How to feel less stressed and anxious in 15 steps

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Kate Faithfull-Williams
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From anxiety and depression, to problems falling asleep, stress can affect our lives in numerous ways. So, for Stress Awareness Month 2019, Stylist reveals 15 simple ways to de-stress your mind and calm your thoughts, whether at home or at work.

The woman who bounces out of bed as soon as her alarm goes off singing “I love mornings” is a rare and much-envied being. Think rainbow-coloured unicorn rare. 

For most of us, the day starts with stresses big and small – being jolted from patchy sleep, then, ping, a notification that your credit card payment is due, followed by an email from a client making you dread going into work. And all that’s before you even get out of bed, and before you realise you’re running late. So, when someone cuts you off at the ticket barrier at the station, you don’t calmly think, “Oh, he’s probably having a bad day.” No. You explode.

The ticking time bomb of this tension is so great that the World Health Organization is calling stress the health epidemic of the 21st century. And though stress is rising among all demographics, millennials report higher levels of stress than their baby boomer colleagues, according to a study by the Mental Health Foundation. Millennials typically work over 40 hours a week, a global study from human resource corporation ManpowerGroup has revealed, yet we have greater financial pressures and less economic security than previous generations.

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Our work life has thoroughly invaded our personal life and resulted in 15.4 million days a year lost to stress, anxiety and depression, according to the Health and Safety Executive. This generation has come of age in the digital culture of impatience, where we feel the pressure to reply to messages immediately, and has created 1.8 million Instagram posts hash-tagged #stressed. Ask us how we are and we’ll tell you: “So busy I can’t breathe”, “Barely keeping my head above water” or “Stressed AF.”

how to be less stressed
Talk to yourself as you would a treasured friend, advises Ben-Ari.

The serious pressures of life, such as moving house, relationship breakdowns and bereavement, are nothing new so why has modern living become so much more stressful? Dr Rangan Chatterjee – GP, presenter and author of The Stress Solution – blames the cumulative damage of multiple small stresses. 

“The constant drip, drip of micro-stress doses is really dangerous,” he says. “We don’t recognise these micro-stresses as being problematic in themselves, but each one pushes you closer to your stress threshold and that’s when everything becomes too much. Even if you’ve suffered a serious trauma, keeping on top of micro-stresses will make you more resilient,” he adds.

Dr Chatterjee’s philosophy for a happier, healthier life is that we can’t change some of the micro-stress doses in our lives – that Visa bill, for example – so we should reduce their impact instead. Why? Because health issues as diverse as insomnia, acne, gut problems, headaches and low libido all share one root cause: stress.

“Stress affects every single aspect of your wellbeing,” he explains. “Stress impacts every organ in your body, and your relationships and self-confidence to boot. If you had asked me five years ago about the main lifestyle factor behind most of my patients, I would have said it was diet. Now, I believe stress is the key driver of all the symptoms I see.”

stress woman
Stress less: “For most of us, the majority of the physical effects of stress are reversible”

The stress response is a series of complex biological processes evolved over thousands of years to keep us safe when we’re under attack. In an emergency, sugar pours into your bloodstream so you can run faster and fight harder. Your blood pressure shoots up, because the extra blood rushing to your brain makes you hypervigilant to threat. But stress only helps us in the short term. We are no longer cavewomen who need to keep ourselves safe from wild animals. We are trying to keep ourselves safe from the stresses of living in 2019.

“When stress is there day in and day out, the sugar pouring into your bloodstream causes fatigue and weight gain,” explains Dr Chatterjee. Studies show this can later lead to cardiovascular problems and type 2 diabetes. On top of that, stress can put your digestive and reproductive systems on standby mode. “I’m seeing fertility issues and low libido in younger women than I have ever seen before and rising numbers of IBS-type symptoms too,” says Dr Chatterjee. “We can trace these back to the biological stress response: when you’re under attack, your body has to preserve resources. Procreating and digesting don’t get priority.”

So far, so stressful. But there’s a positive in here: these physical manifestations of stress are only temporary, a warning sign that we need to change the way we live. “For most of us, the majority of the physical effects of stress are reversible,” assures Dr Chatterjee. 

There is no amount of emotional bubble wrap that can eliminate stress entirely but even by reducing stress by 20%, you’ll notice improvements: more energy, more colour and joy in your life. And being calm is a feed-forward cycle: you eat healthier food, so you get better sleep, so you perform better at work, so you relax and develop more meaningful relationships. 

“Once you start tackling stress, you improve multiple different symptoms,” says Dr Chatterjee. “These are lifestyle-driven issues that need lifestyle solutions.” And those solutions start below…

15 steps to calm

Here, Dr Chatterjee shares his prescription for becoming 20% less stressed. Choose the tips that resonate most with you and enjoy a calmer, more positive 2019…

Protect your bedtime

Fall asleep: Getting enough sleep is vital for dealing with stress

Sleep is vital for dealing with stress – it gives your body and brain time to restore and refresh. Set yourself up for a relaxing night by banning tech for an hour before you lay down. Without the stimulation of social media, online shopping and messaging apps you will access deeper levels of restorative sleep and feel far less stressed the following morning. Your memory will improve, your mood will lift, your interactions with others will be more positive and you’ll perform better at work. 

“I’ve had several patients who didn’t believe a tech-free bedtime would make much difference until their sleep monitors told them a totally different story. Why does it work? The blue light of backlit devices interferes with the production of melatonin, your sleepy hormone. Reading a book, listening to calm music or talking to your partner will allow your spinning head to slow down and ready your body for rest.”

2% less stress

Try the 3D greeting

“We thrive on human connection: it lowers our stress levels but we’re often distracted when we’re communicating with others, whether it’s our friends, colleagues or the barista behind the counter. The solution comes in three dimensions: smile, maintain eye contact, say something positive – ‘Good morning’ works. Practise the ‘3D greeting’ as often as you can on people you encounter. Immediately afterwards, observe how much brighter you feel.”

1% less stress

Breathe by numbers

Meditation and mindfulness: A few deep breaths can help to soothe stress

“When we’re stressed, our breathing is quick and shallow. Counteract this with one minute of deep breathing every time you feel your shoulders cranked up around your ears. Use 3-4-5 as your guide: inhale for a count of three, hold for four, exhale for five. When you breathe out longer than you breathe in, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you feel calm.”

1% less stress

Escape your inbox

“Whether you’re a CEO, an intern or you run your own business, you need a concrete cut-off point when your work is done for the day to switch off the related stress. Delete the email app from your phone. Or switch to airplane mode. Or deactivate your inbox until 9am the next morning. Or change your settings so you only collect mail when you hit the mail tab. Giving your work brain a break will mean you become more creative. How?

“When you’re not actively focusing on a task, the creative part of your brain called the default mode network goes into overdrive. That’s why we often get great ideas when we’re in the shower.”

3% less stress

Eat the alphabet

salad food
Food: Eating a varied diet can help alleviate stress

“Food is more than fuel for the body, it’s information – our food tells us whether everything is calm or stressed. Scientists call our gut bacteria our brain’s peacekeepers because when we feed our gut bacteria well, they keep the peace in our brain. Eat a diverse range of minimally processed plant foods for a healthy gut. Over a month, try eating the alphabet: asparagus, broccoli, carrots, dates, etc. It’s surprisingly achievable.”

1% less stress

Revive the lost art of touch

“The image of two partners in bed together but in separate worlds on their devices has become a cliché. We touch our phones far more than we touch our partners. I prescribe hugs, because human touch is as important for our emotional health as food is for our physical health. Our skin is covered with touch receptors and those nerve fibres go straight to your emotional brain, lowering your stress levels.”

1% less stress

Acknowledge your busy brain

“You knew meditation was going to pop up here somewhere, right? This age-old practice has been clinically proven to reduce stress in a multitude of studies. But here’s something new: the goal of meditation is not to switch your mind off but simply to notice that your mind is very busy. It’s a subtle observation that leads to less stress: after two minutes of meditation, you’ll notice a reduction in anxious feelings.”

1% less stress

Start a caffeine curfew

How to brew coffee at home

“Overconsumption of caffeine is a big driver of anxiety, so try to avoid drinking coffee, tea and cola after midday. The half-life of caffeine is six hours, so if you’re having a caffeinated drink to get you through a 3pm energy slump, it’s effectively like drinking half a latte at 9pm.”

1% less stress

Play the gratitude game

“Try a simple gratitude exercise – psychologists call this ‘positive reframing’ – that reduces anxiety levels and increases your sleep quality. I ask these questions at dinner every evening: what have you done today to make someone else happy? What has someone else done today to make you happy? What have you learnt today? The gratitude game changes the dynamic after a stressful day and helps you reflect on the good that’s happened.”

1% less stress

Diarise your downtime

“Downtime is one of the single biggest stress-busters but if you don’t block it out it in your diary, your time gets sucked away. I define downtime as spending time with no purpose or interaction. It’s just being present with your surroundings. Just 10 minutes of downtime a day will reduce stress.”

1% less stress

Catchup with friends

“We can see our friends’ holiday pictures and what they had for breakfast on Instagram but it’s no replacement for the stress-soothing nourishment of real human connection. So make sure you always have a date in your diary to meet up with friends in real life. Once a week is ideal, once a month may be more doable.

Even if you’re so exhausted you’re tempted to flake, go, because friendships refresh your energy and lower your stress levels. One rule: phones away. Leaving your devices on silent isn’t enough – if they’re on the table you’ll be distracted and not fully present.”

2% less stress

Choose a soft drink

Quitting alcohol: Going teetotal is one way to help your body tackle stress more effectively

“Reducing your alcohol consumption will directly reduce stress levels: you’ll get more restorative sleep, feel less anxious and eat healthier food. Identify the days, times or situations that make you crave a drink, then bring in a more effective de-stress tool at that time: a boxing class, massage or early night.”

1% less stress

Immerse yourself in nature

“Being in nature increases activity in the parahippocampal part of the brain, which is responsible for regulating emotions. How? Nature is full of fractals, small geometric shapes that repeat in huge numbers: think leaves, flowers and waves. Research shows that simply looking at fractals reduces your cortisol levels.” 

1% less stress

Images: Unsplash

The Stress Solution (Penguin Life, £16.99) is out now. For information on forthcoming events please go to Dr Rangan Chatterjee is host of the iTunes #1 podcast ‘Feel Better Live More’. 

This feature was originally published in January 2019


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Kate Faithfull-Williams

Kate is an editor, health coach and author of The Feelgood Plan. She likes chocolate and working out in equal measure, and only ever drinks house wine. Her one mission in life is to find a yoga move that smooths out her iPhone claw hand. Follow her on Instagram: @katefaithfullwilliams

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