This is a simple post, deliberately so. There is lots of advice out there about reducing stress, so much so that even finding it can be a stress-inducing experience!
Some ideas are easy to implement, some are more difficult and some require commitment – and patience. Even coaches can fall off the wagon sometimes and whenever I feel my own stress levels creeping up, I go straight for my own “Big Three“, which nearly always have a positive impact in quickly reducing stress.
Note that I’m not calling it exercise. Exercise is great, but it sounds like a bigger commitment than simply committing to being more active. Now, I’m a keen cyclist and I’ll move heaven and earth to get my lycra time but, in previous jobs, I can honestly say that I didn’t have time to exercise. When you’ve got a long commute, or when your diary’s littered with early starts and evening meetings, it can feel nigh on impossible to maintain any kind of fitness regime, but you can still be more active.
Increasing activity levels is known to be an effective strategy for managing stress. Physical activity produces endorphins in the brain, which can lift our mood and improve motivation, performance and concentration. Increasing activity can be a positive goal as we start to think about the new you, and it can also serve as a good motivator as it’s easy to measure and the results can be tangible – once your shin splints subside.
If you want to go all in, then join the gym, buy a bike or invest in some snazzy running shoes. If you want to start simple, try upping the amount of walking you do, either at home or near your workplace and try and increase it over a few weeks. I have a couple of simple rules I follow; when I’m at home or away, I’ll walk any distance up to about 30 minutes. When I’m in London, I try not to use the tube for any journey less than 2-3 stops. You can often spend longer getting to the platform!
In fact, when I first worked in London in my twenties, I would get off the train in Liverpool Street, cross to the underground and wait patiently for a Northern Line train to Moorgate so I could head up to the office near Angel. After a couple of weeks, I realised I could walk to Moorgate in less than 5 minutes, less time than it took me to change platforms and wait! After a couple more weeks, I realised I could walk the whole way to work in less than half an hour, which was a great way to get some bonus activity into an otherwise busy day.
For those of us outside of London, you can apply the same logic to your own commute, whether you can jump off the bus two stops early or maybe leave the car at home if it’s easy enough to walk or cycle. It all depends on your personal circumstances of course but, if you can get your activity up, it’s also a good way of improving mental health and unwinding after a busy day. How about meetings? Do you have to be in the board room, or can you walk and talk in the park?
Note that I’m not saying go on a diet. That may work for some, but for others it’s unrealistic and can make things worse by putting yourself under pressure to change everything overnight, or from Monday, which is when most diets tend to start. More simply, this is about making different choices, small changes you can make throughout the day which may have a knock on effect in reducing stress.
We all know that poor nutrition can not only exacerbate stress, but it can also lead to long-term physical problems such as heart disease, diabetes or obesity, so a few small changes here and there can also help your overall health and wellbeing.
For example, cutting down on sugar can help to reduce stress. Sugar can impact on our levels of adrenaline, the hormone which increases stress by inducing a “fight or flight” reaction within our body, making us feel on edge, irritable or anxious. If you can reduce sugar in hot drinks, switch to diet soft drinks or cut down on chocolate or processed foods, it can all help towards reducing stress.
Being more choosy about what you eat can help too. Certainly in the charity sector, which is where I’ve spent most of my career, dry sandwiches are the order of the day – especially at board meetings, conferences and other events. Working into the evening can also be commonplace, so grabbing a quick something at the supermarket or even fast food (guilty, your honour!) may fill the gap for a while, but you may wind up eating more before bed if you’re still hungry when you get home.
Some folk find a little time to prepare a packed lunch, rather than rely on the local supermarket to feed them. That way, you can be more mindful about your choices, take a little more time to include fruit or veg and try and get the right balance. If you don’t live too far from work, maybe you can make time to pop home for lunch or dinner so you get at least one good meal or, if you must eat out, try making time to sit and eat a little something properly rather than grab and go.
We all know that we need sleep, which provides our bodies and brains with an opportunity to rest and restore after another busy day and can help us wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go again. If you’re not one of the people writing on Linkedin about how you wake up at 4am and get another novel written before the dawn chorus, maybe you’re not getting enough sleep?
The frustrating thing about improving sleep, for me anyway, is that some of the potential strategies to help us get a good night’s rest are so obvious, but it’s so easy to forget all about them as we crash out on the sofa after another busy day! A good small change to start with is reducing caffeine, which can help to both reduce stress and improve sleep.
Caffeine can induce a similar stress response to sugar as it stimulates our adrenal gland, producing adrenaline – the flight or fight response – which, unless you’re about to be eaten by a bear, or run away from one, is going nowhere and can make you feel edgy or anxious. It goes without saying that you don’t want to feel like this at bedtime, so take it easy on the caffeine.
Now, here’s the bit where I get to crow about how I quit caffeine and turned my life around… No, not quite, but I did drink up to 10 cups of coffee per day, at one point. One of the problems of working in the charity sector is that people tend to be very nice and will often make you a cup if they’re making one for themselves, even if you don’t want one or haven’t asked for one.
In those days, I was rushing about all over the place and it no doubt contributed to my stress levels. I struggled to sleep, I was tired the next day, a bit sluggish and, I can admit it now, more than a little grumpy sometimes. These days I’m down to just 2-3 cups a day, rarely after 12pm and I’ve definitely noticed a reduction in stress. This works for me, but you need to find out what works for you.
Other strategies for improving sleep include developing a better bedtime routine, which might include things like taking a relaxing bath before bed, not working or checking emails for at least an hour before bedtime and, shocker, no phones in bed! Some people find it useful to practice breathing techniques when you get in bed to encourage your body to relax, whilst others find it useful to use imagery, such as picturing yourself asleep or imagining how awesome you’ll be tomorrow after a good night’s rest.
That’s it. Three simple strategies to reduce stress which you can start today. What small changes could you make that might help? Do you have go-to strategies to help reduce stress? What works for you?