There are many benefits to modern life but one of the downsides to the external pressures we experience daily is the toll it can take on our physical and mental health. Stress is the feeling of being under abnormal pressure, when we feel the demands being placed on us exceed our resources and ability to deal with them.
Stress is the UK’s number one cause of absence at work and at any one time, one in six of us suffer from the effects of stress such as sleep problems, fatigue and feeling unable to perform at our best.
The good news is there are changes you can make to your lifestyle to help your body cope with stress and overcome its negative effects. Before we uncover the latest thinking on stress relief, let’s first investigate the effects of stress on our physical health.
HOW STRESS AFFECTS PHYSICAL HEALTH
The effects of stress can be short-lived or long-term. In the short term, stress can provide a positive performance edge, such as increased alertness in a high pressure situation such as exam or giving a presentation. But when stress continues over a longer period, it can cause the following issues to our physical health:
- Raised blood sugar levels which can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Stress affects taste perception and can lead to a reduced ability to perceive sweet tastes which may cause weight gain
- Increased inflammation in the blood vessel lining which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease
- Greater stress levels can make you less resistant to infections such as common cold viruses
- Blood diverts away from the gut when stressed which can cause indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome
- Stress-related worry can make it hard to switch off at night, causing a lack of sleep which can increase anxieties
- We make worse choices when stressed due to raised cortisol levels, which can make us angry and anxious
- Long-term raised cortisol levels can lead to loss of energy and fatigue
- Continued stress levels over long periods of time can accelerate ageing.
WAYS TO COPE WITH STRESS
The following strategies will go a long way to helping you make an immediate positive effect on your stress levels so you can be your best self.
- Take a long bath with soft lighting and lavender oil which is known to help calm and relax
- Do something creative such as bake a cake, paint, write a letter, do a jigsaw or mend something that’s broken
- Have a digital detox and go offline for a day – no phone, social media or emails
- Get an early night with a good book
- Take a relaxing walk in the countryside. If you have access to a dog, take it with you
- Spend time playing outside with your children and give them your undivided attention
- Watch the sun go down or a funny film or comedy show
- Spend time with (or call) someone who makes you laugh – laughter lifts the mood and makes us calm
- Listen to a favourite piece of music
- Try a new exercise class
- Take a day off and ignore your to-do list
HOW TO BUILD RESILIENCE TO STRESS
The strategies listed above are effective at making short-term improvements to your stress levels. When it comes to a long-term approach to combating stress, building your resilience is key.
The good news is resilience is a trait that can be learned. To help build resilience keep in mind the following 8Ps of Resilience:
- Permanence: accept that challenges are not permanent but likely temporary and that things will ultimately improve.
- Pervasiveness: don’t allow challenges in one area of your life to spill over and affect other areas.
- Personalisation: don’t let a difficult situation affect how you see yourself or your self-esteem.
- Passion: find passion and meaning in some aspect of your activities – whether at work or in other areas.
- Positive mindset: accurately appraise the positives and negatives of a situation and be ‘glass half full’. You may with to keep a gratitude diary, and write about 3 small things each day that you are thankful for. This has shown to reduce stress levels and increase resilience.
- Prioritisation: choose to differentiate between the important and the urgent and prioritise effectively.
- Problem-solving: think outside the box and break down complex problems into smaller parts to solve them.
- Avoid Perfectionist thinking: accept that under stress ‘good enough’ is often okay.
Adapting your lifestyle to include the following changes will also help protect against physical and mental burnout.
Maintain a healthy life-work balance: review your life-work choices to ensure you’re giving yourself time to rest and recharge your batteries.
Get enough sleep: a short nap in the afternoon is a great way to increase productivity.
Eat a balanced diet: a healthy diet without too much caffeine will balance sugar levels and decrease feelings of irritability and anxiety.
Look at the big picture: keep things in perspective by asking yourself, will this situation matter to me in one week, one month, one year.
Build healthy relationships: invest in relationships and develop a good support network. Don’t be afraid to ask for help early.
Set goals: giving yourself short and medium-term goals will help you prioritise things as you work towards long-term aims.
Keep your mind active: take up a challenge or learn a new skill as research suggests new experiences have the effect of slowing down time.
Everyone needs to make time to slow down and put themselves first. So try and incorporate some of these tips into your lifestyle, and give yourself the best chance to regulate the effects of stress and maintain a healthy mind and body. If you feel the effects of stress have become persistent and are causing you to feel down or anxious much of the time, please consider speaking to your GP.
After more smart tips to help you improve your wellbeing? Check out the rest of our wellbeing blogs here where we look at fuel, move, sleep, hydrate, recharge.