Every day, in my work as a professional coach, I work with people who are struggling under the weight of work-related stress, who are worrying, fearful of things going wrong, feeling overwhelmed and under a level of pressure and expectation they can’t cope with, finding it hard to get a good night’s sleep, unable to switch off from work to relax and noticing it’s increasingly difficult to focus at work during the day. Some are considering leaving their jobs or closing their businesses as a result.
As it’s mental health awareness week this week, I thought I would round up some of the things you can do yourself to help reduce your stress levels and and manage the stress that does occur more successfully.
There are lots of ideas here. If stress is a big feature for you right now, I recommend you’re kind to yourself and start by picking just one to begin with, making one small change at a time as you feel able – you can always add more later.
- Laugh more
Laughter makes our brain release endorphins and reduces cortisol (the stress hormone).
It doesn’t take long to have an effect – if you’ve got half an hour free for an episode of your favourite sitcom, great. But if all you have is ten minutes while you grab a sandwich, you now have an actual bonafide reason to browse funny cat videos during your lunchbreak!
Even fake laughter has the same physiological and neurological effect as real giggles. So, if you drive to work, you could try making laughter a daily habit - laugh the first or last ten minutes of your commute, and arrive at work feeling lighter and less stressed. (Of course, you can do this on the train/bus too, but you might get some odd looks!)
2.Get Outdoors into Nature
According to a new study, just 20 minutes a day spent outside amid the greenery is enough to significantly reduce levels of your stress hormone, cortisol.
Getting outside into natural daylight during the late morning/early afternoon can also boost your body’s melatonin production later in the day, helping you sleep better.
Just sitting out there is enough to get the effect, but of course regular exercise helps your stress too, thanks to the hormonal changes it promotes. So taking a daily walk through the park, mindfully noticing the greenery around you as you go, is possibly one of the best prescriptions for your stress you’ll find…and of course it’s free!
3. Get Enough Sleep
Getting good sleep is vital for both stress prevention and stress management
A recent study undertaken in the US suggested that losing just 16 minutes of sleep a night was enough to affect your productivity and stress levels the next day.
Having an early night is a great idea….having an earlier night every night, better still.
This can be one of the toughest vicious cycles of all to break when you’re really stressed: long working hours, lack of relaxation and your worries, which both contribute to and result from your stress, lead to lack of sleep… and the lack of sleep leads to an increase in levels of your stress hormone, cortisol
If stress and lack of sleep are going hand-in-hand for you right now, and you’d like some help to break the cycle, please get in touch with me.
4.Change your thinking about relaxation
So many of us see relaxation and down-time as a reward – the treat we earn for working hard/juggling work and family all week/achieving a high enough stress level to make us worthy of a break.
Or, if not a reward, then relaxation is what we do to recover from our stress.
And if not reward, or recovery, then it’s what we do when we finally feel it’s been long enough since last time we did it that we possibly don’t need to feel completely selfish about doing it now.
That’s all Fake News.
Relaxation has a different, more important role to play – that downtime is what we need in order to prevent stress in the first place.
So please, do yourself a massive favour and stop seeing it as a treat, or a reward, or something you only do on Saturdays, or something that’s selfish.
It’s essential. It’s a priority if we are not going to be exhausted, stressed and burned out.
Take time away from work and life responsibilities to do something every day that is relaxing, and allows you to switch off . Schedule it in, the same way you’d schedule time to eat dinner, or take a shower. It’s every bit as important.
Research last year by the International Stress Management Association showed that the “always on” connectedness of personal devices was a significant cause of stress for many people.
If you’re finding the constant connection to work via your phone, or to business via social media apps, a stressor, here’s some things you could try to reduce that:
- Have a separate phone and/or social media accounts for work. Switch them off at the end of your working day and over the weekend so work doesn’t encroach on life so easily.
- Develop a routing of having some time each day where you switch your phone off or leave it somewhere unaccessible and are able to truly connect with what’s around you again. Start small – just 20 minutes while you have a cup of tea, or an hour while you catch up with your favourite TV drama, maybe.
- Leave devices out of the bedroom – charge them downstairs overnight, and give yourself a more relaxing start to the day.
- Switch off social media notifications to stop your phone from vibrating every five seconds and allow you to take control of when you choose to check for messages.
6.Make A Note
There’s been a wealth of research into the positive psychology of gratitude, or the art of being grateful. Proven benefits include greater resilience, higher self esteem, and a plethora of positive impacts on emotional well-being including increased happiness and reduced resentment and frustration. A 2011 study even showed that people who wrote a nightly gratitude journal slept better.
Here’s how to do it: Take five minutes before going to bed to write down something good that happened during the day, and three things you’re grateful for.
In addition to the benefits mentioned above, doing this during times of stress helps you focus for a while on the things in your life that you love, that make you happy and that are going well. Remembering each night that not everything is stressful, difficult or troublesome allows you to find a little more balance in the way you are thinking about life and can help you get more helpful sense of perspective.
7.Sing in the Shower
It helps you take in more oxygen and release endorphins and oxytocin, the happy hormones
And, while you’re singing, you stop thinking about the things that are causing you stress, and give your brain a rest.
It doesn’t take any extra time in your day – you’re in the shower anyway.
And it generally makes you smile.
8. Express Yourself
You know that moment when you can feel the blood pressure rising and you just want to go “aaaaaaaaargh, I can’t cope/how dare they do this/I’m bloody fuming/this has all got too much” (etc)…..
…..well do just that!
Expressing how you feel - whether it’s by talking to someone, writing it all down, having a private rant (out loud works best) to yourself, crying and screaming, or even writing a song or creating a drawing about it – helps you complete the stress response cycle, calm down and allow yourself to start thinking more logically and rationally about the situation.
Which means you can start to take control of the things you can control, let go of the things you can’t, and make useful decisions that will help you solve the situation in a helpful way.
9.Hunt out a Hug
Stress is a physical response to the fear you feel as a result of a real or perceived threat of danger.
Having a hug is one way to complete the stress response cycle and stop the flood of cortisol, even if you haven’t got rid of the stressor itself: you hug, you feel safe, your brain releases oxytocin (the happy hormone) and the stress response ends.
Aside from hugging while you’re actually feeling stressed, studies have also shown that people who hug more often are more likely to stave off illness and have lower stress levels generally.
10.Take a Deep Breath
We’re talking both literally and metaphorically here.
Let’s start with the literal: when you breathe deeply, slowly and deliberately, breathing out for longer than you breathe in, you create the physiological changes needed to stop the immediate stress response.
Try breathing in for the count of 7 and out for the count of 11 for a minute. Or go outside and blow some bubbles!
Taking a metaphorical breath and giving yourself time to think will help too. Try these four simple questions when you’re feeling stressed:
- How will being stressed help me here?
- What would it be more helpful to think or feel?
- What can I control about this (and what can’t I?)
- How can I make the best of this situation?
I’m Jo Lee, the No Stress Success Coach. I help business owners and career professionals make changes that reduce their stress levels so they can perform better at work and get more enjoyment from their work and life again. Please get in touch if you'd like to find out more about how I may be able to help you.