It has been a tiring day: I’ve been busy at work and my mind is still running at 100 mph. I pass by the gym on my way home but I’m too preoccupied to go inside. My gym bag is sat on the passenger’s seat beside me, untouched for longer than I care to admit. I also pass by McDonalds on my way home. I go by the drive through. I eat my burger as I drive, sauce dripping onto the tray that is balanced on my lap, and when I arrive home I turn on my laptop before I’ve even taken off my shoes. There’s one email I still needed to tend to, and… oh! there’s another! Before I know it, it is 11pm, the room has gone dark around me, and I stumble into bed. I’m unable to sleep.

Certainly we can all recall a time when we were so sucked into our work we let everything else fall to the wayside? Certainly we can all recall a time when our minds ran at 100mph, and we chose not to stop it but, rather, tried to keep up?

Let’s rewrite this scenario a little, shall we?

It has been a tiring day, but I took my lunchbreak outside and even went for a little stroll. I returned to my desk feeling more energised, and I got a lot done in the afternoon… which meant I left the office at 5pm on the dot! There was one email I wanted to tend to before going home (where I have a strict no-work policy after a long day), but I skim-read it as I packed up and judged that it could wait until tomorrow. Had it needed my attention now, I would have tended to it for my own peace of mind, but it only seldom happens that I need to stay beyond my 9-to-5 working hours. I know that a work-life balance is key for my mental health, my productivity, and my work satisfaction. On my way home, I pass the gym. I exercised in the morning before work, as I find that it energises me, so I now pass by feeling good about myself. I also pass McDonalds and, whilst it’s a tempting easy meal, I know that there’s fresh produce waiting in the fridge, and making a quick dinner tonight will mean I can eat mindfully, healthily, and have leftovers for my lunch tomorrow. So I head home, I cook, I tidy up, and I call it a day. Tonight, I decide to call a friend and then read a book. Yesterday, I did a meditation practice and watched a film. Tomorrow is Friday and I will be going for drinks with some colleagues. These activities all energise me and help me get through the week… and all without feeling burnt out.

These two scenarios are obviously quite different! Can you spot how the second one is much more adaptive than the first? What are the main differences? And in what ways can you apply these strategies to your own life, to reduce your own stress levels?

Stress is a normal physiological response, initiated by the body to deal with real-life dangers. Fortunately, these dangers are a thing of the past, but unfortunately your body’s response is not! This means that your body’s reaction can often be out of proportion compared to the real-world ‘threats’ we experience. Rather than run from a tiger, we may need to run to catch the train, and we don’t need the same stress response because it isn’t life or death! As such, rather than benefit us and our survival, the body’s stress reaction can often be detrimental, leading to a range of outcomes from anxiety to high blood pressure. Here’s what we can do about it:

  1. Take breaks. Honestly, schedule them in. Taking a break allows you to reset for a moment, to take a step back, and even to approach a problem with entirely new insights! Use this time to focus on your breathing, catch some sun rays, and stretch your legs. You could also get yourself a hot drink, do a meditation, or take as little as 15 minutes to do an activity you enjoy.
  2. Exercise. Even if you think you don’t have the time to exercise, prioritise this as a self-care habit. Exercise plays a role in lowering your stress hormones and, as an added bonus, it can increase your confidence and improve your sleep!
  3. Keep a journal. Writing about your day and getting things off your chest can be a great way to clear your head of worries. Alternatively (or additionally), you could chat with a friend or a therapist to get this same benefit.
  4. …which brings me to the next point: make time to meet up with others! Connect with others! Socialising boosts oxytocin (the happy hormone) and reduces cortisol (responsible for stress). Meeting up with friends can also be a great outlet for any frustrations.
  5. Laugh! Watch a comedy film, read a comic, joke around with friends. There’s no need to be serious 24/7, so choose to see the bright side.
  6. Engage in activities you enjoy. Doing the things you love and allowing yourself to be in ‘flow’ is a great way to relax and forget about any worries you may have experienced during the day. For example, reading before bed can be a great way to wind down.
  7. Learn to say no. Setting boundaries frees up your life to do the things that you want to do and that you value. So… maintain your working hours, only take on as much as you can manage, and prioritise the things that really matter!
  8. Stop procrastinating. Do what needs doing, and then remember that feeling of satisfaction as you tick things off your to-do list.
  9. Avoid unhealthy habits. Whilst McDonalds may seem like a good idea now, will it make you feel better later? Whilst staying up late may sound fun now, will it still sound good when you have to get out of bed at 6am tomorrow? Build positive habits to deal with any setbacks and prevent stress from creeping in.
  10. Accept that you can’t change everything! Life may get rocky, and that is okay. As long as we all do what we can to ground ourselves and take care of ourselves, we can get through these moments and move on. Don’t try to change the things you have no control over, and focus on the things you can do. Take agency over your life and let’s beat stress before it beats us!