Let’s break up.
Stress, I’m sure, is something we can all relate to and most of us will have experienced it at some point in our lives, or are exposed to it regularly in daily life. Today’s world operates at an increasingly fast pace and as individuals we are faced with the pressure that comes from the various demands that are put on us. Whether it be raising children, coping with a hectic stressful job, worrying about paying the bills or trying to kick bad or unhealthy habits, all of these things can lead to a mountain of stress if not managed in the right way.
In times past when you finished work, unless you chose to take it with you, you could at least unwind in the evening in preparation for the next day. Now however, we get our work emails directly to our phone and with the explosion of social media, there’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and various other social media platforms to keep up with. As a result, our brains are rarely given time off to truly rest.
I realised recently, that stress was starting to have an impact on my own life. With three children to raise, a photography business to grow, a busy household to run and a house move to plan for this year there have been days where I have felt overwhelmed by it all. Not getting enough sleep was probably a hugely unhelpful contributing factor. I was regularly burning the midnight oil and my head wouldn’t hit the pillow till midnight or 1 a.m only to be woken a short time later by my three year old in the middle of the night.
I watched a really interesting programme recently called ‘How to Stay Young’ which is available on BBC catch up. It explored the reasons we age and what we can do to help slow the ageing process down. It was unsurprising to hear that stress was a big contributor to ageing and was responsible for a whole host of health conditions that could literally take years off your life. Amusingly, as I watched, I felt myself getting increasingly stressed about the fact I was obviously ‘getting stressed’! It was then I decided I needed to take control and make some important changes in order to feel more of a sense of balance in my life.
I have been trying out these changes for a few weeks now and already I can feel the benefits both mentally and physically. It’s not rocket science but this is what’s working for me..
It has been said that stress is directly related to how out of control we feel in a given situation. If something is overwhelming you or you feel under pressure it’s only natural this will heighten your stress levels. Feeling out of control can feel quite scary and can cause a lot of anxiety and a sense of panic. Your chest tightens, your blood pressure rises and your body becomes tense and all that can be triggered by something as simple as trying to get the school run done in the morning!
When I decided I wanted to make changes to improve the way my daily life worked, I sat down and thought hard about why I found myself getting stressed at times. What was the root of it all? There has been a lot of change in my life over the last two years which has I’m sure been a contributing factor but I also realised that I had allowed myself to fall into a number of bad habits such as working too late, eating too late, not having enough down time and not getting enough sleep. I also spent a lot of my time worrying about the ‘what if’s’ in life and not enough time just being in the now.
I decided to write a list of all the things I could control and then all the things I couldn’t. I took a step back and analysed where I was going wrong with some of the things on the list that I could control and then created an action plan for what I was going to do to change them. It is very hard to let go of what you can’t control but this is what I am also attempting to do.
Worrying about what may or may not happen to us in life is enough to drive you crazy. All we can do is our best and in a strange sort of way by choosing to let go of what we can’t control is in itself a form of control!
Get More Sleep!
My Mum has been telling me for years that I don’t get enough sleep and I know she is right. I have always been someone who has headed later to bed than I should and with three children under the age of ten it is unsurprising that not only have I been burning the candle at both ends, I have been burning it in the middle too! Young children in particular (unless you are blessed) have a habit of waking in the night meaning not only have I been short on sleep, the precious sleep I have had, has been disturbed too. I am not saying this because I am looking for any kind of sympathy. I know I have been my own worst enemy on the matter but my evenings have always been the time I have got so much done and so I have always pushed myself beyond what is sensible.
As part of my new routine, I am running things very differently! I know that in order to really function the next day I need seven hours sleep. I have therefore had to discipline myself to have a cut off point in the evening where no matter what I’m working on, I down tools and get to bed. I have also been blessed with the fact that after months of disturbed sleep due to my three year old waking every night and getting into bed, he is now sleeping through. This has made the world of difference. Before, upon waking, I had to drag my tired, heavy body to the shower in order to feel vaguely human whereas now I find myself waking every morning just before my alarm and getting up easily feeling refreshed.
Another very important reason to get a good full night’s sleep is because without it your body releases more of the stress hormone cortisol. It’s true to say that after a few missed nights of sleep your skin looks sallow and your eyes appear puffy but chronic sleep loss can lead to dark circles, fine lines and lackluster skin. In excess amounts, cortisol can age you by breaking down your skin collagen, the protein that keeps your skin elastic and smooth. Also a 2005 Sleep in America poll stated that people who were diagnosed with anxiety or depression were more likely to sleep less than six hours at night….So if you want to look your best as well as feel your best you need your beauty sleep!
Have a Clean, Stress Busting Diet
Okay no major revelations here but it is scientifically proven that a healthy diet can help lower your blood pressure and counter the impact of stress by shoring up our your immune system. Comfort foods such as porridge oats help boost serotonin, a calming brain chemical. Bananas and avocados are also a fantastic source of potassium which helps lower blood pressure that rises during a period of stress.
I have always had a reasonably healthy diet low in wheat and simple carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, potatoes and white rice. I drink a fair amount of water and eat a lot of chicken and fish and limit my red meat intake to once a week when we’ll usually indulge in a chilli, spaghetti bolognese or roast dinner! I opt for a small amount of dark chocolate as opposed to milk or white chocolate and I avoid caffeine and prefer fruit or camomile tea on the whole, although I occasionally opt for a decaffeinated cappuccino when the mood takes me! I have also become more disciplined about not eating too close to bedtime which is best for keeping the weight off.
I treat breakfast as one of the most important meals of the day to get me on track and often start with either eggs which are a great source of Vitamin B and protein or I opt for a green smoothie which contains 2 apples, 2 sticks of celery, a small piece of fresh ginger and half a lemon, a small bowl of kale, a handful of cashews and walnuts, a dessert spoon of chia seeds and a dessert spoon of flax seed and a three inch chunk of cucumber. I juice the apples, celery, lemon and ginger and a small amount of the kale and then put the juice in the blender with the other ingredients. It’s a protein packed, immune boosting cocktail that tastes great, is filling and makes you feel incredibly virtuous!
Having done some research I found out some other great stress busting foods you can eat which are not only healthy and good for you but will have a positive impact on your mental health. Eating healthily does not necessarily mean you won’t experience stress but it can have a direct impact on how your body handles the stress itself. As well as nuts (unsalted and in small quantities), seeds, avocados and bananas, a diet containing, oranges, fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and tuna, spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes and asparagus, will help your body cope with the symptoms of stress.
You may argue so will a giant slice of chocolate cake and a large glass of wine (!) but although this will boost your serotonin levels temporarily, the refined sugar will also cause your blood sugar levels to soar only to crash a few hours later causing the release of the stress hormone adrenaline into your system. So if you really want to help your body deal with stress, temporary fixes are best avoided or kept for the occasional treat and a healthy, nutritious diet is the way forward.
If You Have Time for Facebook, You Have Time For Exercise!
We all know that a healthy diet and exercise are important factors in hopefully living a longer life but exercise is also considered to be one of the biggest stress combatants there is. When we exercise our brain releases stress reducing endorphins that help us cope with stress better. It also helps keep our heart healthy and increases the oxygen levels in our system making us feel a greater sense of well-being and happiness.
I have had a love-hate relationship with exercise over the years as in I am never particularly enthusiastic about the thought of doing it but when I do put my mind to it, I love how I feel as a result! I have always been active as a person and spend a lot of time running around but I was aware that if I really wanted to feel good long term then I had to find time to exercise. I never really knew where to fit exercise into my day which was my first stumbling block. I was always too tired in the evening after putting the kids to bed and work took priority as it did in the day.
However, with my new strict regime of going to bed earlier and getting a good night’s sleep, I have started setting my alarm earlier in the morning and do a half an hour DVD workout first thing before the school run. This time of day works really well for me because it doesn’t interfere with the rest of my schedule and really energises me for the day ahead.
Everybody has busy lives but making time for exercise is an essential part of keeping our bodies strong and ready for what life throws at us. Even if it’s just going for a walk, the more active you can be the better you will feel and the less stressed you are likely to be.
Take Time Out
Taking time out of our busy schedules to completely relax is essential to help reduce stress. Failing to recharge our batteries can cause a variety of health issues and also lead to anxiety and depression, so it’s essential that even if it’s just for an hour each day, we find some time to chill out and switch off.
When I find myself getting stressed, I have learned to focus on deep breathing to help calm my mind and body, which helps me regain control of the physical side of stress whilst also relaxing my thoughts and bringing me into the moment. I also encourage this technique in my children if they are particularly upset about something and it always has a very soothing affect on them. Whilst doing the breathing exercises I focus my mind on something pleasant, whether it be a favourite place, or an experience that made me happy and by doing so I am able to remove myself from the stressful situation and regain control.
There are many other positive ways to take time out. Dancing or listening to upbeat or soothing music for example can be fantastic for changing your mood and giving your brain a rest from what’s stressing you. Learning a few yoga stretches or taking a warm bubble bath with scented candles are also great ways to relax your body from the physical symptoms that come with stress.
If you can get away from it all then plan a holiday or a short child-free break that allows you to explore a different city or country for a few days and take you out of the environment you are in. Doing so can help you gain some perspective on your situation as well as giving yourself the well deserved break you need. If you can’t get away physically then mentally escape for a few hours with a good book or film to take your mind off things. These are completely fail-safe for me and are always guaranteed to help me relax!
Being Organised is Being in Control…
Anyone that knows me will probably smirk if they are reading this as I am not renowned for being one of life’s most organised people! I am a bit of a butterfly (like many creatives) and I do flit from one thing to another quite often but I also work hard to try and stay in control as best I can. In truth, I envy people who are super organised and who manage to do it with such ease.
My Mum, for example, is incredibly organised. As a PA to a Director she has no other choice but to be and all the good habits she has developed at work, spill into her home life. Everything has a place and she lives by her diary and endless to do lists and is a diligent planner.
I do make lists, I do plan and I am getting much better at prioritising but when you throw children into the mix sometimes things can feel a little chaotic! There always feels like you have a million things to remember but still they get to school on time, with clean clothes and packed lunches and I always have a present ready for a birthday party – okay it’s the basics but on the inside I’m giving myself a high five!
It goes without saying that if you are more organised you are going to feel less stressed. The subject of being organised is a whole topic in itself but there are also some obvious starting places you can kick off with to make you feel more in control and on top of things…
One great way is to start by decluttering. Clutter, particularly paperwork, that builds up around your home can really push your stress levels up. I appreciate that when you run a busy life it’s easy to build up and can sit around for a long time but it really is worth scheduling a day where you hit it head on. Even if it’s just that pile of paperwork in your in-tray or going through your junk drawer with a plastic bag ready, the feeling of relief is so worth the choir and is like mentally shedding weight and will definitely help reduce your stress once it’s done. I wrote a whole post on the subject which you can read here: De-junk your Life
Make sure you make lists and try and plan your day an evening ahead so you wake up focussed. Make the list realistic though and think about what you can achieve that day. There is nothing more satisfying than crossing things off your list but if you make the list too long then you’ll feel like you’re failing. If you need a long list of all the things you have to do, that’s fine, but break it down so you don’t feel overwhelmed.
Work on your time management (note to self!). Ever had loads of time to get somewhere, only to run late at the last minute? How does that happen? I had this very conversation with someone once and we both agreed that when you have more time than you need to be somewhere you easily fill it with things you probably don’t need to be doing! I have been working on time management all my life and I’m still trying! I get the theory but it’s the practice I struggle with. I think the key is simple. Do not fill your day with more than is necessary and learn to say no to things that can wait until you have more time or got the important things out of the way first…
Since I made the changes in my life I am definitely feeling happier and more in control. I am learning not to put so much pressure on myself to be superwoman and get help when and where I need it. Life after all is about trying to create a sense of balance as too much of anything can tip you in the wrong direction.
I am not saying my life is or will become stress free, in fact a little bit of stress is actually known to be good for you as challenges and motivates you but too much can leave you uptight and wondering how you are going to get through the day without internally combusting!
So if you feel an implosion coming on then take a look at how you can make your own changes so you can start living more…and stressing less!