With life being stressful enough without the added gift of a pandemic, one writer tuned in to her own personal stress for a week to see what she could learn…
Besides the odd public transport-induced rage or racing pulse due to whichever thriller I’m watching way too close to bedtime, I like to think of myself as a fairly relaxed person.
And by relaxed, I mean more in the sense that I follow the mantra: “It is what it is”, as opposed to any actual dedication to useful practices like mindfulness, yoga, or even – perish the thought – a to-do list.
But with the shifting sands of lockdown easing, learning to re-socialise and generally losing all sense of time and self thanks to the last year, I’ve found myself feeling more stressed and anxious than usual without being able to pinpoint anything in particular.
With that in mind, I decided to take a deep dive into what was stressing me out in order to try and manage it better and improve my overall wellbeing.
I equipped myself with a health smartwatch, the Fitbit Sense, which has tools for stress management like an EDA sensor that can detect small electrical changes in your skin which may indicate how stressed you are, and got to work.
Here’s what I discovered…
1. Caffeine matters
My relationship with caffeine is very much like one you might share with an inappropriate love interest. A short-term boost that ultimately ends in a crash, leaving me drained and slightly irritable.
Needs must though, and whether it’s my morning coffee to see me through my work, the pre-workout I down before hitting the gym or the coffee-blended protein shake I have afterwards, it’s fair to say that caffeine is an integral part of my life. Turns out, maybe not so much for my overall health, though.
After wearing my smartwatch for a few days, I came to learn that my resting heart rate tends to sit at around 55bpm (a typical resting heart rate can be anywhere between 60-100bpm). As a higher resting heart rate can be a sign of stress, I decided to test out how my pre-workout drink impacts me. Pre-workout is essentially a blend of caffeine, creatine and B vitamins that you mix with water and drink before a big session at the gym so that you have more energy and focus and can perform better.
As I sat in the changing room after drinking my neon green concoction and felt the familiar tingling sensation on my skin I decided to run an EDA (electrodermal activity) scan, using my on-wrist app.
The scan works by asking you to place your palm on the face of the watch and breathe for a ‘quick scan’ of two minutes as it picks up any EDA responses in your skin. Sure enough, my scan showed 12 EDA responses while the heart rate on my smartwatch screen jumped up by 20bpm, as opposed to my lowered heart rate and 0 EDA responses when I did a scan before bed on a previous night when I was winding down.
Considering I was simply chilling in the changing room at that point versus smashing the treadmill, it was pretty shocking to see just how much my body was responding to the caffeine in my pre-workout.
With caffeine potentially playing a role in how my body responds to stress, I’ll reluctantly try to limit my pre-workout intake to one session a week or a really busy morning to keep my overall health in check.
2. Silence is golden
As I’ve said, I’m more of a fall asleep with an orchestra of Netflix, London traffic and my housemates pottering around than by means of meditation kind of person.
I’ve tried meditating a few times, but while I can easily spend hours mindlessly on TikTok, I find spending just a couple of minutes in silence with nothing but my thoughts too boring and difficult. Determined to try and achieve the level of relaxation possessed by those who regularly meditate, I chose a particularly stressful day involving a forgotten birthday, back-to-back meetings and a pot of boiled-over pasta.
Instead of hitting play on Netflix at 10.30pm, I decided to pick a mindfulness session to see if it would make me feel less stressed and improve my sleep. I chose a five-minute video with meditation expert Deepak Chopra on ‘Observing Thoughts to Manage Stress’.
Fighting my instincts to open up Instagram or my laptop, I tuned in to what he was saying about noticing your thoughts and framing them with the question, “I wonder what my next thought will be” in order to view them more objectively.
I also found the moments of silence to practise this concept left me feeling less stimulated before hitting my pillow.
This was also reflected in my Stress Management Score (a tool on the Fitbit app that calculates a score from 1 to 100 based on your responsiveness, exertion balance and sleep patterns, with a higher score indicating a higher level of calmness), which improved when compared to nights when I followed my usual routine.
3. My time management skills leave a lot to be desired
One thing that became as clear as day when I started tracking the impact of my stress on my life was my awful time management.
With an outdoor table reservation replacing a seat on the Central Line as the most sought-after item, the pressure to be on time was even more urgent, and yet I found myself feeling the stress creep in as I waited at the bus stop for the late bus I hadn’t accounted for.
Similarly, my seemingly foolproof plan to do the big food shop, get my nails done and go for a run one Sunday ended up being one unintentional lie-in away from rushing around town in a state that couldn’t be further from swan-like.
With that in mind, I can make small steps to improve the planning of my days and avoid unnecessarily stressing myself out and contributing to burnout, like less stuffing my days full of activities and more plan B scenarios to account for the world having the audacity not to run exactly to my specific schedule.
4. A good night’s sleep really does make all the difference
Even though it makes sense, I’ve always found it hard to accept that when you’re stressed about something it’s better to get an early night rather than toil over it into the small hours. I decided to reverse my usual instincts and take to my bed an hour earlier than usual on a day I was feeling particularly frazzled.
Clearly, it paid off. The next day on the train when a man was committing the dual sin of having his nose poking out of his face mask while playing videos on his phone at full volume with no headphones, I managed not to succumb to my usual response of heightened (internalised) emotions.
Usually, I would have done the British thing of saying nothing while allowing the stress to build to an intolerable level, but this time I pooled what I’d learnt throughout the week.
With a clearer mind, thanks to a solid night’s sleep and tapping into a two-minute guided breathing session on my Fitbit thanks to the Relax app, I got off the train feeling uncharacteristically calm.
So, what did I learn from the experiment? While there are some stress-inducing things inherent in my personality, I feel like I’m more aware of the patterns I fall into and the practices I can be avoiding to make my life more stress-free.
For example, while I refuse to kiss caffeine goodbye, I can whittle it down or at the very least make sure I leave a hefty gap between my consumption and my bedtime (it’s recommended you leave six hours between your last significant caffeine hit and bedtime). Meanwhile, I can try and plan for that rogue bus and build extra time into my journey just in case. As for no Netflix before bed, that might take a bit more practice…
Everyone has their own personal sources and patterns of how stress impacts their health but by tuning into it and tracking your own routine to find out how your body is responding to stress, you can make positive changes to benefit your wellbeing.
The Fitbit Sense health smartwatch has tools for stress management to understand how your body responds to stress, to help you build an overall picture and help you to better monitor your health. Plus, as Fitbit Sense comes with a six-month Premium membership for all new users, you can access advanced insights and personalised guidance, including an exclusive wellness collection of content created by meditation expert Deepak Chopra.