respond to the rush of hormones caused by stress is to get physical.Obviously a long walk in a beautiful park would be ideal but you can also burn off your nervous energy with a brisk 15 minute walk round the block. Use the time to think through the issue or to just enjoy the views around you or even just to zone out and listen to music or a podcast.Scheduling a longer walk in to the day or week is highly beneficial for your mental health.Allowing yourself time to get into a steady pace (at least 20 mins) , you will benefit from the meditative rhythm of walking,and learn to focus on your breath , and become mindful of how your body feels , focussing on all your major muscles one by one and relaxing them.
- Deep Belly Breathing: Twice daily for 3-5 minutes. Forget everything and focus only on your breath. Deeply inhale through your nose . Take your time( about 4-5 seconds, if poss) and concentrate on engaging the diaphragm. If you are breathing correctly your tummy should be expanding outwards as you breath in. It may take some practice to get this right. Exhale very slowly from the mouth . Try and elongate the out breath .Deep relaxation is acheived by a long exhalation. Most people breath 20 times a minute. See if you can eventually over time reduce this to 6-8 breaths a minute.
- Unclench your muscles. A couple of times a day at least, bring your awareness to different parts of your body. Most tension is held in the shoulders. You probably haven’t realised how tense you are holding them until you become mindful. Focus on that area and relax the muscles, release the tension and slowly move down to your arms, hands, legs, feet, toes etc.
- Distraction. Every so often, think of someone you love. Instantly you will smile,your face will soften and if only for a moment , things will feel better. All those tiny moments add up to reduce tension. Sometimes surrounding yourself with things you love helps to: a bunch of flowers, a beautiful painting, family photos or the kids’drawings all can put a smile on your face
- Yoga. Stretching combined with deep breathing is a sure-fire way of looking after your mind and body. Tai chi or gentle exercise works too. Most forms of exercise will help reduce stress , especially movement that is rhythmical, like walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing. But some people find they need to be physically and mentally challenged too. Try circuits , spin, HIT,dance or bootcamp etc if you fall into this category
- Focus on the good stuff. Every night think about how your day went but focus on what you did well, what you enjoyed and what you would like to do more of. We naturally seem to focus on things that didn’t go so well and replaying that tape over and over. This pattern of negative thought can be detrimental . So change it. Every night before bed, actively think of a good thing that happened that day. It could be so simple (often those are the best) : “I saw a beautiful sunrise” or ” as I was cooking dinner, my teenage son came up and gave me a great big hug” or ” I got a lie-in!” . Or it could be something amazing: “I completed my tax return” or “I climbed Ben Nevis” .
- Phone a friend. Friends are your support system. Someone you can confide in, or just vent your frustrations with . And often,getting things out in the open often helps you realise it’s not that bad
- Sleep. PRIOTITISE SLEEP OVER ANYTHING ELSE. Make sure you get enough. Over time sleep deprivation can drive you crazy (I know, I have kids!). It can literally change your personality. Try and get into a good routine, avoid caffeine in the evening and don’t be tempted to watch TV/laptop/tablets late into the night. Its never ususally worth it , is it? Eat well, keep active during the day and eat nutritious food to help keep you in agood sleep pattern. Ensure a digital free zone in the bedroom.
- Music.As Confucius said“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” Music and dance are a powerful kind of magic and can touch the soul in ways that words or pictures cannot. Use that power to help reduce stress or enable relaxation.
- Meditation. It takes time and practice to acheive this but it is the most important thing you can do for yourself, for your mental well-being. If you are a complete beginner, just focus on the above tips initially, and anything else you enjoy and find relieves stress. Just by doing that, you are becoming aware of your inner self. And really that is all meditaion is..mind breath and body ,awareness. Over time you will be able to nurture a deeper calm and ability to control your mind and then you can play around with structured meditative techniques for longer and longer periods.
Hope this is helpful. Personally, meditative/mindful walking has helped me, mainly because it is something that I do every single day and it’s the consistency that makes the difference.I figured it out for myself, messing around with different breath patterns and walking paces and now I can actually go into an almost trance-like state for 20 minutes. It’s amazing , re-energising and nourishing.I’ll write a quick guide on how to do it soon. I do a lot of other things, deep breathing , meditation, trying to avoid late nights or TV/caffeine etc. But I find that I go through phases and I cannot always maintain a regular routine involving 15 min daily mediation etc.As with most of us, I got kids and husband, work and housework etc etc and at the moment the thing that works for me is a daily walk…So find your thing, the one that YOU can do DAILY..and go with it.
If there is anything you’d like to share, please do.It’s always interesting to learn what works for others and experiment with it …. Different strokes for different folks!