In this fast-paced society, we are constantly on the go. Unfortunately, this can leave us in a stressed state where we find it difficult to wind down. It is therefore important to take regular ‘time-outs’ during the day. These are times where you simply slow down and take a break from the hectic pace of everyday life. It doesn’t need to be long. Even taking a five-minute break several times a day will help. Try to physically remove yourself from your daily routine, and slow down. Have a cup of tea, listen to music, or sit outside. It is up to you.
Learning some form of relaxation is an important way to reduce stress levels. However, relaxation is a skill and must be practised regularly to be mastered. If you have never learnt any form of relaxation, make a commitment for 2 weeks to practice it every day. There are several options available including progressive muscle relaxation, slow breathing, autogenic exercises, yoga, and meditation. There are even free phone apps that you can download. Some good ones include ‘Smiling Mind’, ‘Breathe2Relax’, ‘Hellomind’, ‘Headspace’, or simply do a search and try out different apps. Alternatively, purchase a CD or enrol in a formal training program.
During times of stress, our body increases the production of a hormone called cortisol. This hormone is designed to prepare our body to either ‘fight or flight.’ Unfortunately, for many people, cortisol levels are constantly elevated as their lives are filled with stress (either real or imagined).
Skipping meals or eating unhealthy foods, particularly foods high in refined sugar can also increase cortisol levels. This is not good if you are already suffering from stress or anxiety. Therefore, make sure you eat every three to four hours and consume wholesome, natural foods. The best meals are those containing a combination of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats.
The way we think affects how we feel. Therefore, if we change the way we think, we may be able to reduce stress and anxiety. A therapy known as Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has been shown to effectively reduce anxiety by changing how we think. CBT also involves learning a range of effective coping behaviours to help reduce stress and promote relaxation.
Many psychologists can teach CBT. You can also learn CBT by completing online courses. One free, online CBT course is ‘myCompass’. This program is created by the Black Dog Institute, a leading Australian research and training-based organisation.
Sleep is crucial for recovery, especially during times of high stress. In fact, a good night’s sleep can reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and also has anti-inflammatory effects throughout the body.
Although people’s optimal sleep time can vary, in general, most people need between 7 and 9 hours of good-quality sleep a day. Therefore, it is important to make sleep a priority in your life. Good ‘sleep hygiene’ practices are important to increase the chances of you having a good night’s sleep. This is especially essential during times of stress. Some recommendations include going to bed and waking up at the same time every day; reducing your activity in the evening; limiting caffeine intake; reducing meal size before bed; engaging in some form of relaxation in the evening; making sure your bedroom is dark, quiet and comfortable; and getting out of bed and doing something relaxing if you don’t fall asleep within 20 to 30 minutes (don’t toss and turn).
Although exercise can be strenuous on the body, it is actually a crucial ingredient for anxiety and stress management. Over time, exercise reduces stress hormones in our body. Exercise can also be a good way to move our focus away from the stresses of daily life. It is actually associated with reduced worry and rumination (obsessive thinking).
When it comes to exercise, choose a type that suits you best. If you are not a runner, then don’t run. If you prefer to exercise with others, then find a buddy. If you are unfit, start slow and gradually build up. Not everyone has to join a gym, and the ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality is definitely not recommended. Choose a type of exercise that you will find pleasurable and something that you can do most days of the week. Exercising 5 times a week for at least 30 minutes is probably the best for stress management.
There a number of nutrients that can help regulate the stress response. These include magnesium (found in green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds), omega-3 fats (obtained from oily fish and many seeds), and B-vitamins (from fruits and vegetables). Supplementation with these nutrients can also be helpful.
One nutrient that has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety is the amino acid, theanine. Theanine is found in green tea and can promote a sense of calmness during times of stress. Research shows that 200mg of theanine is the most beneficial dose to reduce stress levels. Unfortunately, this is equivalent to around 8 cups of green tea and is difficult to consume in a non-supplement form.