Over the last week, I've been sharing my thoughts on how to reduce stress and manage stress-related illnesses on Instagram. This blog pulls all those thoughts together in one place.
Stress is something that's come up a lot recently. I know several people who've been diagnosed with stress-related illnesses - some of whom had close calls to being something very serious. We're talking about everything from continuous coughs and colds, to skin conditions, blood vessels bursting from high blood pressure, all the way up to increasing risk of strokes. I wanted to see if I could help in some small way.
Things you can do to reduce stress
Over the last 20 years, I've had big stressful jobs, set up and managed two businesses, and raised four children, while also training for massive endurance events. During that time, I've gone through periods of feeling stressed but always found ways to cope. Here's what works for me - and what I know has worked for other people:
- Exercise and nature
Getting outside and in nature - especially near trees - has been scientifically proven to create a state of wellbeing. Scientists are not really sure why, but I heard the other day that the scent released by tree sap could be part of it. Obviously, walking, running or cycling outdoors gets oxygen and blood flowing round the body, which feeds the brain, strengthens the heart and releases endorphins. It makes us feel better, particularly if done first thing in the morning.
- Reflection and writing Spend some time thinking and writing down a minimum of three things to be thankful for each morning. It's a fantastic way of making us realise what we already have in our lives, and puts some of the things that stress us out into perspective. I've done this every morning for over two years and can highly recommend it.People say to me 'I don't know what I'm grateful for'. It doesn't have to be something big - or if it is something big, break it down into smaller elements. For instance, it could be as simple as feeling grateful for being able to feel the wind on your face, or being able to see a wonderful view. For something bigger, it could be 'I am so grateful for my amazing wife and children'. Break that down further and you might say 'I am so grateful for my wife's cooking, for the way she smiles at me; or for the way my daughter hugs me when she sees me'.
- Stretch it out Any kind of exercise in the morning is good for you. Yoga is particularly good because it links the mind, the breath and the body. In the book Ikigai, which is all about studying people who live well into their 100s, they found that most of them did some form of stretching every day. It's really easy to do. Just head onto Youtube and find a 10-15 minute session that you can do from your living room.
- Meditation and mindfulness
Just taking the time to sit, focus on your breath and clear your mind has been proven to reduce stress and increase performance. Many of the top business people in the world cite meditation as being the key to their success. The US Marines even use it to prepare for conflict, and deal with the stress of their experiences on their return.You don't have to be perfect. Many people I talk to worry about not achieving some deep, universe-connected trance! That could happen, but don't stress. Just sit on the floor or in a chair, close your eyes and focus on your breath coming in and out. You could also use guided meditations and apps like Headspace.
- Spend time with people Do something fun and healthy with friends and colleagues. Just being with people you like spending time with while enjoying yourself is a great way to relieve stress. Outdoor activities - walking, cycling or playing sport - gives you the triple whammy of being with people you like, doing exercise you enjoy out in nature. You'll get an amazing return on your investment of time.
- Sleep Getting enough sleep is essential to reducing stress and managing your health. We should be getting a recommended 7.5 to 8 hours a night - or at least having that time as 'sleep opportunity'. When we sleep long enough, it gives the body the chance to clear out all the bad stuff we build up during the day. More importantly, it's an opportunity for our brains to do a complete reset - like turning a computer off and on. Smart watches make it easy to measure the time and quality of sleep we have. The easiest way to get the right amount of sleep is to go to bed earlier than you would normally.
- Breathe deep By taking slow, deep breaths - a minimum of 7 seconds in, 7 seconds out - we ignite our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us relax. When you're feeling stressed out, try several slow, deep breaths.
- Get motivated Like many things that are good for us, it requires discipline to keep up. Listen to, watch or read motivational stuff. There are so many great Youtube videos, podcasts, playlists, books and blogs out there from people with inspirational stories. Build this into your morning routine when you're commuting, driving or getting up, and allow it to fuel your day. Switch off the news (which is usually depressing) and fill your mind and body with something energising.
And that's it: all my ideas from this week's series on managing stress. If you found this useful, let me know. Equally, if you have some of your own tips for managing stress, please share them. For more everyday tips, check out my Instagram and Youtube channels.