It's normal to be stressed sometimes, but if you're constantly feeling the strain it can lead to a whole range of issues, like sleep problems and heart disease. Luckily there are lots of things you can do to de-stress.
- Understanding stress
- Side effects of stress
- How to reduce your stress levels
- How to test your stress levels
Our environment has evolved so quickly that our bodies can’t keep up. We now live in a world where we’re always putting ourselves under pressure. And a lot of us respond to those pressures the only way we know how, by releasing a surge of stress hormones to help us cope with the situation — your “fight or flight” stress response.
Your stress response is a survival mechanism that helped your ancestors fight off or run from physical dangers, like a hungry lion. But the things that trigger us now could be anything from traffic jams to work stress — everyday occurrences.
Side effects of stress
If your stress response system is always fired up you’re constantly exposing your body to stress hormones, like cortisol. This puts you at risk of:
- weight gain
- low energy
- poor sleep
- digestive problems
- weakened bones
- a weakened immune system
- high blood pressure and heart disease
How to reduce your stress levels
You can’t outrun stress (although exercise does help!), it’s a normal part of everyday life. But there are lots of things that you can do to lower your stress levels and even change how you perceive and respond to stress.
Take a breath
Deep breathing kickstarts your parasympathetic nervous system, also called your “rest and digest system”. This system slows down your heart rate, promotes digestion, and helps you to relax. There are lots of different deep breathing techniques — choose whatever works best for you.
Mindfulness-based practices like yoga or meditation can reduce anxiety and depression and help improve your cognitive function, overall wellbeing, and even body image. There are lots of mindfulness and meditation apps that you can also try, like:
If you have a good social support system it can help to lower your stress levels. Connecting with other people leads to a boost in your oxytocin levels — a hormone that promotes bonding and resilience.
Get some sleep
Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep every night. If you're not getting this, a 20-minute nap can help reverse the effects of sleep loss.
For some people, not getting enough sleep is what’s stressing them out. If you’re having trouble sleeping, here are a few things to try:
- Try your best to go to bed and wake up at the same time (even on the weekend).
- Avoid using your phone or computer before bed and keep them out of your bedroom.
- Drink some calming herbal tea, like chamomile, before bed.
- Take a bath or shower (even just soaking your feet in warm water can help).
- Clear your mind. Deep breathing and mindfulness exercises can help put you in a deep sleep.
Eat a healthy diet
Focus on eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and essential fatty acids (found in oily fish) — for example, the Mediterranean diet. These are full of essential nutrients that keep your brain healthy and help balance your hormones.
Drink plenty of water and avoid drinking too much alcohol and fizzy drinks. Too much caffeine, like in coffee, can make you feel jittery and anxious. We all metabolise caffeine differently so find whatever limit works for you. Green tea also contains caffeine but because it's a good source of L-theanine it should make you feel relaxed while still giving you a caffeine fix!
Try a supplement
There are a lot of different supplements that might help to lower your stress levels.
- Magnesium — this promotes better sleep and can help fight anxiety and depression. Avoid supplements containing magnesium oxide as your body can’t absorb this very well.
- Vitamin B complex — this can help boost your energy levels and keep you more relaxed in stressful situations.
- Ashwagandha — this medicinal herb can lower your cortisol levels and reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Valerian root — this can have a calming, sedative effect on your body and is often used to help with sleep issues.
- Lemon balm — this also has a calming, sedative effect and might help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
- Green tea — this might help reduce stress and increase your serotonin levels (a “happy” chemical).
It's a good idea to speak with your doctor before trying any supplements, especially if you're taking any other medication.
Exercise boosts the production of feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. Any form of exercise can reduce stress. Find something you enjoy, whether it's running or yoga, and stick with it.
Everything from cuddling to kisses and sex can help reduce your stress levels.
Make time for your hobbies
Do something you enjoy every day, like listening to music or dancing.
How to test your stress levels
It’s possible to take a look at how stressed you might be by measuring your cortisol levels — your main stress hormone. Usually, your cortisol levels are at their highest in the morning and naturally drop throughout the day. If you’re stressed often, your cortisol levels can stay elevated.
Recommended listening for you
Chandola, T., Brunner, E., & Marmot, M. (2006). Chronic stress at work and the metabolic syndrome: prospective study. Bmj, 332(7540), 521-525.
Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 78(2), 169.
Hovhannisyan, A., Nyl, M., & Wikman, G. (2017). Efficacy of adaptogenic supplements on adapting to stress: a randomized, controlled trial. Journal of Athletic Enhancement, 2015.
Scholey, A., Gibbs, A., Neale, C., Perry, N., Ossoukhova, A., Bilog, V., ... & Buchwald-Werner, S. (2014). Anti-stress effects of lemon balm-containing foods. Nutrients, 6(11), 4805-4821.
Smith, C., Hancock, H., Blake-Mortimer, J., & Eckert, K. (2007). A randomised comparative trial of yoga and relaxation to reduce stress and anxiety. Complementary therapies in medicine, 15(2), 77-83.
Van Eck, M., Berkhof, H., Nicolson, N., & Sulon, J. (1996). The effects of perceived stress, traits, mood states, and stressful daily events on salivary cortisol. Psychosomatic medicine, 58(5), 447-458.