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10 stress-busting tips to help improve your mental health

Effective coping strategies for when you're feeling the pressure

Stress and mental health. Three words that are turning out to be synonymous with 2020.

But with life and the future so unpredictable at the moment thanks to Covid-19, it’s only natural to be feeling the pressure—if you aren’t anxious or worried, we’d love to know your secret!

So what actually is stress, and how can you manage it so you are better able to cope and roll with the punches? Co-Founder of wellness website, Paul Gurney shares his tips and advice.

What is stress?

Stress is a psychological and physical response to pressure. According to the Mental Health Foundation, it's the degree to which we "feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable.” Essentially, it's the body's reaction to harmful situations.

When we feel threatened, the body experiences a chemical reaction to help us act in a way to avoid injury. This is the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. It's also called the stress response. When stress response kicks in, the heart rate rises, breathing quickens, and blood pressure increases. The body primes itself to react and protect itself. You can see what was once a basic survival mechanism has evolved into what we call stress in the modern day.

Today, our stress response triggers because we feel under pressure. We may feel we have too few resources to cope with too many demands. That pressure can arise from uncontrollable factors including adverse life events, illness, unemployment, or difficult living conditions. For example, working from home due to Covid-19 and having to juggle work and children!

The ability to cope varies from person to person—what one person finds stressful may not be a problem for someone else.

A little stress is not always a bad thing, either. It is, after all, a protective mechanism. However, our bodies struggle to deal with long term, chronic stress. It is this that has health consequences.

How does stress affect the body?

Long term, persistent stress can wear the body down over time. It can make you sick, both mentally and physically. Now, it's important to know it is a hormone called cortisol causing the stress response in the body. Essentially, cortisol is the body's key stress hormone. It plays a number of key roles in the body, and so constantly high stress levels—i.e. high cortisol levels—can throw the body out of balance.

This is because cortisol plays a role in many bodily functions:
  • Controls your sleep cycle
  • Keeps inflammation down
  • Regulates blood pressure
  • Manages how the body uses carbs, fats and proteins
  • Raises blood sugar levels
  • Boosts energy levels to handle pressured situations

If the body is under constant stress, it's now easy to see why it can have such sweeping impacts on the mind and body. Too much stress can have common reactions, such as:
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Raised levels of inflammation in the body
  • Weight gain
  • Anxiety
  • Concentration and memory issues
  • Digestion issues
  • Heart disease

10 Ways To Reduce Stress

Not all of these will work for everyone. However, most who handle stress well tend to be adopting a number of these handy stress-busters. Find your combo and blend it into your daily routine:

Working out doesn't just provide a burst of feel-good endorphins, it also lowers cortisol levels in the body, which is directly responsible for the feeling of stress! In times like these, just adding a daily walk into the routine can really boost the mood.

Try some plant-based aids
Plant-based supplements really can help the body deal with stress. Some civilisations have been using natural plant anti-stressors called adaptogens, for example ashwagandha, for many hundreds of years. More recently, hemp-derived CBD has come on the scene too. You can also look into lemon balm, omega-3 fatty acids, green tea and others.
Ease up on the caffeine
This will only apply to a few, and they know who they are. If you go through more than five cups of coffee a day, and you're always stressed, caffeine could be the cause. Try reducing to one a day over a few weeks, and see how you feel.

Have a mindful 5-minute timeout
Sometimes it can feel like the day is rushing past and you hardly have time to breathe. These are the days when we need a five-minute circuit breaker the most. Find a quiet space (even if it's the toilet!) and do nothing. Just five minutes to be alone with your thoughts. It will help you feel more in control.

Have a good laugh
At the end of a busy and stressful day, try flicking on a feel-good romcom, or an old favourite like Friends. The News at Ten can wait another day! This will release endorphins and help calm the mind.
Learn to love the word ‘no’
Stress can build up from taking on too much. It's not giving up if you opt not to take on another responsibility at work or in the family. Reasonable people will understand when you say you've hit the threshold. So, when it's getting a bit much, learn to be comfortable saying ‘no’ to another request on your time. It feels good, promise!

Make time for a cuddle
Yes, you read that right. Intimacy relieves stress, and not just cuddles. Imagine what sex could do. Try it! It's a brilliant excuse for some private time with a loved one.

Switch to Classic FM
Classical music – as well as the sounds of nature – can serve to quickly calm the mind. Slow-paced music can encourage the body to relax, lower heart rates and reduce cortisol levels.

Find a furry friend
Interacting with a cuddly cat or dog can help to release oxytocin, otherwise known as the love hormone. Many of us don't have a pet at home, but fear not, because the 21st century has your back: try signing up for Borrow My Doggy to do exactly that.

Write it down
If you find your brain keeps whirring and thinking about all the things you need to remember to do tomorrow, get a notepad. Write them all down – it will let the brain relax and let go of trying to remember it all. It's simple, but it works wonders. You can even keep a notepad by the bedside in case you have a bout of brain-whirr when trying to sleep.