Do you feel constantly tense? Are your muscles tight and aching? Do you find yourself snapping at colleagues or family members? Do you feel a sense of panic and overwhelm when you think about your to-do list, or your email inbox? Are you constantly wired, in a jittery, negative way?
Here are eight secrets - physical and mental - that will radically reduce your stress. Try focusing on one physical and one mental tip each week, until you've got all eight in play.
I have to confess, I've been slacking off on my exercise routine this summer - my excuses are that it's been too hot, and that I've been too busy. After a couple of months where I didn't set foot inside the gym, I made the time to go for a workout twice last week. I was amazed how much less stressed I felt as a result.
You don't need to hit the gym to reduce your stress - though moderate-high intensity exercise will do more good than a low-level activity. A brisk walk, a cycle ride, or a jog gives you the same stress-busting results. You'll find that your worries, your work and your to-do list fade from your mind while you're busy getting active.
- Get Enough Sleep
Do you go to bed too late, and struggle to get up in the mornings? Do you find yourself gulping down coffee just to stay awake? If you're sleep-deprived, you're going to find life stressful: you'll make mistakes, you'll be irritable, and you'll struggle to maintain the emotional equilibrium to cope with the normal ups and downs of the day.
My tips for getting enough sleep are:
- Give yourself a bed time - and stick to it.
- Don't work within two hours of your bedtime. Definitely don't check emails just once more straight before bed... you'll either end up replying there and then, or you'll have them on your mind all night.
- Shut down your computer an hour before bed.
- Eat Healthily
Feelings of exhaustion, sluggishness or tiredness often contribute to our stress levels - and these can be caused by what we're eating. You know all the basics: eating breakfast, focusing your meals on wholegrains, lean protein sources and fruit and veg, drinking plenty of water...
Taking the time to eat a healthy meal can also help reduce stress by providing a break in your day. Don't scoff down lunch at your desk - you'll barely taste it, and eating in a hurry like this isn't good for your digestion. Get away from your desk (outside the office, if possible) and give yourself time to enjoy and appreciate your food: this also helps you to eat less, which in turn means you'll feel more awake in the afternoon.
- Cut Caffeine
We all know that jittery, wired feeling that comes from drinking too much coffee. Caffeine is stressful to your body - it acts like a poison, and the pick me up you get is actually your body fighting that poison off.
If you're looking to cut your caffeine intake, you might want to read How to Give Up Coffee and Caffeine Altogether.
Don't resort to energy drinks either: these can contain huge doses of caffeine, along with a lot of sugar - which won't do your short-term concentration or your long-term health any favors.
These four secrets are ones that primarily affect your mind.
- Recognize When You're Getting Stressed
None of us go straight from blissful calm to heart-pounding stress. You've probably had days when you could feel yourself getting more and more worked up. Perhaps you worked for hours without a break, or maybe a few small problems - perhaps with your computer or your office lighting or heating - were winding you up for ages.
There are a number of emotional signals that you're getting stressed, including:
- Feeling overwhelmed when you contemplate your workload
- Having the urge to cry or scream
- Wanting to hit something (or someone!)
Often, stress can be stopped in its tracks by learning what your early-warning symptoms are.
- Take a Time Out
Once you've got a handle on how you feel when you're getting stressed, you can often stop yourself getting that worked up. When you start to become stressed, take a time out. Go for a five minute walk, sit with your eyes closed for a couple of minutes, switch to a different task if what you're working on is making you feel stressed.
Just getting out of the immediate situation is often enough to help you calm down and get perspective. This is important for your own mental health - but also for the people around you. If you're getting very het up in a tense situation with colleagues or relatives, make an excuse and slip away for a few minutes. This will help you calm down so you don't lose your temper.
- Do One Thing at a Time
In today's work - and home - environments, we rarely focus on one thing at a time. We end up cooking while making a phone call, checking emails during dinner, or playing around on Facebook and Twitter when we intended to do the online grocery shop.When you multi-task, you split your attention between two things - and often end up dropping the ball on one of them. (Who hasn't burnt the dinner because they got distracted while cooking?) Also, an obsessive focus on being efficient can actually make you more stressed, as you'll feel that life is just one chore after another.
For greater effectiveness, and less stress, learn to mono-task.
- Write in a Journal
Finally, one of the most effective ways I've found to reduce stress is to write a journal. This doesn't need to be complicated or time-consuming: just spend ten minutes, ideally at the end of each day, reviewing how things went, what you've felt good about, what's been a source of stress, and what you've learnt.
This is a great way to get problems into perspective, to find the good side in situations that might have been stressful at the time, and to notice patterns in your life. Through journaling, you can often see what's causing you stress - and you can work to eliminate it.
Journaling is also a good way to get thoughts out of your mind before you go to bed; many people find this helps them to sleep better.