Stress is a global issue today, and has many, and sometimes serious, repercussion on your health, relationships and work performance. Moreover, clinical and epidemiological studies over the last 30 years have identified psycho-social factors including stress, chronic depression and lack of social support as risk factors for cancer progression (source). Of course, everybody knows that meditation and yoga are efficient stress management strategies, but they definitely aren’t for everyone. In this article, I review some simple methods of stress management and stress reduction which are often overlooked or totally ignored.
So, when the to-do list has no end, the car broke down and the laundry piles up, what can you do?
Priority no# 1. Digital Detox.
When it comes to dealing with unnecessary stress, this is definitely the number 1 advice.
Between toxic entertainment, drama-heavy news and murder-loaded movies, aggressive melodies and addictive adrenaline-triggering videogames, digital entertainment nowadays is loaded with stressful images and sounds. Everything, and the news, in particular, is designed – and I really mean, designed – to stir your emotions, create shock, horror and worry. Multiply this by two or three hours daily, and what that little machine in your lounge or in your hand is achieving, is loading your subconscious with negative images and ideas, which in turn affect your daily functioning. You may not make the conscious link between what you saw on the TV and that feeling of stress at work, and yet the violent and stressful images are still in-there, just below your awareness threshold (source). And we certainly see in therapy rooms the issue related to political stress comes up more frequently than necessary (source). In fact, I have seen people making tremendous shifts in their happiness levels by just switching off the news.
Video-games are often used as a way to get away from the stress of everyday life, however, most addictive games are actually increasing your stress burden (source). And even those that aren’t will not help you with ongoing life issues, they won’t help you feel more connected and won’t get you any closer to your life purpose.
Social media is of course another big contributing factor. It delivers a fake image of the world, one that would be photo-perfect, one that ignores boundaries of personal privacy, and where “the big update” or the “story of the day” is to be rewarded. It leaves out completely the real aspect of friendship, where you accept the other person for what they truly are rather than what they ought to be. This is a rapidly growing mental health issue which is well-acknowledged by mental health professionals (source, source, source).
In addition, screen light in the evening disrupts your biological clock (it suppresses the sleep hormone called melatonin), so you end up with lower quality sleep, and you start your day tired (source).
So to achieve your digital detox, switch off your phone(s), unplug your TV & radio, go to bed one hour earlier (or two, or three), and practice another of the following priorities below.
Priority no# 2. Stop procrastinating.
Yes, it is more fun to look at that one cat video your colleague sent you. And it requires less involvement to mindlessly scroll through Facebook or Instagram looking at people sharing their lives instead of living it. But in the meanwhile, the bills don’t get paid, and that leak under the sink is starting to make the furniture rot.
Not dealing with issues make them pile up and they end up being a bigger issue than had they been dealt with in the first place. In fact, procrastination has been the subject of several academic studies and has been shown to contribute to feelings of stress (study).
So instead, put your alarm clock forward an hour (it’s easy, as you’ve stopped watching TV late at night) deal with those pesky tasks first thing in the day, and you will be amazed by how much you can get done.
In fact, if you spent just one hour per day, every day, dealing with something, it equates to over 9 weeks of full-time employment over the course of a year! Imagine what you could get done if you had that sort of free time…
Priority no# 3. Cut off toxic relationships.
We all have known at least one person that would bear us down, one person who is complaining all day, for whom everything is difficult, for whom everything is dark, or negative. Sometimes that person can be downright abusive and put you down all the time. Depending on how close that person is to you, you have several choices.
- If at all possible, leave them out of your life. Ignore them. Block them on social media, do not answer their call, avoid them at work. People can change, but if this is bearing you down your priority is to recognise this and do what is right by you. Sometimes this can take the form of a radical decision such as moving house or finding a new job.
- If that person is your spouse or a very close relative, and if you are not prepared to leave them out of your life, you will probably need to seek professional guidance. You will need to be prepared to talk in honestly, and gently but firmly, to that person who is causing you stress. You will need to find compromises, which means finding a solution that both (yes, that includes you) can accept, and which won’t be overbearing on either party (including yourself). In the midst of running emotions, it can be difficult to find the right balance, which is why professional counselling or therapy is definitely something you should seek in this case.
- Last but not least. What kind of behaviour do you adopt regularly, which directly or indirectly maintain that person in this negative attitude? And what can you do to change this?
Priority no# 4. Clean your diet.
OK, you were probably not expecting that one, right? But the truth is, nutrition will have a tremendous effect on how stressed you can be.
- Get rid of the caffeine-sugar-sleeping-aid cycle (that would include alcohols and sleeping pills). You probably will crash at first, this is healthy, and it is your body telling you it really has a sleep debt. After a while, your hormones & their receptors will re-balance, and you won’t notice you don’t miss it anymore anyways.
- Trash the junk. Fast-food, crisps, ready-meals, microwave meals, etc. They are full of additives, chemicals you wouldn’t find in any domestic kitchen, with a proven negative effect on the nervous system. Junk food can make you edgy and agitated (source). It perturbs your gut, which in turns affect your brain (scientists call this the gut-brain axis – source). It has the wrong kind of fat, the wrong kind of salt, often way too much sugar, and are generally bad for you. I hear the issue about time-saving, the best way to proceed if you are starved for time is to cook in batches and freeze individual portions. At least you know what goes in there.
- Use a healthy (as in not too much, not too little) amount of unrefined, natural, unprocessed salt and fat. Think sea salt, olive oil, coconut oil, maybe even lard and tallow if you find some from high-welfare cattle, outdoor bred and grown, fed their natural diet for all of their lives, free to roam, etc. Zero fat / zero salt diets are unhealthy and will put you up for all sort of health problems. Low-fat diets could lead to fatty acid imbalances, which in turns will mean you may not be able to produce as much of the stress hormones as you could, and therefore will not be able to manage stress as effectively as you should (study). And very low-sodium diet has been shown to have psychological implications (study) – Thankfully such a low sodium level can be hard to achieve.
Priority no# 5. Find some friends to play with
We may be grown-up adults, but in our society we take ourselves far too seriously. So seriously in fact, that we end up getting stressed by little things. And the perfect antidote is to channel back the young you. The you who used to have fun maybe running outside playing tag, walking with the dog, throwing stones in the pond or just having a laugh with your mates for no particular reason. In fact, it is no surprise that laughter (study) and friendship (study) have been shown to have a positive effect on stress.
Of course, there are several ways to do it, and obviously games of tag may not be your thing anymore. But anybody can have a good laugh while playing cards around a teapot. Or play a ball game before going out for a cold drink.
Priority no# 6. Consider hypnotherapy
Hypnosis is one of the least understood therapy there is. Although it is backed up by tremendous research, there is still a lot of pre-conceived ideas as to what hypnosis is and isn’t. Hypnosis isn’t mind-control, it is not magic, it is a common natural phenomenon where the hypnotist guides the subject through to make changes in his unconscious mind and re-wire patterns, unwanted habits and thoughts.
Hypnosis will put you in relaxation as part of the process itself, but will have a lasting effect well beyond the hypnotherapy session itself.
Indeed, one of the most powerful effects of hypnosis is to change the feelings associated with memories. It is then possible to revisit past stressful events and often get rid completely of all sort of negative baggage associated with them (study, study).
It is also useful in terms of finding new solutions to existing or recurring problems, sorting relationships issues, visualising positive results to upcoming test and events, increasing self-confidence, etc.
Priority no# 7. Get regular massages.
If you are stressed out, the likelihood is that you hold a lot of tension in a number of places in your body. Common places are higher back, shoulder, neck and jaw. I have seen people with muscle solid from stress (and I have actually been there myself). Massage will act directly on those muscles, helping the relaxation through physical means. It has also got a general tendency to put you in a relaxing (parasympathetic) mode, just by the virtue of being a caring, attentive touch.
Massage also has a calming effect on the mind. Indeed it has been shown that a single session of massage significantly reduce state anxiety – the momentary emotional experiences of apprehension, tension, and worry. Multiple massage sessions, performed over a period of days or weeks, significantly reduce trait anxiety – the normally stable individual tendency to experience anxiety states – to an impressive degree in adults (study).
Priority no# 8. Go for a forest walk every day.
This is called “forest therapy” and originated in Japan. The reason why this work is quite simple: we have evolved for millions of years in natural spaces. Concrete, street noise and pollution aren’t natural, and are aggressive for our biology and mind.
It appears that forest therapy does have measurable health benefits; for example, it can lower levels of salivary cortisol, the hormone that rises when we’re under stress – in addition of potentially positive effects on blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes (study)
If you don’t have a forest close by, a quiet park would work just as well.