April is Stress Awareness Month in the UK and while we might be halfway through the month already, understanding and managing the causes and effects of stress is crucial all year round.
Stress is a physical response to a threat that triggers the body’s “fight or flight” mode. This releases hormones like adrenaline to get the body ready to take assertive physical action.
While this is useful in many situations where “fight or flight” can help us avoid real-world danger, the stresses of the modern world can mean this response is unhelpful. Flooding the body with chemicals can stop us from thinking straight, affecting our ability to make the right choices.
Stress can have a detrimental impact on our cognitive ability, emotional wellbeing, and physical health. But there are steps you can take to regulate your body’s reaction to stressful situations and to de-stress.
Here are five of them.
1. Get plenty of exercise
Exercise can improve your mental, as well as your physical health. Aerobic exercise like swimming, walking, or running releases endorphins. The body’s natural pain relief, endorphins also relieve stress by increasing feelings of wellbeing.
Taking exercise outdoors has the added mental health benefits of fresh air and nature.
Consider a forest walk, a local Park Run, or even non-aerobic exercise like yoga. The Mental Health Foundation suggests that a 10-minute brisk walk can increase your mental alertness and energy, and make you feel more positive.
If work stress is mounting, be sure to take a lunch break and head outside to exercise. Away from work, make regular exercise a habit by incorporating it into your routines. Walking to see friends has the added benefit of social interaction – and maybe even a chance to vent – while a Park Run could help you meet new like-minded people.
The NHS confirms that exercise can reduce the risk of major illnesses by up to 50% and lower your risk of early death by up to 30%.
2. Enjoy a healthy diet
Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet is another simple way to help reduce your stress levels.
Eating regularly helps maintain a healthy blood sugar level, while the right balance of fats, vitamins, proteins, and minerals can keep your brain working well, regulate your mood, and keep your body and mind healthy.
The NHS Eatwell Guide divides food and drinks into five groups including fruit and vegetables, carbohydrates, and unsaturated fats. You should eat foods from each group while avoiding foods high in fat, salt, and sugar.
Staying hydrated is important too. As is keeping track of your caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine intake. Drinking, smoking, and eating can all be used as stress relief during difficult moments but might actually add to your stress over the long term.
3. Try mindfulness
Taking time out of your day to relax and de-stress is crucial. This might involve a lunchtime walk or morning run, but it could also involve mindfulness techniques like deep breathing or meditation.
Whether you’re a mindfulness novice or an old hand, there are apps on the market that can help you to fit mindfulness into your busy life, helping you to de-stress on the move.
The market leaders are Calm and Headspace. Both offer meditations, mindfulness masterclasses, and tips to aid relaxation and sleep, although Calm arguably has the more extensive content library. An annual subscription to Calm currently costs £28.99 although special offers can lower this considerably so keep an eye out.
Headspace is great for beginners and offers 10-minute sessions ideal for fitting into a lunchtime or commute. Access to the full service will set you back £9.99 a month or £49.99 for the year.
Mindfulness could help you to take stock, be present in the moment, and give you the time to process your own thoughts and feelings, hopefully improving your mood and overall mindset.
4. Get enough rest
According to the NHS, most adults need around eight hours of good-quality sleep a night to function properly.
Lack of sleep can cause short-term issues like tiredness, irritability, and difficulty maintaining focus. Persistent difficulty sleeping can have more significant effects, putting you at greater risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
A healthy and active daily routine, with plenty of vitamin D and a healthy diet, should help ensure a night of high-quality rest, but your evening routine is crucial too.
Switch off from the stresses of work, either by using a mindfulness app or using another technique that works for you, like reading, listening to music, or taking a long bath.
Turn off electronic devices – whose blue light can detrimentally affect your body’s natural rhythms – and avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and exercise too close to bedtime.
Finally, be sure that your bedroom is conducive to a good night’s sleep by carefully moderating the light, noise, and temperature.
5. Reset your goals and make sure they’re realistic
Setting goals can be a great way to order your priorities and you’ll gain a sense of accomplishment when tasks are complete. If your goals are unrealistic, however, you’re unlikely to achieve them. This can leave you feeling like a failure, unfulfilled and stressed.
Re-examine your goals to make sure they are realistic. Remember that incomplete tasks or results that don’t live up to your expectations don’t have to equal failure.
Concentrating on the positives – maybe by remembering your daily accomplishments or listing your strengths – can help you to stay positive and boost your self-esteem. Focus on the things in your life that you have control over and try to let go of those you can’t. This should help you avoid unnecessary stress and improve your overall mental wellbeing during Stress Awareness Month and beyond.