These days, we tend to wear stress like a badge of honour. Being overly busy, rushing from meeting to meeting, from one place to the next, filling our diaries with appointments, events, classes, work commitments, family obligations and more means that the idea of ‘downtime’ seems like a real luxury that we no longer believe is all that important. With the rise in technology which allows our work, emails and conversations all to sit in the palm of our hand, being switched on and contactable 24/7 is the new norm.
It comes as no surprise that “stressed” has become the normal state of being. But what does it mean for us to live in a constant state of stress? How is this affecting our health, our work, our relationships, our longevity? Most of all, how can we move beyond this state of stress and reclaim our lives and wellbeing?
Stress is, in fact, a perfectly normal function for the human body. In fact, it is an important survival mechanism that does little to zero harm in small does. Not all that long ago in human civilisation, the stress response initially came into play when a real threat appeared that was likely to endanger our lives- we encountered a tiger and had to run for our lives, for example. In this case, our body reacts, the stress response is activated, we shift into our sympathetic nervous system which enables us to deal with the threat, and then once we are safe and the threat is mitigated, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks back in and we relax. However in the modern world, when our perceived threats feel ongoing and overwhelming, then we stay in that state of stress and the body is unable to return to its normal state.
It is this constant, chronic stress that is not only unhealthy for us but is literally dangerous. Stress is making us sick, and according to the World Health Organisation, stress is the health epidemic of the 21st Century. When we are in a state of alert, stress hormones shut down nonessential systems- namely the digestive and reproductive systems- in favour of survival. Furthermore, it affects the functioning of our immune system and can elevate inflammation in the body, making us vulnerable and creating an environment ripe for disease, infection and illness to develop and proliferate.
A relatively new term associated with this form of chronic stress is burnout. Burnout is caused by the physical ramifications that the body endures when in a constant and prolonged state of stress. The symptoms of burnout include emotional exhaustion, cynicism and feeling ineffective, frequent colds or sickness, body pain, headaches, insomnia and a tendency to alleviate stress in unhealthy ways, such as turning to alcohol, drugs, food or other addictive and harmful behaviours.
The only way to truly address burnout is to properly heal the physical body, not to just avoid or control the stressors in play. Preventing and treating burnout requires hard decisions and commitment. There are 24 hours in every day and it is up to each of us to decide what we do with those. Dedicating an hour to extra sleep, a walk in nature, or a cup of tea with a friend is important, yet these things are often the first to go when our plate is full.
Making space in our lives so we’re not so hurried and stressed isn’t easy, especially in a culture that shames slow living. We worry that we are wasting time if we are not being productive in some way. It takes a real change in mindset and behavioural patterns to feel ok with slowing down and enjoying the sweet stillness of life.
Whether you feel you are in the midst of burnout, heading down that road, or even just suffer from acute bursts of stress from time to time, these pointers below can help you to find balance and control. By acknowledging your stress you can start to reverse its presence and impact on your life. There are a number of ways you can reduce stress and improve your health; it all starts with making a commitment to self-care and a willingness to change your lifestyle.
Technology allows and enables us to do so much. Far beyond simply staying connected, our phones and laptops have become intrinsic to our day to day life. Yet, an unhealthy relationship with technology can fuel stress and burnout. Do you feel a sense of unease or even panic if you don’t have your phone on you?! You’re not alone. It is more important than ever to create rules and boundaries around technology in order to feel in control and lower the stress that our devices can contribute to. Try to allow at least 30 or 60 minutes after waking up and before going to sleep to be device-free. In the morning, taking a few minutes to breathe, meditate, or do a simple gratitude practice can radically transform your mindset and the rest of the day. Try deleting apps from your phone that you don’t need, even try deleting your social media apps and keeping them only on your desktop. Turn off notifications and sounds so that you aren’t being constantly distracted by your phone all day. Keep your phone out of sight while working, off the table when eating and in your glovebox when driving. Believe it or not, you are not tied to your phone and time away from it will do you a world of good! Start to really factor in these moments throughout the day where you can disconnect- it is a powerful way to reconnect to the things that truly matter.
Prioritise your Zzzzz’s
Restorative sleep is hugely important in reducing stress. It is also essential to prevent stress from being cumulative. Making stress a priority in your life is key to ensuring you get proper deep rest plus all of its restorative benefits. Sleep is essential for every single element of our health and wellbeing. Inadequate sleep is related to a whole host of issues from a weakened immune system to poor digestion, to heart disease to weight gain, to hormonal imbalances to mood disorders and more. Unfortunately, stress can also induce insomnia. Stress keeps the brain active and impedes sleep initiation through stimulating the body and keeping it awake. Setting yourself up for a good night’s sleep is a behavioural pattern worth investing in. Things that can help you ensure you get a good nights shut-eye include exercising during the day, having a dark, quiet bedroom, limiting screens and technology before bed, being consistent in your bedtime, not eating too closely to going to sleep, herbal tea before bed, essential oils such as lavender, and utilising the time prior to bed to enjoy restful activities such as reading, taking a hot bath, or meditating.
Ditch the Caffeine
Warning, you may not want to read this one! Launching into the day with a fresh cup of coffee is the norm for the majority of the population. For those under stress, or suffering from fatigue or burnout, coffee can even be a crutch to get you through the day. Unfortunately, caffeine increases the body’s levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” It also increases dopamine levels and injects adrenaline into your system- both of which offer a temporary boost, but end up making you feel flat and fatigued later, ready to reach for another hit. Ditching coffee (and ultimately, all caffeine) can be a sensible step in the right direction when it comes to addressing both stress and anxiety. Caffeine will also trigger your fight-or-flight response, which is most likely already on full alert for those suffering from burnout. Chances are, if you are relying on coffee or stimulants to pull you through the day, this will also have an adverse effect on your sleep patterns- perpetuating a vicious cycle of highs and lows. Quitting caffeine isn’t necessarily easy, but doing it gradually is key. Try cutting back to 1 or 2 cups a day, then try switching to black or green tea or decaf. Once you move through the initial stage of caffeine withdrawal, you will likely find that you have more sustained natural energy and have lower levels of stress and anxiety.
Focus on Breathing
Breathing tends to come up in many topics surrounding wellness these days. How can breathing help, you may wonder? When we are stressed we breathe very differently to how we are ideally programed to breathe. When we are constantly in a state of stress, we spend the majority of the day in fight or flight mode. The fight or flight response activates the sympathetic nervous system. In this state, your breathing becomes short, shallow and rapid, and your blood pressure and pulse rate all increase. The parasympathetic nervous system brings the body back to balance and deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing is one of the best ways to stimulate the relaxation response and switch the body back to the parasympathetic nervous system. While getting into the habit of breathing this way all the time takes practice, you can consciously initiate these proper breathing techniques anytime throughout the day, especially in moments where you are in a heightened state of stress. All you have to do is simply close your eyes and take a few deep, full breaths, allowing your belly to expand and contract with the inhale and exhale. At the beginning, you can even set an alarm on your phone to remind you to take a few deep breaths every hour. Don’t underestimate the power of your breath- it is after all, what keeps us alive.
You may not realise it, but your self-talk may be sabotaging your stress levels. Self-talk can greatly affect your stress levels in multiple ways. If your self-talk is generally negative, you may be perceiving events if your life as more stressful than they need to be. You may also succumb to patterns of negative thinking that can bring stress from the past into the present unnecessarily. Self-limiting statements like “I can’t handle this” or “this is impossible” are particularly damaging and tend to be habitual. Believe it or not, most of the time we are the only ones putting deadlines and pressure on ourselves. Start becoming aware of the words you are telling yourself and also the words you are using. Think about the last time someone asked you how you were? Was your first response ‘Busy!’ Often, we say we are busy out of habit. Even trying to let go of the word busy from your vocabulary can make a huge difference. The words we use and the things we repeat daily have a lot of power, so make them work for you, not against you. Try focusing on positive words and supportive self-talk and avoid words, phrases or patterns that have a detrimental effect on your mental and emotional wellbeing.
Relationships can be a source of stress in and of themselves. On the flip side, stress can also harm our relationships. However, being around people, fostering deep connections with people and having positive, loving relationships can also be of great benefit and can be particularly helpful in reducing stress and healing from burnout. Try to let go of relationships in your life that are causing or adding to your stress. Of course, if this is your boss or your next-door neighbour or a family member, that can be tricky! But limiting your time with them or finding ways to navigate the discomfort can be helpful. Toxic relationships carry a heavy weight, so lighten the load where you can. Instead, surround yourself with people that uplift you, inspire you and support you. Meaningful human connections are becoming more important as we increasingly rely on technology for communication. Nothing beats real person-to-person contact and studies show that we need these close relationships in our lives to thrive. Warm, friendly patterns of physical touch also calm down the neurophysiology of stress. Simply holding the hand of a loved one can deactivate the stress-related regions of the brain. The bottom line? Hug it out, schedule time with close friends, switch off when you get home to spend proper time relating to your partner or family, chat to the server at your grocery store, smile at someone on the street, become friends with your co-workers. More positive human connection equals less stress and burnout.
There was a time not very long ago when the boundaries between work and home were very clear. These days, work is likely to invade your personal life in various ways and maintaining work-life balance is no simple task. Technology now enables us to work from anywhere, making it feel almost impossible to truly switch off. Juggling the demands of career and personal life are likely to be an ongoing challenge, but you can learn to set limits and boundaries. At work, learn how to manage your time and cut or delegate activities wherever possible. Keep lists and plans that help you to manage your time efficiently and productively. Learn how to say no- this is a big one that is hard for many people. When you stop accepting tasks out of guilt or a false sense of obligation, you’ll have more time for activities and people that are meaningful to you. Make a conscious decision to separate work time from personal time and set rules for yourself such as switching your phone notifications off when not at work or not checking emails from home. Outside of work, be proactive and committed to your own needs. Find a practice that relaxes you and do it often, whether it’s yoga, surfing, painting or running, do something that enables you to take your mind off things that stress you. When we are caught up in a stressful work cycle, our personal life can feel non-existent and making empowering changes and maintaining healthy habits takes commitment. Creating boundaries and making conscious choices are key to lowering or eliminating stress and healing or preventing burnout.
Let’s face it, stress may never go away entirely. However, learning to manage your stress levels will help you live a calmer, more balanced lifestyle and prevent a mild case of stress from turning into prolonged or debilitating burnout. Wellness is a journey, and it’s never-ending. There isn’t a quick fix to becoming more centered and balanced. It’s about the small changes that add up to a big change. For example, finding moments throughout the day to do a simple meditation practice, switching off your phone when you get home, saying no to yet another work event, opting for a juice over a coffee and making 8 hours of sleep a priority no matter what. Our modern lives tend to leave us anxious, stressed and exhausted- yet it doesn’t need to be this way. YOU have the power to shift out of stress and away from burnout and make self-care and balance a priority.
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