How To Hack Your Habits Part 2: Surviving The Stress Epidemic
There’s no getting away from it – stress is an everyday part of our lives and it’s here to stay. In fact, the World Health Organization calls stress “the health epidemic of the twenty first century” with up to 80 per cent of all GP consultations now thought to be somehow related to stress.
There are, of course, times when we feel on top of things and in control of our lives, but there are also times when stresses can overwhelm us. These stresses can be identified, such as in testing times at work and in relationships, but there are also every day stresses that we don’t always register, such as poor diet, environmental toxin exposure and lack of quality sleep.
Here’s the kicker; the very existence of stress in our lives, minds and bodies has the power to generate more stress. The more that piles up, the less we’re able to cope and the nearer we move to that threshold at which we simply stop managing our lives successfully, that’s when we become overly emotional, weary and eventually sick. People who are stressed are also more likely to fall out with others, binge on bad foods and alcohol.
There is now plenty of evidence to show that stress can have devastating long-term consequences for health with too much stress (and lack of resilience to manage the stresses) contributing to obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. Stress is also a key player in insomnia, burn-out, autoimmune disease and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Today’s society looks favourably on people being busy. We may think of ourselves (or others) as being lazy and even unsuccessful if we stop for even a moment. Most people I know schedule and fill their days with a multitude of “doing” jobs and tasks that keeps them on the go from the moment they wake till the moment their head hits the pillow.
But did you know that many entrepreneurs and highly successful people do the opposite? They schedule and prioritise down-time into their daily lives as they know it helps maximise their productivity and creativity and is integral to their success.
So now is not the time to be blasé about stress in our lives! We sometimes think we can get away with burning the candle at both ends for extended periods of times, or even forever, but the reality is very different. I see many people in my health coaching clinic that are now suffering the health consequences of not intervening and managing stress and resilience in their lives sooner.
Of course, we’re never going to completely rid ourselves of stress, neither would we want to, as appropriate amounts of pressure are evolutionarily designed to help our physical and mental health. After all, adrenaline and cortisol, the two main hormones secreted by different parts of the adrenal gland are required in carefully regulated amounts over a 24-hour period to support areas such as the immune system, cardiovascular system and even sleep patterns.
It’s the chronic overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis from overexposure to many different types of stresses (e.g. information and work overload, sugar, alcohol and sedentary lifestyles to name just a few), day in and day out that leads to a myriad of health problems.
I hope that you’ve had a chance to read my blog on How to Hack Your Habits Part 1. In this blog, I discussed how to successfully and permanently change your habits to support a healthier and happier you for the new year and beyond. I talked through three simple but effective habit changes based around diet and eating patterns to thrive in 2019. It may not seem so obvious as changing your diet to improve your health, but changing your habits around managing stress can be just as profound. In fact relaxation habits are the way forward! Who wouldn’t want to experience just some of these benefits from being relaxed more often?
• Weight loss
• Improved resilience
• Improved ability to cope
• More balanced outlook
• Less road rage
• Improved quality sleep
• Better concentration
By following my “How to Hack Your Habits” programme you will already have in place simple habit changes based around your diet and eating patterns. Now, here are some simple relaxation habits you can now pick from. If slowing down or even switching off at times during the day seems too daunting (after all being on the go all the time can be addictive in that our body and minds become programmed to function in that way) then pick just one from the following list. However, the aim is to build on your habit changes to include at least three relaxation habits by the end of the month.
1. Schedule “me time” every day and choose to relax – for at least 15 minutes every day, and more if possible, stop everything and be utterly selfish. The only rules are that this is your time, it must not involve using your smart phone, tablet or computer and you must not feel guilty about it. This will only create more stress! Example activities include:
• Reading a magazine or book
• Taking a walk
• Having a relaxing bath
• Listening to relaxing music
• Meeting a friend
• Doing a creative hobby – my latest creative hobby is painting mandala stones; it’s mindful, relaxing and oh so addictive!
It doesn’t matter what the activity is – it’s the choosing to relax that is important.
2. Make one day a week “screen free” – doing a weekly digital detox is a great way to unwind from information and technology overload. One study in 2014 showed that we check our phones on average 221 times a day with many people spending at least 4 hours interacting with their phones.
3. Keep a daily gratitude journal – evolution has designed us to focus on the negative in our lives; when we’ve had a bad day it redirects our thoughts and often leads us to overthink problems and negative experiences. This in turn creates stress. Simply writing down at least three positive things that have happened in your day can reframe your mindset, remove the emotional and psychological stresses and make us feel more positive. Do this every day.
4. Practise stillness every day Ask yourself this: “When was the last time you stopped and truly did nothing”? Allowing the body and mind to become still on a regular (daily) basis is the quickest way to calm down and rebalance the cortisol and adrenaline responses. In turn, this helps us to relax and recharges the mind making us feel energised, alert and focused. Never a bad thing!
Meditation is the main practise of stillness that comes to mind. It can mean different things to different people but the very act of sitting somewhere quiet with your eyes closed and regulating your inhale and exhale for just 3-5 minutes everyday helps the body and mind to relax. There are meditation classes and different styles of mediation for those that wish to explore this option but scheduling just 3 minutes of stillness, focussing on the breath is a good place to start. I highly recommend Headspace and the accompanying app to help you get started. “The Art of Breathing” by Dr Danny Penman is also a thoughtfully written short book helping uncover the secret to living mindfully. Just looking through the beautifully drawn illustrations in this book helps you to instantly feel calmer and more relaxed.
5. Reclaim your dining table – in How to Hack Your Habits Part 1 I talked about eating habits to change your health. But it’s not just what you eat but also how you eat that can contribute to your body and mind’s response to stress. By eating at least one meal a day sitting down at the table and without your mobile device helps brings focus back to food, the process of eating and helps the body to digest. If we’re distracted from our food, and on top of that stressed by what we’re reading on news sites or social media, then our digestion is going to be impacted. Relaxation around eating therefore helps our digestive systems breakdown and absorbs all the nutrients we need for health.
Food Supplement for Relaxation
There are also various food and herbal supplements that can help regulate cortisol levels, support quality sleep and help promote relaxation that can be used in conjunction with relaxation techniques and habits. For example, Ashwagandha is known as an adaptogenic herb and helps reduce the impact of stress on the body in part from regulating adrenal function and cortisol levels.
5-HTP and herbs such as chamomile and passionflower also help promote feelings of calm. For more information about these supplements please read the following Nutrigold blogs:
Magnesium is also key for relaxation, and many areas of health. To find out more and to understand the importance of magnesium citrate please enjoy these Nutrigold blogs:
So make 2019 the year of relaxation. It’s one of the best ways to improve your health! If you’re interested in finding out more practical information to support yourself in the areas of mindfulness, meditation and stress management then I cannot recommend highly enough Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s excellent second book “The Stress Solution”, which is hot off the press. This engaging and comprehensive book delves deeper in managing stress through a variety of different practical complimentary approaches.
Wishing you the best of health,