Living in London can be stressful. As a personal trainer in London, I see stressed-out clients all the time.
Richard Lazarus, the famous US psychologist, 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 definitions of stress include elements like “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, heart disease, digestive conditions, increased colds & flu, over-eating, and a range of addictions.
Here are some practical tips to beat stress that you can start to put into action right away.
1. Get active
Physical exercise is a great stress-buster. You release pent-up frustration and aggression, you get more oxygen into your system, you take your mind off your problems and put things in perspective.
And 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. Don’t poison yourself
Sounds pretty obvious, but how many people do you see smoking, drinking excessive amounts of caffeinated drinks (‘energy’ drinks, coffee etc), drinking alcohol in excess, or eating sugar-rich junk food? All these things have a toxic effect on your body, lower your immune system, and raise your stress levels.
A couple of glasses of wine won’t harm you, but if you’re relying on alcohol to unwind, this is a warning sign that you need to find other strategies to lower your stress levels.
3. Eat well
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.
If you base your foods on good quality protein (lean red meat, chicken, fish, eggs, natural yoghurt, nuts), complex carbs (sweet potato, quinoa, bulgar wheat, oats), plenty of vegetables, and 2 fruit a day (include an orange for the vitamin C), and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocados, olive oil), this will give you the fuel and building blocks you need to fight off the effects of stress and make you stronger.
4. Sleep better
Most of us 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), coffee and strong caffeinated tea. Get more exercise and fresh air 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).
5. Relax and take breaks
Even on busy days, build in some periods of relaxation, even if it’s just 10 minute bursts. Get up from your desk, get out of 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. Do this at least once an hour.
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. One of my personal training clients in London lent me her Mindfulness book, and I got a ton of value from it. Google ‘mindfulness’ and explore this stress-busting technique.
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. De-clutter your life
A lot of stress results from over-cluttering your life. 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 or London Loot. A cluttered bedroom is known to impede a good night’s sleep.
Attack 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. You’ve probably seen one of those ‘hoarder’ documentaries on TV recently, which shows extreme examples of the psychological damage of too much clutter.
The more clutter-free your environment, the more restful and relaxing it will be.
7. Simplify and clarify your priorities
The de-cluttering strategy above is one way you can simplify your life and prioritize what’s around you every day. Now turn to your daily activities, and 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, deal effectively with difficult people, learn how to speak your mind (and sometimes say no) in a positive and fruitful way, delegation skills. The more you master these skills, the more you’re able to master your stress-levels.
Whatever you do, don’t try to please everyone all the time, don’t try to do everything perfectly, don’t over-promise, don’t take on too many commitments and then procrastinate, and don’t bottle things up.
Once you’ve established your priorities, tackle them with full concentration and focus. Next time you see a nature programme about big cats 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.
Make sure you’re the same in the tasks you perform, and you’ll cut your stress levels immediately, because you’ll be more efficient and effective in all you do.
9. Have more healthy fun
The more stressed you are, the more you tend to sacrifice the fun in your life, or turn to unhealthy versions of fun such as staying out too late drinking too much.
What do I mean by healthy fun? Walks with friends, playing sport, massage and other bedroom activities with your partner, going to the movies, eating at your favourite restaurant. If you’re so busy that these things have disappeared from your life, this is a wake up call.
Crucial to healthy fun is to spend more time with friends you value and feel good around, friends who energize you and enhance your life. Spend more time with these people, and less time with people who drag you down.
10. Transform your thinking
Go back to the start and read the definition of stress again, particularly the bit about your “perceived ability to cope”. A lot of stress starts in the mind, 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).
Get into the habit of cultivating 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, visualization, life-coaching; rather than automatically resorting to pharmaceutical drugs like prozac.
What counts is not the external pressures, but your reaction to them.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London with over 10 years experience