Before delving in to this part 2, I encourage you to revisit part 1 to help you understand what stress is and how it influences our body systems, see link here.
Now let’s talk about how we can manage our stress levels. There are many ways in which people can improve their stress levels, however the important thing is finding what is right for you. Strategies that works for one person may not be right for the next, so keeping an open mind when giving new things a try is a great place to start.
A central aspect of stress management is to find balance in our lives. We know that we can’t eliminate stress all together, but we can influence our response to stress and how we cope with stressful times. Finding balance in our lives will benefit us in many more ways than just stress management, it will also give you greater appreciation in many other aspects of your life. Balance in the following areas of: exercise, mindfulness, breathing, sleep, and relationships are key to successful stress management.
Research has found that exercise is one of the best stress management tools, with the benefits extending further than just the way we feel. The benefits we see from exercise include increased energy levels, improved mood, a sense of achievement, improved sleep quality & quantity and improved self-esteem, all of which allow us to control our stress levels and implement coping mechanism to manage our stress.
However, it is important to remember that even exercise is experienced by our bodies as a form of stress, so if you are chronically stressed then it is crucial to find the right type of exercise as well as consider the amount of exercise you undertake.
Exercise doesn’t have to include going to the gym to lift heavy weights or exhausting yourself completing high intensity training, although there is great research behind both approaches. If you are someone that is just looking to do a little more and are not a fan of the gym environment, then walking more is a great place to start. Walking as little as 30 minutes per day can reduce symptoms of depression, improve mood levels and decrease our levels of cortisol (our stress hormone). If you can get a friend to join, then even better as this has shown to boost the benefits. Even spending time outdoors has been shown to help relieve stress, improve memory, attention and energy levels. So, if you have a chance to get outside and go for a quick walk, do it!
The most important part of selecting an exercise for the purposes of stress management is to find something that you enjoy doing. Consider not only the type of exercise, but whether you would prefer an activity that connects you with others, such as a team sport, or if your preference is for individual activities, such as running. Evidence shows that for exercise to become a habitual part of our lives, it needs to be something that we enjoy!
Thoughts & Mindfulness:
Our thoughts are the most powerful driver of our levels of stress. Our thoughts can either help us to cope with stressful events, or can increase our overall distress. The way that we think about situations impacts greatly on our experience of them, for example, a new role at work could be considered a fantastic opportunity to grow, or alternatively as simply more work and annoyance. Thinking in negative or unhelpful ways can result in increased levels of stress, with anxiety and depression related to unhelpful thinking patterns.
Positive thinking can be a key part of effective stress management and is associated with many health benefits. If you tend to be a negative thinker, don’t worry as you can learn positive thinking skills. Positive thinking has shown to decrease rates of depression, distress and increase our ability to implement coping skills at times of high stress.
Mindfulness has been the subject of a huge growth of interest in recent years. Mindfulness is normally associated with meditation; however, you can be mindful without performing meditation, it is more the appreciation of the now and not dwelling on the past or spending too much time in the future. Mindfulness, in its simplest form, is a mental discipline that involves training attention. It teaches us how to use the mind in a different way and to focus on the things that are most useful and helpful in our lives. Mindfulness seems to enhance what are called our executive functions which include short term memory, processing information, knowing what to pay attention to, making decisions, emotional regulation and prioritising. An overactive stress centre can ‘highjack’ our brain, making functioning effectively extremely difficult, whilst mindfulness allows for opportunities to slow down and respond to stress from a centred place.
There are some great apps these days that you can download for free that will take you through lessons on using mindfulness and as well as teach you how to meditate. Apps such as Smiling Mind, Headspace and Calm are great, so give them a go!
Breathing is something we all do day in and day out, in fact we actually take roughly between 17,000 – 30,000 breaths per day, but not many utilise this simple tool for a positive effect on our health. As it turns out, deep breathing is not only relaxing, it’s been scientifically proven to impact the heart, brain, digestion and the immune system.
When we are stressed the body’s natural process is to unconsciously hold our breath or take shallow small breaths, as opposed to deep longer breaths. Breathing deeply brings more oxygen to our tissues while allowing waste products to be secreted. It slows us down so we feel more balanced and centred. Deep breathing exercises can be completed anywhere and nobody can tell what you are doing. You need to make this a habit, practice it! Start off by giving it a go twice a day at the same time every day, for example upon waking and again when going to bed at night. Each time spend 5-10 minutes practicing controlling your breathing, see below video to understand how to practice your breathing.
Sleep is an important daily task that everyone should consider as vital to their overall wellbeing. While we are asleep our body goes through critical processes that are fundamental in our restoration or healing from daily stresses. Poor sleep has been shown to affect our mood, our cognitive ability such as decision making, memory consolidation and concentration just to name a few, which can all play a role in our ability to deal with stressful times. Try my top 4 tips to improve your sleep hygiene:
- Create a Sleep & Bedtime Routine: Our body has a natural sleep wake cycle, going to bed at roughly the same time and waking up at the same time every day will help us to get back into sync with it. Further to this creating a routine you follow every night before bed will allow your body to recognise it is time to relax and prepare for sleep. Anything you find relaxing and relatively non stimulating can be a part of this bedtime routine. Some examples are having a hot shower, reading a book in dim lights, writing in your journal, listening to music or meditating before bed.
- Create an Ideal Sleep Environment: Often our environment can be very damaging for both our sleep quality (how well we sleep) and quantity (how many hours we sleep). Ideally we should have no light source in our bedroom, a quiet room with minimal noise and the temperature should be around 16-18 degree Celsius.
- Turn Off the Technology: Technology has produced some many positives to our lives however just like anything there can be negatives too. Technology will often get us restimulated, how many off us just scroll through our phones while lying in bed, instead of listening to our body and going to sleep we get caught up in checking Facebook or Instagram. Following on from there the blue light that is omitted from our phones actually stops the secretion and effect of melatonin which is our bodies natural sleep inducing hormone. This goes for televisions, laptops too, try to leave them out of the room or at least not in arm reaching distance.
- Exercise Regularly: As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can dramatically improve the quality of your sleep, especially when done on a regular basis. Plus it reduces your risk for developing troublesome sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea and restless leg syndrome. Exercise improves both sleep quality and quantity. Exercise may also bolster sleep in other ways, because it reduces stress and tires you out. Early morning and afternoon exercise may also help reset the sleep wake cycle
For more information on how to get a good night sleep, see my sleep blog by clicking here.
A flotation tank was created by neurophysicist Dr John C Lilly around 60 years ago when he was doing research on brain waves and altered states of consciousness. Regaining popularity in recent years, flotation therapy allows for all external stimuli to be blocked out – sights, sounds, tactile sensations – even gravity! This allows for the user to feel as though they are floating; albeit in a large, enclosed bathtub! The absence of external stimuli allows for users to enter a deep state of relaxation where they feel weightless. For some this can initially be confronting; we are so used to keeping our minds active and distracted that the absence of these distractions means that our minds are more active. Despite this, most users find that they eventually enter a meditative state that is refreshing and rejuvenating. Interestingly, empirical research looking into the benefits of flotation therapy has found reductions in both stress and pain levels for participants – what more reason than that to give it a try!
Spending time with family, friends and doing things you love:
Social isolation has been shown to be one of the greatest risk factors for morbidity and mortality. As social beings, humans need connection and intimacy with others to maintain lower levels of stress. Whilst spending time with family can sometimes become stressful, the benefits greatly outweigh any negatives! Making time to see friends and family can be difficult but should be prioritised. Enriching relationships have been shown to help buffer the effects of even the most stressful events.
Ensuring that we find time to participate in activities we love is equally important. Whilst most of us live busy and time poor lives, finding time to engage in things like team sports, hobbies, artistic endeavours or whatever you enjoy is central to keeping stress at manageable levels. The key is to find an activity that is not only enjoyable but that you can fit in to your life – deciding to train for a marathon if you have very little free time might not be a good fit for example! Consciously setting aside a regular time to engage in a pleasurable activity, such as a massage (see here to learn more about the benefits of massage for stress), is a great way to ensure that busy-ness doesn’t get in the way of these moments.
Having someone to talk to:
Having someone who you can discuss life’s ups and downs with is a vital stress management tool. For many of us this can be a partner, close friend or family member. However, if this is not possible then speaking with a counsellor or mental health clinician can be one of the most effective ways of combating stress – particularly if your stress levels have become difficult to manage. Whilst talking through your thoughts and feelings with a relative stranger can be confronting to begin with, this becomes easier as time passes, with many people finding that they are able to talk openly with a therapist in a way that they simply cannot with family and friends. Finding the right therapist can take time however and if you don’t feel a connection with someone – find someone else! Studies have found that a strong relationship with your therapist is one off the most important parts of therapy, regardless of the actual type of therapy itself. See the Australian Society of Psychologist Find A Psychologist website to find someone to fit your needs.
Come in and see our Osteopaths at Absolute Health & Performance in the heart of the Melbourne CBD to help understand how stress can be contributing to your health and learn some ways in which stress can be managed appropriately.
Written By Osteopath Ashley Gudgeon