Are you stressed out by the craziness of London life? The demands of work and family and the cost of living crisis can easily get on top of you. As a personal trainer in London, I train a lot of stressed-out clients – lawyers, bankers, company directors – and I get a lot of satisfaction helping them to reduce the stress-levels in their lives.
The American psychologist Richard Lazarus defined stress as “an imbalance between the demands made of an individual, and his perceived ability to cope with them.” You can’t eliminate all pressure from your life, nor should you, but you can improve your response to these pressures.
Other ways of defining stress include “feeling of powerlessness, overwhelm, lack of control” or “a change that you’ve not adapted to” or “not feeling in control of your emotions” or “drowning in a sea of problems”.
Stress can have serious mental and physical effects, such as depression, coronary heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), digestive problems such as IBS and ulcers and heartburn, increased colds & flu, over-eating, and a range of addictions. Stress attacks your immune system and your mental health.
Here are ten stress-busting tips you can start to put into action today.
1. Boost Your Activity Levels
Vigorous physical exercise is a great stress-buster. You release pent-up frustration and physical tension, you get more oxygen into your system, you take your mind off your problems and put things in perspective.
The endorphins released by exercise give you a natural ‘high’. Endorphins are chemicals released by your brain and other parts of your body, which reduce your perception of pain, and boost your feeling of wellbeing.
2. Cut Out the Poisons
Your stress-levels will start to go down when you cut down on smoking, caffeinated drinks (‘energy’ drinks, coffee etc), alcohol, sugar-rich junk food. All these toxins poison your body, lower your immune system, and raise your stress levels. Try switching from caffeinated coffee to decaf coffee or mint tea.
If you rely on alcohol during the week to unwind after a hard day’s work, this is a wake-up call to find other ways to lower your stress levels.
3. Improve your Nutrition
The power of food to boost your energy levels, immune system, and general wellbeing has been known for centuries. Ironically, when we’re stressed out, we turn to the wrong kind of foods to comfort us, which in the long run makes our stress levels worse.
Switch to good quality protein (lean red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, natural yoghurt, nuts), complex carbs (sweet potato, quinoa, oats), plenty of vegetables, and 2 fruit a day (include an orange or a handful of blueberries for the vitamin C), and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocados). This will give you the fuel and building blocks you need to fight off the effects of stress and make you stronger.
4. Enhance the Quality of your Sleep
Don’t underestimate the importance of good sleep. This is the time when your body and mind repair and rejuvenate. The more stressed you are, the more you tend to sacrifice sleep and find it hard to fall asleep when you finally go to bed. This in turn makes you more stressed the next day.
To break this vicious cycle, there are many things you can do. Drink less alcohol, cut out ‘energy’ drinks (which should be re-named ‘energy-sapping drinks), caffeinated coffee and strong caffeinated tea. Take more exercise during the day. Don’t over-eat, particularly your last meal of the day. Get to bed before midnight, and have a winding-down routine in the hour before bed (hot bath, read a book, listen to music) to get your body and mind ready for sleep.
5. Take Regular Time-Outs
Even on your most hectic days, build in some periods of relaxation, even if it’s just 10 minute bursts. Get up from your desk, leave the building, and go for a walk round the block. If you can’t get away from your desk, stand up, do some stretching and deep breathing exercises, walk around the room every half-hour to get the blood flowing.
Meditation is another great way to relax, and particularly a recent technique called Mindfulness. This involves daily exercises of deep breathing, focusing on the present, calming your mind.
And whenever you can, take a holiday, and get away from it all. Just make sure it’s a holiday that reduces your stress rather than increases it. Excess alcohol and late nights on holiday can leave you in a worse state than before your holiday.
6. Reduce the Clutter
All the physical clutter around you can increase your stress levels. De-clutter your desk at work. Same at home: anything you don’t need you can chuck out, give to charity, or sell on ebay. A cluttered bedroom impedes a good night’s sleep, so keep it minimalist and spacious to calm your mind.
De-clutter all your storage areas too: the cupboards, wardrobe, attic, under the bed, bookcases, shelves, garage, shed. Keep only what you really want and really need, get rid of the rest. The positive psychological effect is very powerful, try it and you’ll see. You’ve probably seen one of those ‘hoarder’ documentaries on Netflix recently, which shows extreme examples of the psychological damage of too much clutter.
The more clutter-free your environment, the less stressed you’ll become.
Think about your daily activities, and your daily interaction with other people. These are often a source of stress too.
Make a list of all your tasks, and prioritize what’s most important, then spend most of your time on those things. Likewise with people. This requires skills like time-management, how to deal effectively with difficult people, how to speak your mind (and sometimes say no) in a positive and constructive way, how to delegate effectively. The more you master these skills, the more you’re able to master your stress-levels.
Don’t fall into the trap of trying to please everyone all the time. Don’t try to do everything perfectly (perfectionism is stressful), don’t over-promise, don’t take on too many commitments and then procrastinate, and don’t bottle things up.
When you’ve established your priorities, tackle them with full concentration and focus, total engagement. Next time you see a nature documentary about big cats hunting in the wild, watch how they go after their prey. They’re fully focused on the job in hand, no distractions. It’s the only way they’ll catch their prey.
Be more like those hunters, and you’ll cut your stress levels immediately, because you’ll be more efficient and effective in all you do.
9. Swap Toxic Fun for Healthy Fun
When you’re overwhelmed by stress, there’s a danger of turning to toxic ways of relieving that stress, such as alcohol abuse, too many late nights, junk food, drugs. All these things will wreck your health and increase your stress levels in the long run.
You can start reversing this trend by replacing these toxic habits with healthy habits. Go for a walk in the park with friends, play your favourite sport (for me it’s tennis), massage and other bedroom activities with your partner, have a meal at your favourite restaurant. If you’re so busy and burnt-out that these experiences have disappeared from your life, this is a call to action.
Spend more time with friends you value and feel good spending time with, friends who energize you and enhance your life. Avoid people who constantly complain and moan, as their negative energy will drag you down.
10. Boost your Thinking
A lot of stress starts in the mind, your perceived ability to cope, and your solution to stress starts in the mind too.
Your thoughts, beliefs, self-image, self-esteem, all have a profound effect on your physical and mental health, and your stress levels. There are lots of great books on this subject, such as Awaken the Giant Within (Anthony Robbins) and Psycho-Cybernetics (Maxwell Maltz).
Cultivate empowering ways of thinking, and be alert to the dangers of dis-empowering thinking patterns. Negative thinking can spiral into full blown anxiety disorder and depression, where you’re worrying all the time, and can’t see a positive future. Don’t underestimate the power of your own thoughts and beliefs, for good and ill.
There is a positive trend towards tackling depression and anxiety disorder with cognitive behaviour therapy, exercise prescription, talking therapy, meditation, positive visualization, life-coaching; rather than automatically resorting to pharmaceutical drugs like prozac.
Be proactive in your quest for enhanced wellbeing and reduced stress. Start today!
(Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and online nutrition coach)