As the days get shorter and the dark nights start creeping in earlier and earlier, you’d be forgiven for succumbing to the ‘winter blues’. It’s easy to get stressed about things when you leave for work when it’s dark and come home without seeing sunlight too. Everyone gets stressed sometimes, but it can be difficult to manage. And when stress might be the reason you’re not losing weight, it’s worth trying to combat it.
Dealing with stress is a really important part of keeping yourself healthy, so with Mind’s national stress awareness day just around the corner, we asked Alistair Murray, clinical director of NHS prescription reminder service Echo, for his top tips for managing stress.
Top tips for managing stress
Eat a healthy diet
This is easier said than done, but it’s something that’s vitally important for your health. And maintaining a healthy diet is not only good for your body, but for your general mental wellbeing too. While it may seem like you need things like caffeine and sugar to get you through a busy day, stimulants such as caffeine will only increase your stress levels, and it can also lead to a low when it wears off. Try to swap out caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, and fizzy drinks such as cola with water, natural fruit juices or herbal teas.
Eating refined sugars found in many manufactured foods, confectionery and even salad dressings and bread can also lead to a crash, which will make you feel tired and irritable. In general, try to stick to a healthy diet. Ensure you eat the recommended five pieces of fruit and veg a day, and make sure you eat enough food containing magnesium and vitamins B and C, such as citrus fruits, bananas, nuts, seeds, oats, brown rice, meat and fish, and leafy green vegetables.
Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and drugs
While these all may offer a short-term release, you should try to avoid them as much as possible – or at least cut down on how much you have. Over time, these substances will only serve to increase your stress levels, and relying on these crutches will not help your problems. Alcohol is both a stimulant in smaller quantities and a depressant when taken in larger quantities, and although nicotine may act as an instant stress relief, it can actually cause greater stress over time. It’s not quite as simple as just going cold turkey, we know, but any efforts you can make to cut back will have a positive impact on your stress levels and overall health.
Exercise is one of the most effective methods of both dealing with stress and avoiding it in the first place. Putting physical pressure on your body releases endorphins, which help to ease depression and anxiety. You can read about the ways in which exercise can help with depression here. Exercise will also distract you from your worries, leaving you with a clearer head to deal with the problems head-on. It will also ensure that you get better night’s sleep – in short, there’s a hell of a lot of benefits to exercising, and that’s before we even consider the impact it might have on your weight.
You will gain the most from 30 minutes or more of exercise, but it is perfectly ok to build yourself up gradually, every little helps! Activities can range from running or playing a team sport to a quick walk around the block, stretching exercises, yoga or simply putting on some music and having a dance. Whatever you choose, make sure you enjoy it, so you will want to keep at it.
Get more sleep
A lack of sleep is a major reason behind daily stress. Everything seems so much more stressful when you’re tired. Getting enough sleep can, of course, be difficult if you are stressed. However, there are a few steps that you can take to try and improve the quality of your sleep. Daily exercise and tiring your body out is an excellent way of preparing your body for sleep. Then, at bedtime, focus on relaxation. Turn down the lights, have a bath, and turn off all screens at least half an hour before you plan on going to bed, and you should hopefully find it easier to go sleep.
And as difficult as it sounds, try not to stress too much about sleep – lying in bed counting down the hours until your alarm goes off isn’t going to help and you’ll just get more and more worked up, so try and remember that even if you’re not asleep, being in bed completely switched off and resting is better than being up all night worrying.
Reach out and talk to people
The mere act of talking to someone and sharing your problems can help you manage your stress. Having a good support network of friends and family can help you find solutions to your problems and give you a sense of belonging and comfort, which can, in turn, help you when the going gets tough. If you don’t feel you can share your problems with loved ones, organisations such as the Samaritans are always available to listen, and going to your GP is always an option too. Remember that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ is a saying for a reason.
Manage your time effectively
Time pressures and constraints can often be a significant contributor to stress. Combating this with efficient time management is a great way to make deadlines less daunting and more manageable. Make a to-do list and set reminders to ensure that you prioritise the most important things and break your work down into smaller, more digestible chunks. This can help make a seemingly unmanageable task much more approachable. (Editor’s note: I personally really like Todoist, a to-do list app, and the Pomodoro technique, both of which have improved my productivity immensely)
Rest if you are ill
Don’t overwork your body when you are feeling under the weather. Pushing it to further extremes will not only prolong the illness but also increase your stress levels as you struggle to work as effectively as you do when you’re healthy. A short period of rest will allow the body to recover more quickly than if you force yourself to carry on.
Take time for yourself
It’s important to look out for yourself and not needlessly bite off more than you can chew. This applies to both your home and work life. At work, try to keep your workload manageable through good time management (see above) and remember to say no to projects if you don’t have the capacity.
Don’t be afraid to take time to yourself at home either. Take a few minutes every day to focus on yourself and choose to do a relaxing activity such as read a book or meditate. Practising meditation can help to clear your mind and to release yourself, mentally and physically, from the tensions of the day. Other things to do could be taking a long bath, or placing a heat wrap around your neck for a few minutes.
Don’t forget about your hobbies, too – we’re not saying that spending 8 hours at a time on Red Dead is the way to go, but if you enjoy gaming, playing games for an hour or so (or whatever floats your boat) will boost your mood.
Take a deep breath
While this may sound a little clichéd, taking some time to practise your breathing does help to calm you down and retain focus and clarity. Sit up straight, placing your hands on your belly and lose your eyes. Breathe in slowly through your nose allowing your belly to slowly expand, allowing the air to run through your body. When you near full capacity, push the air out through your mouth with a bit of pressure, releasing all your built-up tension. Practising this a couple of times a day can be very beneficial to managing your stress levels.
Don’t be afraid to take further action
If you’re really struggling with your stress levels and find that nothing you do helps, it might be time to seek further help. Depending on whether your symptoms are more physical (sweating, tremor, faster heart rate) or psychological (fear, disengagement, sadness, frustration), your GP can help you find a suitable medication to treat your individual set of circumstances if medication is warranted, which you can then manage using the Echo app, which reminds you to take your medication and prompts you when you need to reorder.
Stress is something that we tend to just accept as a part of our busy lives. How many times have you heard people say “I’m so stressed!”? Of course, feeling busy and under pressure is normal, but left unchecked, rising levels of stress can have a real impact on your mental and physical health, so take a moment to think about your stress levels and what you can do to help keep them at a manageable level.