Published: 12 April 2022. Written by: Hattie Parish.
If stress threatens to get too much, try these quick, simple and scientifically proven coping mechanisms to leave you calmer and more clear-headed.
You might feel the last couple of years have left you stress-proof – after all, we’ve made it through the worst of a global pandemic. But everyday stressors, such as work and family responsibilities, can still overwhelm us. So much so that 65% of people in the UK have reported feeling more stressed since the first lockdown in March 2020, according to a survey by packaging retailer RAJA. But what can we do about it? The good news is there are a number of effective, expert-backed ways to tackle stress.
What is stress?
First things first. It’s important to note that feeling stressed isn’t always a bad thing. ‘It’s normal to experience stress, and it can at times motivate us, and help us to meet the demands of home, work and family life,’ explains Belinda Sidhu, Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing at Vitality.
Zoë Aston, Mental Health Expert at Headspace and London-based psychotherapist, agrees: ‘Our stress response is what helps us survive dangerous situations. Short-term stress can even boost memory function and help us learn from our experiences.’
That being said, it is, of course, important to determine the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress, especially as too much can ‘affect our mood, our body and our relationships – particularly when it feels out of our control,’ advises Sidhu.
While it’s different for everybody, Sidhu suggests that signs and symptoms of ‘bad’ stress tend to fall into the following three categories:
- Behavioural eg having trouble making decisions, solving problems, concentrating or getting work done.
- Physical eg aches and pains, muscle tension or jaw clenching, stomach or digestive problems, bloating, high blood pressure.
- Emotional eg feeling more irritable than usual, getting angry or frustrated easily, feeling overwhelmed or on edge.
How can we manage stress?
Once you’ve identified the stress symptoms, it’s important to identify ways of managing it. ‘What helps us navigate stress best is to become aware of our own warning signs, which are alerting us to take some kind of restorative action,’ explains Suzy Reading, Chartered Psychologist and author of <Sit to Get Fit>. So, the next time you begin to see stress manifesting in your everyday life – or better, even before you do – try these easy and effective strategies to keep you on course:
To the brain, clutter represents unfinished business, and this looming presence of incompleteness can be highly stressful. ‘There has been lots of research which shows that decluttering can have a beneficial effect on managing stress,’ explains Sidhu. In one study, women who described their homes using more positive language had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than women who described their homes as cluttered.
Try taking a few minutes each day to tidy up a different area of your home. Use this time to put things away, recycle, set items aside for charity and to invest in smart storage solutions.
Time taken: 5 minutes
2) Have a cold shower
Wild swimming is a fitness craze you’ve no doubt heard of, but its popularity isn’t purely down to the fact that it’s great exercise. Cold water swimming is said to increase stress tolerance, improve mental resilience and boost levels of the ‘feel-good hormone’ dopamine, among other positive effects.
‘As stress and anxiety cause an increase in blood pressure, in theory, submerging or showering in cold water may help bring it down,’ says Sidhu. Cold water may also decrease levels of cortisol. If you can’t make it to a body of water, you can reap all the benefits from your shower, either by including a quick blast of cold at the end of your usual shower, or jumping in for a couple of minutes whenever stress threatens to overwhelm.
Time taken: 2-3 minutes
3) Limit mobile phone use
Lockdown led to a huge surge in screen time, with UK adults using their phone for up to 40% of the day. But having our phones constantly at arm’s reach means we are continually raising our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, impacting our health.
Plus, the constant stream of information, notifications and the expectation to be ‘always-on’ are key contributors when it comes to raising stress levels. ‘Technology has not been around quite long enough for us humans to have figured out the boundaries around it, unlike things like driving, smoking or drinking,’ says Aston.
So how do we limit our use? Aston suggests having regular ‘phone detoxes’. ‘Once a month, go through your social media and empower yourself by unfollowing or muting accounts that cause you stress or upset.’ She also recommends having your phone set to ‘do not disturb’ when at work, or with friends.
Time taken: 10 minutes
4) Practise self-care
An often-overlooked part of a busy schedule is self-care, but those who neglect it are at risk of deeper levels of unhappiness, low self-esteem and feelings of resentment. ‘Self-care helps us cope in the moment,’ says Reading. ‘It helps us to restore following challenging experiences, and gives us a protective buffer against future curveballs.’
Ideally, Reading says, self-care should be woven into your daily routine, and you can begin by looking at how you approach everyday activities such as showering, dressing and eating, as well as activities like yoga, breathing practices and journalling. Reading says, ‘It’s as much about skills like curiosity, compassion and appreciation as it is about taking the time out with a self-care practice.’
Time taken: 20 minutes
One survey, commissioned by Schulstad Bakery Solutions, found that of the top 50 things that make Brits feel the most content, spending time with our family or loved ones came out on top. And it’s little wonder – socialising (as well as things like hugging and hand-squeezing) increases levels of a hormone called oxytocin that decreases anxiety levels and makes us feel more confident in our ability to cope with stressors.
‘We benefit enormously when our loved ones can acknowledge and validate our feelings,’ says Reading. Even a quick chat on the phone during a stressful period can remove you from a situation and help you to gain more perspective.
Time taken: 10 minutes
6) Move more
It’s well-documented that exercise is a powerful stress-reliever as it increases feel-good hormones called endorphins. But you don’t need to be pounding pavements to benefit – in fact, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, just five minutes of movement is all that’s needed to feel a difference. ‘Moving your body can have immediate, positive effects,’ says Aston.
Busy day? Reading suggests breaking up sedentary periods with gentle, joyful movement every 30 minutes – and this can be something as simple as a stretch. ‘A simple stretch has profound effects on stress levels, mood, energy, mental clarity, digestive health and immune health.’
Time taken: 5 minutes
Only got a minute? Try these 3 super-speedy stress-busters
- Box breathing ‘Breathe in for three seconds, hold for three, breathe out for three and hold for three,’ says Sidhu. ‘Use this in the moment when experiencing heightened stress.’
- Chicken-wing shoulder roll Reading says: ‘Research shows that a tall upright spine lifts our mood and diminishes fatigue. With your fingertips on your shoulders, breathe in and sweep your elbows up. As you exhale, take your elbows back and down. Do six of these to feel lighter and brighter.’
- Grounding exercise ‘Use your senses and notice five things that you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste/or are grateful for,’ says Sidhu. This can be used to help you get through moments of stress and anxiety, and calm your mind.