I’m going to skip the usual explanations about stress in the body, and all of the science stuff, and all of the problems that stress can cause you. There’s plenty of information out there if you want to read about this. I am going to focus on some practical suggestions that you can implement right away in order to reduce your stress levels quickly.
How to get the most from this information
All the ideas I’m going to outline have been of benefit to some people. No single idea has benefited everyone, however, and most people need a combination of the ideas below.
There is a principle in life called the 80/20 rule – generally 80% of results come from just 20% of the effort. What I suggest is that you have a go at some of the ideas below for a week or two. It may take a little longer, but just do it with a genuine intent to benefit from it and then see what happens. If there is no benefit you can disregard that idea. If there’s very little benefit then perhaps try something else. If it works well then you can choose to do this new thing.
Whilst you’re exploring these ideas it’ll probably disrupt your existing life patterns. Only you can decide whether the benefit from the disruption outweighs the problems your stress is causing you.
Don’t get caught in a cycle of taking one of these ideas and trying to get it completely perfect. It is better to have a good go at several things rather than focus all your effort in getting one just right.
Now to the list!
It will come as no surprise to you that your mind influences the body. Your mind’s craving for a cup of tea will persuade your body to go and make it for you!
There is a pathway the other way – from the body back to the brain. When your body is physically tense it sets the brain in an alert mode, making it more susceptible to other stressors.
Physical relaxation is going to be something you need to work out for yourself. It could be getting a sauna, massage, some exercise, practising relaxation techniques, or sitting quietly reading a book for an hour before you go to bed. You need to figure out what will fit in with your life, and how to determine what benefit it brings.
Adequate sleep is important, and I recommend that you aim for at least seven hours of sleep a night. That’s not seven hours in bed, but seven hours of sleep. Eight hours would be even better. Now, I know that in your busy life that can be difficult, but why not try a few weeks of deliberately going to bed earlier, and see if it makes a difference? If it does, then you can choose whether to adjust your lifestyle to make it a permanent change.
Generally you’ll need a mixture of cardiovascular and resistance or weight training. (A reminder that if you’ve not done exercise for a long time then do check with a healthcare professional first).
Cardio is typically 30-45 minutes in duration, 3 or 4 times a week. For it to be effective, it needs to make you a little out of breath. In my case, a brisk walk with my guide dog, a backpack full of groceries, and a walk back up the hill is a good cardio workout for both of us!
Resistance exercise is also important. Consider a wild animal suddenly needing to expend a burst of energy to run away from an unexpected predator. Such a cycle of full power (or close to it) and rest periods seems to be an important element in an effective exercise program.
If your diet includes lots of energy drinks, caffeine, alcohol, highly-processed or sugary foods then you probably already know this is less than ideal.
Whilst the complex (and occasionally conflicting) information about diet changes constantly, I can’t give you specific advice, but there are simple changes we can make that we know are of benefit. Improve your diet with more fresh food, less sugar and most importantly, eat more slowly and stop eating on the go. There is real merit in not multitasking here – if you’re eating, then just eat; don’t do anything else. People who make a point of eating as a single-tasking activity tend to be less stressed, plus your digestive system will also appreciate the change. For more information check out the Slow Down Diet.
Call it meditation, contemplative prayer, whatever you like – this is about deliberately focusing your attention on something specific, for a period of time; it’s a brain-training exercise.
When people have attended eight-week programs where they meditate for 45 minutes a day, after those eight weeks their stress levels are significantly down, along with their blood pressure and other measurable markers.
45 minutes a day is a large commitment for most of us, but I’d suggest that you give it a go and if it brings the benefits that improve your life then you can choose whether you need to adjust your lifestyle or not. There are plenty of smartphone apps out there to help you if you need them.
Mindfulness is different to meditation. It is primarily about being aware of what is happening, whilst it is happening, no matter what it is.
This means that you’re not lost in thoughts, or dragged into memories, or projecting disaster. You’re being with what is actually happening, at the time it is happening. You’re paying attention without any push or pull of trying to get rid of the uncomfortable thoughts, or wanting more of the pleasurable ones. Your thoughts can be a major component of your stress and mindfulness can help you stop getting caught up in them.
There are many ways of developing mindfulness. Some are based on meditations for which there are plenty of smartphone apps, and there are other approaches that have nothing to do with meditation. Finding the approach that is right for you could bring significant benefits.
Where to from here?
This article is just about the basics, and for many people they will be enough. Give these things a reasonable go and see if they work for you.
If you’ve explored these ideas but still feel that you’re not getting the significant benefits you seek, then I suggest you move on to some of the more advanced approaches that are available. This would involve looking more fundamentally at what is happening in your brain and mind.
If you feel that your level of stress has reached a point where it is having a negative effect on your life, or on the lives of those around you, and you’d like more immediate help then please get in contact with us. We use a broad range of approaches from therapy to coaching with individuals, often using more than one approach in the same session depending on what each individual client needs.