11 simple ways to help you go from down and out to calmed down and chilled out
Stress has come to define so many modern lives that it’s started to be seen as not only normal, but inescapable. That any life will contain certain stresses is normal, and indeed welcome in many ways, but add always-on overwhelm to brains and nervous systems not yet evolved enough to cope, and you have a world full of people not only in trouble, but unnecessarily believing that there’s nothing they can do about it.
The problem is getting worse, with millennials experiencing higher levels of stress and suicide than any of their predecessors. Even if you’re not a millennial, you’re affected by them – everyone pays when the biggest sector of the workforce spends less time producing goods and services and more time-consuming healthcare resources.
The usual go-to cures backfire. “The APA’s national survey on stress found that the most commonly used strategies were also rated as highly ineffective by the same people who reported using them.” Eating chocolate while binge-watching TV may feel like the solution, but it tends to bring more guilt than good feelings; perhaps not surprising, given that stress impairs judgment and decision-making.
On the whole, we’re as bad at knowing what to do about stress as we are at avoiding it in the first place. “We convince ourselves,” says Richard Carlson, in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, “that our obsession with our ‘to do’ list is only temporary – that once we get through the list, we’ll be calm, relaxed, and happy.” Which tends to be about as true as the belief that happiness is achieved by collecting the right job, house, spouse and children.
Given the scale of the problem, it’s no surprise that an enormous industry has emerged to ‘cure’ the symptoms, a wildfire of prescription pads fuelling a plethora of pharmaceutical solutions. Sadly, relatively little attention is paid to preventing these problems arising in the first place – which is a little mystifying when most of the causes of stress are down to choices made by their possessor; choices which, with a bit of work, can be changed.
Before looking at the best ways to re-engineer a stressful lifestyle, it’s worth noting that not all stress is bad. Challenging but achievable deadlines can increase productivity and job satisfaction. Competition can inspire positive actions in sports, business, and personal lives. There is always a degree of stress outside of one’s comfort zone, but that’s also where all growth and learning takes place.
Professor Ian Robertson of Trinity College Dublin said: “Stress can change the brain in positive as well as negative ways because its biochemical effects have an inverted U-shaped function such that moderate amounts of stress can push the brain to a ‘sweet spot’ of function, both cognitive and emotional”.
Psychologists use the terms ‘eustress’ and ‘distress’ to distinguish between good stress and bad stress. Eustress sharpens the senses and helps us push towards our goals. It’s characterised by short-term spikes in certain hormones, which return to normal when the goal has been achieved. This can often inspire positive adaptive change, making the body better able to cope with higher levels of stress next time, for example in the case of lifting weights. Distress, on the other hand, is less focused, hangs around in an unhelpful way and inspires no such positive adaptive response.
Physiologically, the body doesn’t distinguish between the two: that is up to us, and how we respond to the stress signals. Steve Maier at the University of Boulder, quoted in David Rock’s Your Brain at Work found that this is primarily a function of perceived control, that “only uncontrollable stressors cause deleterious effects. Inescapable or uncontrollable stress can be destructive, whereas the same stress that feels escapable is less destructive, significantly so.”
The key is balance. Exercise, for example, can both increase and reduce stress, depending on how hard you push it and how well you recover. Admitting you are stressed is one thing; wearing it as a badge of honour is quite another.
Understanding the physiology of stress is key to understanding how to manage it. Like labelling emotions makes it easier to get them under control, understanding chemical processes makes them easier to override.
Because the body isn’t always expert at knowing why it’s doing what it’s doing – is it happy because it’s smiling, or smiling because it’s happy? – it’s possible to counteract the physical symptoms and simultaneously change the emotions associated with them. This is at the heart of most of the best stress-management techniques.
The link between emotions and physiology is a two-way street, and it’s often far easier to control the body than it is to control the mind.
This idea was developed in the late 19th Century by William James and Carl Lange, who demonstrated that the physiological change comes first, with each emotion taking its cue from what the body is doing. This can be used to the advantage of people on dates on rickety bridges, mistaking fear for romantic arousal, and by the stressed to calm down.
When danger is sensed, information is sent from the senses to the amygdala, which dials the body’s emergency services’ switchboard, the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus tells the autonomic nervous system (ANS) how to respond to the emergency.
In an emergency, the ANS’s rapid-response unit, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), gets set for fight, flight or freeze by pumping the bloodstream full of epinephrine (adrenaline). This kicks into action a combination of increased blood pressure, blood flow, heartbeat, breathing and muscle tension, and allocating resources away from non-urgent activities like digestion. All this happens before you’ve even really worked out what the danger actually is.
If the danger passes quickly (e.g. you realise that a spooky shadow on the wall was actually an innocent but artistically positioned coat-stand), then the SNS packs its kit away and swaps shifts with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) team, which is responsible for calming everything down.
If the danger doesn’t pass, then the SNS stays on alert, and is aided by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis – a complicated relationship of signals, the important part of which is that they combine to trigger the release of cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that helps pump the body up and prime it for action (should it need to fight or flee).
When the danger has dissipated, perhaps because you’ve fought it off, flown far away from it, or it turned out not to actually exist after all, cortisol stands down and the PNS comes in to lead the pumped-up bodily functions through a relaxing cool-down session.
This is a fantastically evolved system that has kept the species safe through thousands of years of changing threats. However, it is increasingly unable to cope with the stressful situations in which we incessantly choose to place ourselves, keeping us on full alert in the face of ‘danger’ like unexpectedly low levels of social-media likes, rather than the danger of being attacked and eaten. This leads to chronic stress – a vicious cycle of physiological and emotional damage.
Stress response is partly determined by your genes. Research has shown that “personality type is associated with job stress and health, and a large portion of the differences in personality type – nearly 45% – can be attributed to genes.” Those same researchers estimated that “genetic effects are responsible for 32% of the person-to-person variance in job stress, 35% of the variance in job satisfaction and 47% of the variance in health problems.”
Why destressing is important
Persistently elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol damage the body in several ways, from causing high blood pressure and increased risks of heart attacks, strokes, and weight gain (both directly through eating more and storing more fat and indirectly by decreasing sleep and exercise) to migraines, stomach ulcers and bowel issues, sexual dysfunction, low energy, muscle pains, excess sweating and an increased susceptibility to colds and other illnesses.
And if you’re looking to increase performance, note that in his book, The Primal Connection, Mark Sisson describes how the success of high-level athletes was closely linked to the relative absence of stress from work and other obligations, picking on the difference of those who’d rush through a lunchtime workout versus those who had adapted the rest of their lives to allow for the sort of recovery that enhances performance: “Embracing life both with purpose and at a more leisurely pace produces extraordinary results.”
There are also the adverse emotional effects of depression and low self-esteem, anger, mood swings, insomnia, avoiding social situations, and fuelling addictions. “The one-two punch of a revved-up amygdala and a weakened hippocampus,” says neuroscientist Rick Hanson, “can lead to feeling a little upset a lot of the time without exactly knowing why.”
As well as breaking your body, and messing with your mood, chronic stress also inhibits your intelligence. “Stress damages virtually every kind of cognition that exists. It damages memory and executive function. It can hurt your motor skills… You can actually watch the brain shrink.” Part of this shrinking is directly related to the hippocampus, which, when damaged, further reduces our ability to control stress. Another part is in the prefrontal cortex (which means worse focus, decision-making, and social interactions). This sort of brain damage has been linked to mental health issues and Alzheimer’s disease.
Unsurprisingly, these issues can manifest themselves at work, leading to absences, lateness, poor decision making and job performance, workplace accidents, violence, and turnover.
Managing stress is a key component of living a happy life. One study found that “25% of our happiness hinges on how well we’re able to manage stress.”
The effective management of anything, from a business, to your finances, to working towards an exercise goal, begins with a plan.
According to one survey, the stress-management technique that worked best was planning, i.e. “fighting stress before it even starts, planning things rather than letting them happen… that means planning your day, your year and your life so that stress is minimized.”
When it comes to stress management, the importance of having a plan is in establishing a feeling of control. Because even illusory feelings of control can help us feel calmer and combat the unnecessary tension and poor decision-making associated with being in a stressed state.
This plays by the same psychological rules as those which explain why we’re such fans of stories and why we’re always looking for patterns in random data – because where there’s a pattern, causes can predict effects and future troubles can be more easily avoided.
While this very often isn’t true, our brains don’t know this, therefore constructing a framework of control and a purposeful roadmap of actions to take can be used to calm our heads down and lower stress. It’s not the difficulty of a journey that stresses us out: it’s the uncertainty of which step to take next.
As well as disliking uncertainty, we dislike unfinished or interrupted tasks (this is the basis of the ‘Zeigarnik effect’ which has been used to explain why we obsess about unfinished work away from the office and why we get songs stuck in our heads).
Job stress has been shown to run counter to the amount of clarity someone has in their role: i.e. the more exactly you know what you have to do, the less the demands of actually doing it affect you.
Scheduling time to ‘worry’ (a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy technique known as ‘stimulus control’) has also been shown to decrease stress – the idea being that rather than paying attention to your worries as and when they arise isn’t very helpful, and it’s far better to store them up and deal with them at a set time, so they don’t get in the way of what you need to be doing at other times
Quite why this works is debatable – but it’s probably a combination of a feeling of control, an encouragement to be more thoughtful about the worries, and the simple act of writing them down.
1) At work – Make sure you know what is expected of you. And don’t take your work home; make a plan for how to deal with any difficult tasks before leaving the office and don’t return to them until you come back tomorrow.
2) At home – If worries are getting in the way, put them in their place: schedule time to deal with them, or at least write them down and think them through rather than getting stuck in a circle of surface-level worry.
Exercise… and recovery
Once you’ve got a plan, it’s time to get physical. We saw earlier how important physiology is in understanding, and then combating, stress. Crudely, if your body is stressed when it is experiencing certain physical symptoms, then stop the symptoms, and stop the stress.
Physical control starts with movement.
Exercise has been shown to be as effective as anti-depressant medication and psychotherapy. As an added bonus, moving about has many more positive secondary benefits than popping pills or lying on an expensive couch.
Exercise is rightly lauded as a ‘miracle cure’ for innumerable health issues, including stress.
Remembering that stress is chiefly a problem of the brain, it is no surprise that exercise is so effective, given its powerful link to ‘neurotransmitters’ – the means by which your body talks to your brain. Exercise helps balance out the different types of neurotransmitters, keeping those like serotonin (which make you happy) high enough, and keeping those like dopamine, (which keep you alert) in check, so you’re not stressed out by feeling as though you’re always on the look-out for lions. Exercise keeps us energised, excited and enthused.
Studies with rats, as described in John Ratey’s Spark, “show that if researchers exercise rats that have been chronically stressed, that activity makes the hippocampus grow back to its pre-shrivelled state.”
The importance of balance extends outside of the internal chemicals: just like overactive hormones can cause trouble, so can overactive bodies. Exercise without adequate rest can increase, rather than control, stress.
Going to gym 6x per week is not twice as good as 3x. Too much exercise, or inadequate recovery can lead to adrenal fatigue. Your adrenal glands work with your nervous system to equip you for responding to real stressors – real lions – by the methods associated with the sympathetic nervous system introduced earlier, e.g. raising your blood pressure and increasing your heart rate. These are supposed to be short-term.
Overtraining can also lead to injury, which can lead to an emotional slump, negating any potential benefits.
“If you can learn to control your breath, you can learn to control, or at least influence, how you feel both emotionally and physically” – Sam Dworkis, author of Recovery Yoga
1) Just move – Sit only when you have to. If you use public transport, try standing at all times – it may be tough to start with, but it gets much, much, easier very quickly, we promise!
2) Exercise – Whatever works for you. Aim for some form of vigorous exercise three times per week. It doesn’t need to be long – even a few minutes of all-out effort (e.g. sprinting on the spot, if you’re stuck for space) can be enough to kick-start serious improvements in your health. As a guide, follow the Tabata protocol of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest, repeated for between 4 and 20 minutes.
3) Recover – There’s no point pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion if that’s where you stay: it can take months to undo the damage of adrenal fatigue. Check your recovery with a daily Heart Rate Variability (HRV) monitor and when your body is telling you to rest, listen to it.
Closely linked to exercise is mobility – which could mean stretching, massage (self-directed or with the help of a friend), or movement-based activities like yoga or tai chi. All of these options provide greater control over your blood flow, your ability to relax, your heart rate, your muscle tension and can aid your recovery from exercise.
Moving your tissues around can be just as beneficial as moving your body around – and, depending on what motivates you, can also be more enticing.
As Alex Korb explains in The Upward Spiral: “The results are fairly clear that massage boosts your serotonin by as much as 30 percent. Massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine levels, which helps you create new good habits… Massage reduces pain because the oxytocin system activates painkilling endorphins. Massage also improves sleep and reduces fatigue by increasing serotonin and dopamine and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.”
You can also gain some of the relaxation benefits by making use of your body’s slightly confused relationship between emotions and physical states. Just as you can feel happier simply by forcing a smile, you can feel relaxed emotionally by relaxing physically.
1) Get a massage
2) Do some yoga or tai chi
3) Work on your mobility – Find a local practitioner or indulge in a spot of personal DIY physical maintenance.
4) Consciously relax your body – Whenever you’re feeling tense, clench up your muscles, especially your face, and then let it all go. Just like deep breathing, your brain will interpret this as meaning you are relaxed and your emotions should respond accordingly.
5) Check your posture – One of the simplest ways to improve your body is simply to be aware of it and make minor adjustments throughout the day. When you catch your reflection in a window, are your heels, hips, shoulders and ears aligned? Are you standing with parallel feet pointing forward? If not, get into line and get on with your day. This will also help with your breathing, which we’ll come to next.
In our checklist of physical sympathetic-nervous-system symptoms, we’ve dealt with bloodflow, muscle tension and adrenal fatigue. Now it’s time for breathing.
Have you ever tried being stressed while breathing slowly and deeply? It’s impossible. A lot of the physiological cues of stress – increased heart-rate, hunched shoulders, shallow breathing itself – are all incompatible with slow, deep breathing. You can control your mood by controlling your breath.
Inside the body, slow breathing enhances parasympathetic activity in the brain (as we saw earlier, that’s the calming bit, rather than the fight, flight or freeze bit) by stimulating the vagus nerve. Rapid, shallow breathing does the opposite, firing up the sympathetic nervous system and getting us primed for action – great if there’s a tiger or a finishing line in sight, but problematic if you’re simply stuck in traffic.
Speedy shallow breathing may happen instinctively, but that doesn’t mean it has to continue for more than a few seconds: it is within your control to calm down whether you’re in a cold shower or about to propose.
If you need a boost, splashing your face with cold water also stimulates the vagus nerve, leading to the same physiological response.
In Breathe, Belisa Vranich describes, among many exercises to improve your breathing, the difference between horizontal and vertical breathing. Horizontal breathers keep their necks and shoulders still when they breathe, with their middles expanding in all directions from under the pecs to the pelvis. They do not get taller or lengthen. This is what you want to aim for.
“If you can learn to control your breath, you can learn to control, or at least influence, how you feel both emotionally and physically” – Sam Dworkis, author of Recovery Yoga
1) Slow down your breathing – Breathe in slowly through your nose for six seconds. Pause for two seconds. Exhale through your nose for six seconds. Repeat until calm.
2) Observe your breathing – What gets measured gets managed. Simply count your breaths for one minute. Once in and once out counts as one. Ideally you want to count something in single figures. Simply being aware of your breathing is often enough to lower the count.
3) Improve your Vital Lung Capacity (VLC) – The first step in improving your breathing is determining your baseline. Wrap a measuring tape around your torso, an inch below your sternum. Measure the circumference after an exhale and an inhale (breathing normally). Subtract the exhale from the inhale and divide that number by a tenth of the exhale. The result is your VLC. E.g. if your inhale circumference is 37 and your exhale is 35, your VLC is 57% (2/3.5). The bigger the better. Aim for 100%. The more you breathe ‘horizontally’, the better you’ll get.
4) Blow up a balloon – YGrab a balloon between your teeth. Lie on your back, with your arms by your sides and your legs in the air, bent at 90 degrees, so your calves are parallel with the ground. Maximise the distance between your shoulders and your ears. Keep your ribs in and your spine pressed into the floor. Blow up the balloon five times.
5) Splash your face with cold water – Fill a sink with cold water and plunge your face into it.
Meditation works in a similar way to a focus on slow, deep breathing. Have you ever tried being angry or upset when you’re focusing on the feel of your breath in your nostrils or when chanting a mantra?
Neuroscientist Rick Hanson wrote an entire book explaining how meditation can alter our ability to cope with stressful situations by rewiring our brains. “The simple truth,” he wrote, “is that how we focus our attention, how we intentionally direct the flow of energy and information through our neural circuits, can directly alter the brain’s activity and its structure.”
The great thing about rewiring your brain is that it gets easier and easier to keep going – you literally change who you are, for good: practice makes permanent. It needn’t take long before the neural path from stressor to calm reaction is as strong or even stronger than the path from stressor to acting like an angry infant.
Studies have shown an association between transcendental meditation and lowered blood pressure and decreased psychological distress. The same goes for Vipassana meditation. Other forms of meditation are available. Try a few and find which (if any) works for you.
Meditation is closely linked to mindfulness – living in the present. “Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there’ “, says Eckhart Tolle, “it’s a split that tears you apart inside. To create and live with such an inner split is insane. The fact that everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it any less insane.”
2) Transcendental Meditation
3) Just sit – Wherever you are, sit down, turn off the lights, shut your eyes, and focus on your breath.
4) Stop time travelling – As the saying attributed (without much evidence) to Mark Twain reminds us, most of our troubles don’t actually happen. Stop prank-calling your body’s emergency services! The exception: ask yourself if you’re going to stress about what you’re stressing about now in a year’s time…
Rewrite your story
You do not have to sit in silence on a cushion to turn your brain into a stress-busting machine.
You can achieve a similar effect by consciously rewriting the stories you tell yourself about who you are. This is, of course, easier said than done, especially where those stories have been repeated around the campfire of your mind for potentially many decades. However, done well, it can be the most powerful way to beat chronic stress for good.
Unfortunately, our brains have a bias towards negative thoughts, to prime us to avoid painful situations. This makes a lot sense in some ways – better to live another day than to end up as a lion’s lunch, for example – but far less in others. A tendency to compare ourselves to others and a focus on what we’re lacking rather than being grateful for what we’ve got do not serve us well, especially when the world to which we are comparing ourselves is now so much bigger than a handful of tribal peers.
Yet while few people deny that they can make themselves ill by thought, or at least inspire some sort of physical change that they’d rather not, for example blushing with shame, or sweating with fear, there is significantly less belief that we can do something positive with the same theory – that we can choose our physical wellbeing with positive and controlled thoughts.
The starting point for changing your reactions to your circumstances is to recognise that a lot of what stresses you out is a choice. In the words of William James: “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
Hear also the famous words of holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl: “Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance, to choose one’s own way.” If Frankl can choose his reactions in a concentration camp, there’s got to be hope for the rest of us to choose how we react to being cut off on the road, or seeing an apparently perfect life being showcased on Instagram.
As Richard Carlson wrote in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: “Your life will always be full of challenges. It’s best to admit this to yourself and decide to be happy anyway.”
Bearing in mind how difficult it can be to reach heightened levels of self-control, it’s not surprising that getting some help has been shown to have such positive effects. One of the most well-studied forms of therapy to combat stress is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT interventions have been shown to be effective in many stress-related situations, for example in tackling work-based stress.
Unhelpful instinctive reactions will still arise, but you need to do no more than observe them. Your actions can be guided instead by more mature, more helpful, reflections. Albert Ellis, who developed one of the earliest cognitive-based psychotherapies (REBT) has said: “I can just about promise you this: The more scientific, rational, and realistic you become, the less emotionally uptight you will be.”
The stigma attached to therapy in certain circles is one of the biggest puzzles in healthcare. Few would argue that chronic stress is a problem for your health, just like an injury or an illness. Yet the difference in willingness to visit a therapist relative to a physiotherapist or a doctor is stark.
Just as you may benefit from rethinking your attitude to therapy, you can benefit from rethinking your attitude to stress in general. Tony Robbins, for example, says that “stress is just the achiever word for fear.” Switching from an external to an internal scorecard – judging yourself on your own terms, not those of others (especially an imaginary collection of others) – is ultimately the only sustainable way to judge your success.
Use the Japanese principle of ‘kintsugi’ as your guide: the tradition of repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer, celebrating the ‘broken’ part of an object as a beautiful part of its history, rather than treating it as an unwelcome fault.
“If you can learn to control your breath, you can learn to control, or at least influence, how you feel both emotionally and physically” – Sam Dworkis, author of Recovery Yoga
1) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
2) Get support from friends – Talking through your stresses with supportive friends can help you see things from a different perspective, which is crucial in rewriting your stories. Surround yourself with positive people, and limit your time with those that bring you down.
3) Observe your stories – Every time you catch yourself telling yourself that you’re ‘not the sort of person that does X’, or ‘don’t like Y’ – stop and test it. Is it really true? Or is it a story based on circumstances that haven’t applied for years? Are you voluntarily narrowing the scope of circumstances in which you can be happy?
Music – both playing and listening – can engender mood-enhancing effects in a number of ways. It can motivate you, relax you, or just put a smile on your face, perhaps by triggering a happy memory (another proven method to decrease stress).
Music engages the most primitive parts of our brains (the limbic system). The limbic system is more directly associated with emotional responses than the more modern parts which are responsible for analytical thinking, for example.
For the full effect, neuroscientist Alex Korb, in The Upward Spiral, suggests going dancing, to combine music, exercise and being social.
1) Listen – Put on your favourite music, stop what you’re doing and listen. Feel free to breath nice and slowly while doing so.
2) Play – If you play a musical instrument, pick it up and play it. The focus on the skill required to play it will take your mind away from your troubling thoughts and the music itself will help to reverse the negative emotions.
3) Dance – The ‘all of the above’ option! Find a class or just dance around to your favourite tune at home.
If playing an instrument isn’t your thing, you can get similar benefits from learning something – anything – new.
As well as providing something positive to focus on rather than getting stuck in a vicious cycle of unhelpful negative thoughts, any sense of progress in a skill can provide a greater sense of purpose in life, which has been shown to lead to lower stress.
Choosing your area of learning carefully – such as learning a musical instrument, doing something that encourages you to spend more time outside, or even becoming an expert on stress – can provide additional stress-busting benefits.
It also actively combats one of the many downsides of stress – that of reducing cognitive function and your ability to learn new things.
1) Learn an instrument
2) Learn a language
3) Learn a topic – Become an expert on something – anything that interests you will do.
Check e-mails (and social media) less often
Checking e-mail operates on the brain in the same way as slot machines do: if you want someone to keep coming back for more punishment, make the rewards variable – i.e. dish them out in an unpredictable fashion.
An addiction to e-mail is arguably a much bigger problem than one to one-arm bandits, however; the stakes may be lower, but the number of people with unhealthy relationships with their computers and mobile phones far outnumber those in the casinos.
This has a huge problem for stress, with a direct link between checking your e-mail and keeping your brain on edge.
Constant checking of social media is an even bigger issue, because of the additional negative aspect of comparing yourself to unrealistic (and untrue) depictions of others’ lives.
1) Batch your e-mail – The ratio of times you really needed to check your e-mail when you did to the number of times you actually did check it is probably miniscule. Remember that e-mail works like a slot machine and that you’re often checking not because you need to, but because you’re addicted. Check only at set times to take back control.
2) Call technical support – If you need extra help, try a tool like Inbox Pause, to help build your e-mail into your schedule, rather than your schedule around your inbox.
When caught up in a stressful moment, especially one caused by an ultimately fairly trivial disagreement over a family or work matter, or a feeling about something over which you have little to no control, such as the actions of a politician being reported on the news, it can be difficult to put such events in perspective.
Remembering that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, that you are one of over 7 billion people on the planet alive at the moment and that there are probably another 100 billion who’ve been and gone, and that all those lives, with all their ups and downs, have all taken place on a tiny speck of a planet in an insignificant-looking part of an unimaginably large galaxy in an even-more-unimaginably large universe, a universe from which our humble planet will one day disappear in a ball of fire, should be enough to remind you that whatever you’re worried about right now probably isn’t quite as important as it appears.
Remember your Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
1) Wonder what is the worst that can happen. Chances are, it isn’t that bad and you are far from it.
2) Remember certain events you went through in your lifetime and where you are now. Chances are, your current concern is not nearly as bad as other problems you had in the past.
3) Share your concerns and worries with a close relative. Others are often very helpful in helping us take a step back and see things from a different perspective.
4) Book a counselling session. Professionals are fully equipped to help you.
Food and supplements
We saw earlier that one of the symptoms of an over-active sympathetic nervous system was directing blood away from digestion, in case it is needed by legs to run or arms to throw spears. In such a situation, the last thing you want to do is to make things more difficult for your digestive system.
Aside from the usual processed suspects, what your body finds difficult to digest is highly individual: dependent to a great extent on your genes and your eating habits. If you’re prone to stress, this is even more reason to ensure you’re eating a diet suitable for you.
And of course you want to ensure that what you’re eating is also nutrient-dense. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies will only add to your body’s troubles.
Be wary too of over or under eating; either could be a subtle symptom of stress. Remember also that an on-alert sympathetic nervous system makes you more prone to store fat, because your body is saying it regularly needs an extra burst of energy to get it out of danger.
If you’re following all of the above protocols, you hopefully won’t need much additional support, and we’d never advocate a long-term course of chemical assistance, the side effects of which – both emotionally and physically – are guaranteed to be worse than the side effects of exercising or breathing a bit more slowly.
One of the best-studied supplements for beating stress is Ashwagandha. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, i.e. a compound that helps the body adapt to, and therefore better prevent, the effects of stress. Ashwagandha “is supplemented primarily for its ability to prevent anxiety. Ashwagandha’s anti-anxiety effect is even synergistic with alcohol. It also shows promise for relieving insomnia and stress-induced depression. Ashwagandha can significantly reduce cortisol concentrations and the immunosuppressive effect of stress.”
1) Eat nutrient-dense and easy to digest food – As you should be doing anyway, of course. Consult a nutritionist to ensure your meals are tailored to your genes.
2) Supplement with ashwagandha – Take 300 mg once or twice per day on an empty stomach.
The tips and tactics above can be grouped into three main categories:
1) Choice – You can choose how your body acts: breathe deeply and slowly, relax your muscles, keep yourself fit and your circulatory system healthy. You can choose to think about irritating thoughts in a new way, to change the unhelpful stories you’ve chosen over the years to believe, but which don’t need to be true, and you can change these irrational beliefs by acting against them. You can choose to focus on what you have (which is probably more than 95% of the world – and who can’t be happy with that?) rather than what you’ve chosen to want. Choose to put your troubles in perspective – the bigger the better.
2) Control your environment – You can help yourself out by eliminating as much stress as possible: check your e-mail and social media only at set times, surround yourself with positive people and distance yourself from negative ones. Make a plan, and stick to it – becoming increasingly strong and adaptable so when times get tough you’re well prepared. Set yourself up for feelings of control; even illusory feelings of control can eliminate stress.
3) Call for help – Share your stresses with your friends; it’s almost inevitable that they have some too: you’re not alone. And if you’re unwell, go to the doctor, in this case, a therapist, e.g. one trained in CBT. This can be especially helpful if the change you require is a big one, e.g. leaving a career or a relationship that brings you daily, otherwise inescapable, stress.
Whatever you do, do something. As Albert Ellis said: “No matter how clearly you see that you upset yourself and make yourself needlessly miserable, you rarely will improve except through work and practice.”
And finally, never, ever, sweat the small stuff: don’t stress about being stressed.