Feeling stressed out? You’re not alone. Today’s increasingly isolated lifestyles are putting a strain on our mental health, and at the moment many of us are feeling under extra pressure because of the ongoing effects of the pandemic.
Some people might be worried about their health, or the health of loved ones. Some of us are adapting to life changes imposed by the second lockdown, facing redundancy or job uncertainty.
It’s not surprising stress levels have been on the rise!
While some stress is actually good for us and helps motivate us to overcome new challenges, being under stress for a long time can cause physical and mental problems. So in these challenging times, it’s ideal to have a personal strategy for coping with stress.
The good news is there are lots of simple stress-busting techniques you can use when needed, and I’ve listed these below. Try out these techniques, and you can overcome stress, calm your body and mind, and become more resilient under pressure.
Everybody is different, and what works for someone else might not be helpful for you. So as you read these techniques it can be a good idea to take what resonates for you and leave the rest for another time.
1. Keep a stress diary
First, it’s a good idea to figure out exactly what’s causing your stress. Knowing your triggers can help you identify things you’re able to change.
Many people find keeping a ‘stress diary’ helpful; by jotting down your worries in a journal you can figure out what events tend to cause you stress and how to deal with them. If a stressor is something you can’t change, try to accept things as they are and concentrate on issues you do have control over.
2. Try a deep breathing exercise
Deep breathing instantly reduces stress because it slows your heartrate and activates a relaxation response in your body. There are lots of simple breathing exercises you can try, and I’ve listed some at the end of this article.
This technique is especially handy because no one knows you’re doing it, so you can use it to quickly calm yourself at any time or place.
3. Be active
Exercise is great for your mental health because it reduces stress hormones like cortisol, while at the same time increases mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins.
Exercise can also help you get enough sleep, which is another factor that reduces stress levels. Walking, running and sports are great for physical and mental health, but you don’t have to be sporty to feel the benefit – walking, gardening and even housework can be good exercise!
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘laughter is the best medicine’, but did you know laughing is actually good for your health? Studies have found it can boost your immune system and even relieve pain.
And in the short term, laughing also relieves your stress response, reducing tension and relaxing muscles. So if you’ve had a rough day, try watching a funny show, or get in touch with a friend who makes you laugh.
5. Take control
Stress can get worse if we assume there’s nothing we can do about it. But being proactive and tackling obstacles in a practical way will help you feel better.
For example, if you’ve got too much on your plate consider delegating some tasks to colleagues or family. Or if the news feed and social media are making you anxious, limit how much time you spend checking them.
Physical contact can be great for stress because it releases happy hormones; hugging, kissing and sex can all help reduce stress.
In fact, if you hug someone you care about when feeling anxious, the release of oxytocin hormone boosts your mood and lowers your blood pressure, while at the same time reducing stress hormones such as cortisol.
7. Set aside some ‘me time’
Self-care isn’t a luxury – it’s necessary to keep you healthy and avoid burnout. Allocating quality time for yourself is especially important if you’re working from home, because the boundaries between work and personal life can get blurred.
Try to do something nice for yourself every day, like setting aside some time for a hot bath, watching a film, practicing yoga or reading a chapter of your favourite book.
8. Help other people
Helping people in need can put your own issues in perspective, reduce your stress levels and boost your well-being. If you don’t have the time for volunteering, you might want to give your mood a boost by doing someone a favour or donating to charity.
9. Practice mindfulness
The term ‘mindfulness’ just refers to our natural ability to be present in the moment and be conscious of where we are and what we’re doing.
Studies have shown that being mindful is very effective for reducing stress, because it helps us step back from thoughts and emotions rather than getting swept away by them. In the long term, being mindful can help us become more resilient and more compassionate towards others, too.
Meditating every day is a great way to become more mindful and reduce stress. There are free meditations and courses on mindfulness available online, and I’ve listed some at the end of this article.
10. Connect with people
Even if you don’t find solutions to your problems right away, talking to someone to ‘offload’ your stress can make you feel much better. Spending time with people you trust also releases a host of hormones that counteract the physical stress response.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone you know, you might prefer to seek counselling instead. A counsellor will offer a non-judgemental and confidential environment for you to discuss your concerns and explore new ways to deal with them.
11. Silence your inner critic
Do you often beat yourself up after a bad day? Self-criticism and self-doubt can be hard to ignore at times, but thinking this way isn’t helpful, and chances are those thoughts aren’t true, either. Instead, try to be your own best friend and learn to talk to yourself in a more realistic and compassionate way.
Combat your inner critic by replacing your negative assumptions with assertions that contradict them. For example, if you find yourself thinking ‘I’ll never be able to cope,’ challenge this assumption by reminding yourself of all the problems you’ve dealt with in the past.
12. Practice gratitude
Gratitude is another great way to help you focus on the positives in life, and studies have shown it has many health benefits, including reducing stress.
Cultivating a sense of gratitude can be as easy as writing down 3 things you’re grateful for each day. Being grateful can improve your relationships with those around you too, and it can help you recognise the skills you have to cope with adversity.
I hope you’ve found these tips helpful for developing a stress-busting strategy of your own. If you find stress is becoming overwhelming or for any reason you need someone to talk to, I’m here to help. I’m a person-centred counsellor and hypnotherapist based in Manchester. I offer online and telephone counselling for people across the UK.
If you’d like to discuss anything in confidence, you’re very welcome to get in touch with me.
Useful links and helplines
National Counselling Society (NCS) – the professional association for counsellors has a national directory of qualified therapists, searchable by area.
The Samaritans – 116-123 is a helpline that’s free and open 24/7, for anyone in emotional distress. It’s run by trained volunteers.
NHS breathing exercise – a calming breathing technique for stress, anxiety and panic. It takes just a few minutes and can be done anywhere.
The Greatlist has a selection of breathing exercises for different times of the day.
The mental health charity Mind has some good calming exercises, including creative ones here.
The Free Mindfulness project has a selection of free mindfulness and meditation exercises, available to download.