Stress is normal – it can motivate us and help us to achieve. But have you noticed how some people thrive on high stress while others crumble at little things? Research is showing this is due to how people view stress. Athletes know they need the adrenaline surge that stress gives. But afterwards they rest, allowing time for recovery. This differs from the chronic stress that pervades our daily lives, snowballing with no chance to recuperate. We know we should relax but feel there’s no time. Here are some quick and easy yet effective practices that you can incorporate into your busy day.
1) Trigger a relaxation response in your brain through your breathing! Deep breathing using the diaphragm is great for calming you. Make your out-breath longer than your in-breath i.e. breathe in for a count of four and out for seven. Take five breaths like this and notice the change.
2) Play soothing music in the background as you work or relax. Nature cds with the sounds of birds singing trigger a relaxation response in the brain while the sound of ocean waves slows your breathing, relaxing you. Make up a playlist of music that calms you as well as one that energizes you for those times when you need to raise your energy.
3) Eat healthy foods – what you eat influences how you feel. An upset to the microbes in your gut can cause you to feel anxious. If your stress has been ongoing for a long time you may have reached a stage of adrenal exhaustion and need help to bring your body back to health. A consultation with a nutritionist could be useful. Fiona Kane at Informed Health is wonderful at helping people to get their gut health back in balance.
4) Count your blessings! Worrying never changes anything. If you can do something about a situation, then do it! If there isn’t, then focus on the positives in your life. You may be asking, ‘What positives?’ But consider how many people have less than you. Keep a Gratitude Diary. Write down five things each day for which you can feel grateful (and connect with that feeling) – consider your access to clean water, electricity, your family and friends. Sure, you may struggle at times but with perseverance it will become easier. Include three things that happened that day e.g. ‘I’m grateful that the sun is shining’. As you focus on positives your thoughts will shift. When faced with negatives, you will start to think, ‘At least I still have …’.
5) Be your own best friend. Negativity decreases confidence, damaging performance and mental skills. The worst thing is that when we think something like, ‘I’m so stupid’, we often agree with ourselves, reinforcing the hopeless feeling. But if a friend was feeling down you would remind them of the good things about their lives or of other times when things worked out or when they achieved something they thought was really hard. You would challenge their negative thoughts, encouraging them. So when you become aware that you’re putting yourself down, imagine that you’re talking to a friend who is saying those things about herself and respond in that caring way. Even something as simple as adding ‘yet’ to the end of a thought that you can’t do something opens the door of possibility.
6) Are you a worst-case scenario thinker? When something starts to go wrong, do you immediately jump to thinking about possible catastrophes? From an evolutionary viewpoint, this type of thinking may have increased our chances of survival. After all, a person who can foresee a negative consequence can take steps to lessen the impact of whatever is happening. The problem is that we get stuck in the loop of thinking about the possible catastrophes. But you can learn to use this style of thinking – in fact many people do. The first thing is to work out what is in your control and what is not. If something is in your control, then plan how you can deal with it and take action. For example, many of us live in bushfire prone areas. Whether a fire comes through is not in our control. But there are things we can do to protect our homes and lives – clearing gutters, moving branches and leaf litter from the yard, insuring our property, having an evacuation plan, etc. This is an example of using worst-case scenario thinking to prepare. Taking action often reduces the feeling of stress. Then try to shift your focus to the most-likely scenario. So in the bushfire example, the most likely scenario is that many houses will survive and houses that have been well-prepared are more likely to do so. This technique can be used in many different situations. The trick is to interrupt the loop of catastrophic thinking and train the mind to look for possible solutions. If you like reading, a great book about the power of negative thinking is ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ by Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, who talks about preparing for the worst, living in the present, and developing optimism.
7) Exercise is very effective at relieving stress and every little bit of exercise counts. Any activity that gets your heart pumping helps. Although you should check with your doctor before embarking on any exercise program, walking is generally safe for anyone. Get your heart going a little faster for at least 15 minutes a day. Even a few minutes here and there of brisk walking can provide stress relief and improve your overall health. When possible, walk in natural surroundings to give a boost to your feeling of relaxation.
8) Get a good night’s sleep. We all know that we feel more irritable when we’re tired. Sleep is important for our mental health and will help you to feel calmer and more relaxed. Visit Dead Tired for some tips on how to improve your sleep.
9) Mindfulness – We’ve all heard about meditation but many of us find the practice difficult or struggle to find time. Mindfulness is meditation that can be incorporated into your day. It is simply being in the present moment without thinking about anything else. A good time to begin to do this is in the shower. We usually have random thoughts about what we need to do that day or about the past. When you’re being mindful, you allow yourself to only think about the sensations of what you’re doing – the feel of the water, the sounds, the smells, the patterns the water makes as it runs down the walls. Immerse yourself in these sensations. When your mind butts in with other thoughts just bring your awareness back to what you’re doing. You can do this at other times like when you’re walking or eating or gardening or even washing dishes. It’s a great way to train your mind to switch off!
10) Body Posture – Believe it or not, the way you sit and stand influences your stress. Associate Professor Amy Cuddy from Harvard has researched how our posture affects the levels of stress hormones and found that by holding certain postures for just two minutes you can reduce the levels of cortisol (one of the stress hormones) by 15% and also boost the hormone that makes you feel in control by 20%. Take a look at her video Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are and start incorporating these postures in your life to make a difference!
Make these tips a part of your routine and you’ll soon start to notice changes in the way you’re feeling – you’ll feel more relaxed and able to cope with the stresses of life.