Ever feel like you have too many balls in the air, tasks on the go, or just too much load to carry? In our modern lifestyles I don't know anyone who is immune to the pressures we all face trying to juggle work, family, plus just time for your own self care, it's exhausting just thinking about it all sometimes!
Stress has become a chronic condition in our lives, and the UN has gone as far as calling it the 21st century health epidemic. 80-90% of diseases are stress related, and it's a factor in nearly 5 of 6 deaths, yet we continue on with our busy lives, not really paying heed to warning signals.
The advent of social media and constant email streams means we are never detached from our phones and computers, and there is a constant pressure to instantly respond. Life's pace just seems to increase every year without any sign of slowing. Some even wear their busyness as a badge of honour, however we can't keep living at this speed without consequences on our physical and mental health.
Understanding the Fight or Flight Syndrome
The fight or flight syndrome is our body's acute stress response to a perceived threat or danger.
During this reaction, hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, speeding up our heart rate, our blood pressure, slowing our digestion, and changing other autonomic nervous functions. It gives the body a burst of energy and strength to give us the ability to run away from a perceived threat.
These are all things designed to keep us safe, and there is a definite need for it in some circumstances where we might be in real danger. However, now it's being activated when the response isn't appropriate, say we are in busy traffic or a stressful day at work.
If we were faced with a real danger, after the perceived threat is gone our bodies would return to normal in about 20 - 60 minutes. However during times of chronic stress this never gets turned off, leading to a constant state of arousal and causing long term damage to our bodies.
Heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, auto immune diseases, plus many other chronic health issues, are all on the rise. Women in particular are affected by constant high cortisol levels, as it creates havoc with hormones and can even affect fertility.
We have normalized the fight or flight syndrome, but we don't recognize it, living in hyperactive states, many of us have lost the ability to rest, or even just be still.
Do you feel like you fit into that category?
So what can we do?
Below I've explored different techniques and lifestyle shifts that we can experiment with to help reduce our stress levels, and bring more joy into our lives.
3 Breaths Technique
Taking 3 deep slow breaths into the diaphragm is the quickest, most effective way to decrease our stress levels and turn off the fight or flight mode, as it calms the autonomic nervous system which operates below our level of consciousness.
We can do this as many times as we like throughout the day. Whenever you are feeling overwhelmed just take a moment to close your eyes and slowly breathe. It takes less than a minute and helps you re-focus and bring back clarity into the mind.
Apart from the fact that exercise is a mood elevator, it can also decrease our stress levels by reducing fatigue, increasing our energy, stabilizing our moods, improving sleep, and our self esteem.
For added benefit, Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, Qi Gong are all breath focused exercise practices that also slow your nervous system.
Even 5 minutes of exercise can produce anti anxiety effects.
Meditation & Mindfulness
There are almost 10,000 pieces of scientific research now that meditation and mindfulness improves our health, our mental clarity, our immune function, lowers anxiety, can assist with pain management and improve our sleep.
There are some great apps; Headspace, Insight Timer, Simply Being and One Giant Mind are my favourites. You can take classes, and I also give 1:1 instruction for anyone wanting to explore meditation specifically for them.
Feel like you don't have enough time? Do you know meditation can actually help you be more productive and organized?
Be conscious of what you eat to keep your health at an optimum, and stick to whole foods, whole grains, vegetables, lean meats and fish.
Foods that are good for stress are green leafy vegetables, fermented foods, wild salmon, blueberries, nuts, seeds and avocados.
Foods to avoid are sugar, processed grains and processed foods.
Good news... chocolate is wonderful for stress; it has even been named as the new anti anxiety drug. It has a chemical reaction called anandamide, a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression. Just make sure that it's the good stuff! Dark and without any additives
Get Adequate Sleep
Lack of sleep and stress are a bit of a vicious cycle, with one contributing to the other, however there are things you can do to help get a better nights rest.
Have consistent bedtimes, going to bed and rising at the same time. For example to bed at 10pm, to awake at 6am.
No laptops, tablets or smart phones in bed or usage for the hour leading up to bedtime. The blue light that emanates from these devices disrupts our sleep rhythms.
Remove stimulants like coffee before bedtime as it activates our sympathetic nervous system. For me personally I can't have anything after midday, but in general a good rule is nothing 5 hours before you plan to sleep.
Also remember while alcohol can help us to fall asleep, it disrupts our deep REM sleep, not allowing a good nights rest.
Get out into the sunshine to increase serotonin levels, which is the hormone that boosts our mood. As we tuck ourselves away in offices, even in summer we can experience a lack of Vitamin D, which is not readily accessible via food.
Getting out for a 20min walk in the sunshine will do wonders for mind and mood.
Reduce Multi Tasking
Some of us pride ourselves on being able to multi task. However are you aware that every time you shift your focus you lose energy and also time in readjusting your attention. For example, if we multi task many times over a minute we burn up our energy reserves very quickly, so in effect wasting time and your precious vitality.
Stick to doing one task properly before moving on to the next.
Calm In Boxes
Depending on what is possible within your work, checking and responding to emails once in the morning and once in the evening stops the constant distraction of mails streaming in, and allows us to be more productive and focused during the day.
Now I know this is not always possible, however even if you are in a position where you do have to regularly check your email, think of ways you can set boundaries around it. For example, instead of multi tasking constantly, put time aside to check mails after completing other important to-do's on your list.
Limit Social Media
It's so easy to become mindless when we're bored or needing distraction to flick through our Facebook or Instagram pages, suddenly losing huge amounts of time. While I love social media and it has so many wonderful capabilities to help us stay in touch, and even promote our businesses, I recommend giving yourself a time limit and only check it once or twice a day.
Also remember people put their very best selves up on social media platforms, so do your best not to compare yourself and think everyone else's lives are looking perfect. We all have our ups and downs, but this is not what is portrayed, so it can increase our stress levels when we imagine that others are more progressed or leading happier lives than ourselves. And if you are going through a rough time I highly encourage you to avoid social media all together.
Are there things on your to do list that someone else could do? I resisted for years getting a cleaner, and spent all my energy on weekends cleaning rather than enjoying the time I did have to myself. This small cost now helps me keep my sanity and gives me some much needed downtime in a busy week. What could you delegate to help lighten your load?
What makes you happy?
What is your favourite hobby, or something you love to do? I encourage you to write down 10 things that make you happy. How can you incorporate these into your day?
Often when we are focused on a task we love this is a form of mindfulness and meditation, as we are tuned in and centred with what we are doing. It decreases stress and anxiety, plus it simply brings more joy into our lives.
Stress is something that can't be avoided in our modern world, however we can have techniques to minimise it and assist us to decrease our anxiety levels. I highly encourage everyone to have a stress management routine, to help you feel more productive, develop a sense of balance and to increase your overall happiness.