Sally Brown June 27, 2017

Sally Brown takes a look at one of the biggest influencers of mental health: our stress levels.

According to a recent survey, over a third of us (36%) have felt under stress for more than six months, and over a quarter (28%) for more than a year. Stress is now the most common reason for long-term sick leave.

The science behind the stress

Despite its bad reputation, stress is a natural response, designed to keep us safe. When the brain thinks we’re under threat, it releases a ‘fight or flight’ hormone called cortisol as well as adrenaline. This is what causes our heart rate to speed up and it also causes energy to be diverted to our muscles. The latter is, believe it or not, to help us run away from or fight off predators.

The stress response also helps you focus when you’ve got something important to do, or take action in an emergency.

Occasional, short bursts of pressure are useful and harmless, but being permanently stuck in ‘red alert mode’ is a different story. Scientists have even found links between severe stress and increased risk of heart disease and diabetes and flare-ups of IBS or eczema.

Stress has an accumulative effect, like water dripping into a glass, so it’s important to learn strategies that help you personally ‘empty the glass’ every day, and stop it overflowing. Here are six simple ways to keep stress in check:

1. Breathe better

It’s physically impossible to feel both relaxed and stressed at the same time – like sneezing with your eyes open – and breathing exercises are a simple but effective way of forcing your body to relax. Set a timer for five minutes and try this twice a day:

  1. Put your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your belly;
  2. Inhale for to a count of two, exhale for a count of four, then pause for a count of four, before repeating;
  3. Try to focus your mind on the feeling of your breath going in and out of your body.

2. Be time affluent

Have you noticed how the standard answer to ‘how are things?’ is no longer ‘fine’ but ‘busy’? We’ve come to equate a busy life with a successful one. And while short periods of busy can be energising, in the long-term, feeling overwhelmed creates a particular type of stress known called ‘time anxiety’ which is a feeling that life is running out, and that time is passing by too quickly.

Feeling ‘time affluent’ by contrast brings a feeling of calm because it feels like you have enough time for activities that are personally meaningful. The key is dedicating at least 15 minutes a day to something we choose to do rather than something that needs to be done, be it reading a good book, or simply pottering in the garden.

3. Try ecotherapy

When you’re under stress, exercise can feel like the last thing you want to do. But 56 per cent of anxiety sufferers say exercise helps relieve symptoms, according to research by mental health charity Mind.

And the latest research suggests that just 30 minutes of moderate exercise like brisk walking or cycling helps you to resist feelings of stress for several hours afterwards. For best results, get outdoors and active in a green space, like a park, or near the sea or river – so-called ‘ecotherapy’ reduces stress, boosts mood and self-esteem and staves off depression, according to Mind.

4. Laugh every day

Laughter triggers the release of the happy chemical dopamine, which acts as an antidote to stress hormones. Just the anticipation of laughter is enough to reduce levels of stress hormones in the body, according to a study.

5. Worry well

Overthinking can create constant, underlying feelings of stress or anxiety, says clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd, author of This Book Will Make You Calm (Quercus). She suggests scheduling daily ‘worry time’ – setting aside 15 minutes a day to specifically think about your worries. ‘If worries come up during the day, tell yourself you’ll think about that at ‘worry time’ – make a note of them if it helps - then try to distract yourself by going for a short walk, doing some exercise, reading a book or phoning a friend,’ she says.

Then when ‘worry time’ comes, take a pen and paper and try to separate your worries into two lists - one of things you can do something about (list A), and things you can’t (list B). Try to think of practical strategies for dealing with list A, and tell yourself to let go of list B.

6. Do a good deed

Helping other people, whether strangers or friends and family, can reduce the damaging effects of stress on mental health, according to research from Yale University. ‘Doing something nice for a friend, or a stranger’ also has the Government’s stamp of approval as one of its recommended ‘5-a-day’ for mental health.

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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