Stress is one of the biggest health challenges we face today. While a small amount of positive stress can be good for us, ongoing chronic stress can lead to or exacerbate many serious health problems. And with Coronavirus also currently testing the health and well-being of the globe, many of us have seen our stress and anxiety levels rise rise accordingly.
Since 1992, April has been Stress Awareness month, and this year, it's clear the need for stress awareness is as strong as ever before. In the US, more than 55 per cent of people claim to feel stressed during the day, a figure that’s well above the global average (35 per cent). And in the UK, nearly 75 per cent of adults say they have felt overwhelmed by stress at some point over the past year.
Indeed, stress isn't “just stress”, since it affects both our mental and physical health. Studies show a close link between stress and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Other side effects of unmanaged stress include anger, low self-esteem, loneliness, and poor memory. As for its potential impact on the body, stress can cause anything from headaches to digestive disorders, insomnia, skin and hair problems, and increased chances of developing heart conditions.
Since stress is so widespread, you may wonder if it’s possible to become stress-free at all. While that may seem hard to achieve there are definitely things you can do to reduce your stress levels that do not require a great deal of time or money. Here are 11 ideas you can try to reduce stress and start to feel the benefits quickly.
One of the first steps you can take is creating a stress-free environment. We can’t always do that at large scale, but there are little things you can do in you home and personal working space. Indoor plants, as humble as they may seem, have become increasingly popular recently and for good reason – they can boost enormously your ability to cope with stress.
In fact, a Japanese study compared the feelings produced by transplanting a plant vs working on a computer. The result showed that while the group who worked on a computer had higher blood pressure, those who interacted with plants felt calm and soothed. Indeed, adding indoor plants to your home environment can make a world of a difference.
Plants may reduce blood pressure and stress levels shutterstock/Amilao
Our bodies react to stress by going into overdrive. Studies confirm a link between slow controlled breathing and the nervous system: taking deep breaths reminds the brain that it’s time to calm down, and then the brain sends the same message to the body to stabilise the heart rate and release tension in the muscles.
If you’re not familiar with the benefits of controlled breathing, it’s time to explore some techniques that can help you control anxiety and help you feel stress-free. Check out the final tip in our article on mindful behavior for a great breathing technique that will relax you.
Exercise causes a spike in endorphins, one type of happiness hormone. To achieve a stress-free state, the key is to engage in physical activity regularly. The type and frequency of exercise depends on your preference and overall health status, but as a guideline, a Finnish medical study found that moderate aerobic exercise was best for higher endorphin levels. Some types of moderate exercise that can bring relief include cycling, brisk walking, dancing, and water aerobics. The impact of COVID-19 means we can't do all of these right now, but still try and do some form of exercise in your home or garden to keep your spirits up and mental health in check.
To become stress-free fast, add a mix of mood-boosting exercise with calming relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques like tai chi, meditation, yoga, or mindfulness have been practised for centuries. Consciously relaxing your body, or even parts of it, can slow down your heart rate, lower stress hormone levels, and boost confidence in your ability to cope with problems. Some techniques you want to try include progressive muscle relaxation, massage therapy, qi gong, and ashtanga yoga.
Aromatherapy has been around for thousands of years. Even in Ancient Egypt people were aware of the power of aromatic herbs and their role in well-being. The organs responsible for our sense of smell are directly connected to the parts of the brain linked to emotions, so exposure to certain scents can have a positive effect on mood and help reduce anxiety.
Lavender essential oil has been widely studied for its ability to induce calm, and it seems effective in the short-term treatment of anxiety and restlessness. Other essential oils to help you be stress-free include jasmine, bergamot, holy basil, rose, frankincense, vetiver and lemon balm.
Aromatherapy: sniff to reduce stress shutterstock/Madeleine Steinbach
We’re only beginning to understand the power of music and how it brings stress relief. If, as 17th century playwright William Congreve said, “music has charms to soothe a savage beast”, surely it can help us reach a stress-free state too?
One study compared stress levels in surgical patients who listened to music before an operation and those who didn’t, and found that those who listened to music had lower blood pressure and were said to feel less anxious. Some sounds and rhythms can be more effective than others.
Feeling overwhelmed by tasks or responsibilities is one of the most common causes of stress. Sometimes, the best response is to put everything on hold and do nothing but take care of yourself: something many of us are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If doing nothing is not an option, consider doing less or doing things at a slow pace, or doing them mindfully. Mindfulness gives you a chance to slow down, focus, and become more aware of your reactions. It has also been connected to lower activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers fear and stress responses.
Visualisation techniques can have a calming effect when stress becomes too much to handle. Immerse yourself in a scene that makes you happy and relaxed, and recreate every sensory aspect of the scene, from the smells to the sights or the sounds. By focusing on the sensory experience as a whole, you direct your attention away from sources of stress. Once that happens, your brain will also signal your body to relax.
Researchers have found that visualisation (also called guided imagery) can boost mood and improve depressive symptoms in multiple sclerosis patients, so it surely can have a beneficial stress in everyday life too.
A burden shared is a burden halved, so don’t hesitate to talk someone close to you if stress begins to take over. Sharing your worries can bring a sense of relief, and scientific evidence supports this. A study found that disclosing feelings of worry and anxiety to someone sympathetic reduced cortisol, the stress hormone. Sometimes you may even prefer to talk to a stranger. Talking therapy is effective in stress relief, whether it’s in person or over the phone.
Talking is a therapy in itself to lower stress shutterstock/Monkey Business Images
Did you know that certain vitamin deficiencies can lead to increased feelings of stress? A stress-free diet should be especially rich in B-complex vitamins. Some researchers suggest that these vitamins can lower homocysteine, an aminoacid that spikes in stressful situations.
So, it’s a good idea to revamp your meal plan to ensure it includes good amounts of vitamin B-rich foods, such as whole grains, legumes, dark leafy vegetables, seeds and nuts. Making this a habit can help lift your mood and reduce the mental fatigue brought about by stress.
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Sometimes, stress is a result of internal conflict. There are situations where we must choose between doing what we know in our hearts to be right, and pleasing others or dishonouring our core values. We all have certain values that guide our lives, so take some time to remind yourself of which are the most important to you. One of the steps towards being stress-free is resolving any tension or discrepancies between who you are and who you want to be. This is your opportunity to do just that and feel better. ●
During these though times, try not to let stress and rising anxiety levels get on the way of your happiness. While we all experience stressful situations, there’s no reason to be overwhelmed by then, since we have multiple tools to strengthen our inner self and become stress-free quickly. So why not give a try to the suggestions above during Stress Awareness month and beyond?
Main image: shutterstock/baranq
A social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.
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