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15 strategies to manage stress

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Manage your stress

Manage your stress

Manage your stress

There are four ways to have a 'stress' reaction says nutritionist and psychologist Patrick Holford. He talks to Áilín Quinlan about 15 strategies based around these triggers which can help build up your resilience

1 Test Your Stress

Is your energy less now than it used to be?

Do you feel guilty when relaxing?

Do you have a persistent need for achievement?

Are you unclear about your goals in life?

Do you get angry easily?

Are you especially competitive?

Do your work harder than most people?

Do challenging situations trigger anxiety or panic?

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Do you often do two or three tasks simultaneously?

Do you find it hard to relax or switch off?

Do you avoid exercise because you feel too tired?

Do you have difficulty getting to sleep, or staying asleep?

Do you wake up feeling tired?

Do you get impatient of people or situations hold you up?

If you answer yes to five or more questions, that's a fair indication you're highly stressed, and the higher your score, the greater the negative impact of stress on your life.

 

2 Identify your stress triggers

Identify a particular event which triggered a stress episode - for example, leaving your purse or wallet at home. Next, look at your feelings following the event - embarrassment - and your underlying belief - that you were stupid to have forgotten it - which may have contributed to the stress you experienced.

We all hold beliefs which can be limiting, self-defeating or impossible to live up to, and it's often these beliefs, rather than the life events we encounter, that cause the stress in our lives, explains Holford. These include beliefs such as "life should go smoothly," "I deserve recognition", "my children are a reflection of my worth" or "my job denotes my status".

Stressful events can also trigger negative 'coping mechanisms' - for example, binging on chocolate or alcohol or picking a fight with your partner - which make everything worse. Start to challenge your beliefs by running a reality check, assessing them for logic, realism and any hard evidence as to their viability. Once you are clear that your negative underlying belief for a particular stressful event is none of these, ponder the following: is the situation really so terrible? Doesn't every human being make mistakes? We can't like everyone and everyone can't like us. "Just because you feel a strong emotion doesn't mean the event merited it - you can react strongly because of a strong negative belief you attach to an event."

3 Eat for energy

Stabilise your blood-sugar levels.

Almost all of your body's energy is derived from glucose. What you eat determines the quality, quantity and availability of glucose to all the body's cells, including those in the brain, Holford explains. Maintaining an even blood sugar level is of paramount importance. It's a key element for energy, resilience to stress, and overall good health. The way to stabilise your blood sugar is:

(a) Eat slow-releasing carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread, brown rice, fruit or porridge in the right amounts and reduce your intake of fast-releasing refined foods (anything white or sweetened).

(b) Combine carbohydrates with protein-rich foods, for example, oats with chopped fruit, natural yoghurt and seeds.

(c) Eat regularly. Never skip breakfast and have a snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon if your energy flags.

 

4 Eliminate or considerably reduce your caffeine intake

"Stimulants are energy's greatest enemy. Even though they can create energy in the short term, the long-term effect is always bad. The same is true for stress," says Holford.

So reduce or cut out your intake of stimulants such as coffee, tea, chocolate sugar, refined foods, cigarettes, energy drinks and alcohol.

Identify alternatives you can enjoy instead, and support yourself by eating a low GL diet (foods which encourage your body to burn fat) and energy-boosting foods: meat, fish, nuts, seeds and vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.

Eliminate stimulants for one month, Holford suggests, and you'll understand how they really work. "The more damage they are doing to you, the greater the withdrawal effect." However he adds:

"Most people feel substantially more energised and better able to cope with stress within just 30 days of quitting stimulants."

 

5If you're female and aged 40-plus, consider taking natural progesterone

Holford points to the work of Michael Platt, an American doctor specialising in hormone problems. Platt has developed a theory that too much adrenalin is a contributory factor in anxiety issues and panic attacks. He reports success using bio-identical hormones ( a hormone which is exactly the same as the hormones that you made when you were a menstruating woman) and progesterone cream.

He also advocates a low GL diet to balance blood sugar and ensure the brain receives adequate glucose, as a dip in blood sugar is the most common trigger for the release of adrenalin.

 

6 Avoid endless to-do lists that never seem to get done

Allocate some time to gather together all the jobs you have on your list - there may be bills to pay or papers you have to read - and decide what to do with them. Then, either do each task immediately, or allocate a specific time when you will do it. If you don't intend to do it, accept that you won't, and bin it. Once you've done this exercise, you should end up with a clear idea of what needs to be done and when, Holford explains. Then you can calmly work through each task in turn, completing it before you move on to the next.

As new tasks arrive, implement the same approach - do them completely immediately, allocate a time when you will complete them and stick to it - or bin them.

 

7 If efficiency is doing something right to completion, effectiveness is doing the right thing

Holford says: "If you find yourself frequently in conflict over the different priorities and amount of time you have for all the activities in your life, take time out to assess if you've got the balance right. "The chances are that the conflict has arisen because you're not being realistic, or because you're allocating too much time to things that are not especially important - and not enough time to those that are."

 

8Taking a positive approach to life

Viewing difficult situations as opportunities to learn, change and grow is a great attribute when building your stress resilience, says Holford. He points to a 2013 study by scientists at Concordia University's Department of Psychology, which found that pessimists have higher levels of stress hormones than optimists, and are less able to regulate hormone levels after they experience a stressful situation. Pessimists also are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. But, says Holford, pessimism isn't in your genes, it's in your beliefs, and your perspective is more likely to be a response to the life you've lived. However, "while you can't change your past", says Holford, "you can change your beliefs."

You can shift your personal pendulum towards optimism using techniques such as keeping a gratitude journal, counting your blessings, learning from, and moving on from, difficult situations, and acknowledging that a stressful situation will pass.

 

9 Generate vital energy

Rather than pounding the treadmill in the gym or sitting on the sofa watching TV, try including some form of energising and de-stressing exercise in your weekly routine, such as yoga or tai chi.

Be conscious of your breath and give yourself the opportunity to breathe more deeply by doing one of the above, or through some other regular exercise you enjoy, such as brisk walking, gentle jogging or dancing. Do yoga, t'ai chi, chi gung or another vital energy generating exercise.

10 Relax and Recuperate

Stress puts you in a state of alarm so you need to revert to 'business as usual' mode to regenerate and avoid burnout and fatigue.

Relaxation helps switch off your stress-activated sympathetic nervous system and restore equilibrium. You can combine relaxation with exercise - yoga, tai chi or quigong - practise a deep breathing technique, meditate or do a regular visualisation exercise to help you let go of stress and tension, or enjoy a relaxation technique such as progressive relaxation or toe-tensing. Instructions for all of these exercises can be accessed at www.patrickholford.com/stresscure

 

11 Improve your sleep

Sleep is essential 'nourishment' for body and mind. People who are stressed often suffer from sleep-related problems, and a lack of sleep is itself a stress factor.

Lack of sleep triggers the stress response - so if you want to reduce your stress, you need to be able to sleep well. Do this through prioritising relaxing activities in the hours before you go to bed. Avoid alcohol and limit caffeine intake after midday. Have a soothing bedtime routine such as a warm bath with Epsom salts or lavender oil before bed.

 

12 Practise the HeartMath Quick Coherence technique

This will help you to actively reduce the stress in your life. When practised daily for around five minutes, these three steps can help you de-stress, feel calmer and become more content.

1. Heart focus: focus your attention on your heart area, in the centre of your chest.

2. Heart breathing: imagine your breath flowing in and out of that area. This helps your respiration and heart rhythm to synchronise. Focus on this area and aim to breathe evenly - for example, inhale for five or six seconds and exhale for five or six seconds (choose a timescale that feels comfortable and flows easily). Take a few minutes to get the hang of the heart focus and heart breathing stages then introduce step three:

3. Heart feeling: as you breathe in and out of your heart area, recall a positive emotion and try to re-experience it. This could be remembering a time spent with someone you love, walking in your favourite spot, stroking a pet, picturing a tree or scenic location you admire or even just appreciating that you are able eat today or have shoes on your feet. If your mind wanders, bring it gently back to the positive experience.

 

13 Know your energy superheroes

Eat foods that are rich in B vitamins: wheat-germ, fish, green vegetables, whole grains, mushrooms, eggs. Eat more sources of Co-Enzyme Q10, a semi-essential nutrient which improves the cell's ability to use oxygen. Include rich sources of magnesium in your diet: almonds, cashew nuts, chia and pumpkin seeds, calcium (cheese, almonds, seeds prunes, green vegetables), zinc (lamb, nuts, fish, egg yolk, wholegrains, almonds, chia seeds) and chromium (wholegrains, beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms).

 

14 Some 'instant stress-fixers'

Swap coffee or regular tea for green tea. You'll still get a caffeine kick but green tea also contains a calming substance called theanine, which can make you alert without feeling wired.

Snack pre-emptively - if you know you have an energy gap before lunch and around 4pm, have a snack mid-morning and again mid-afternoon - but avoid sugar-loaded treats and instead opt for energy-sustaining fresh fruit and nuts, an oatcake with some cheese, nut butter, hummus or natural yoghurt and berries.

 

15 Practise the dive reflex

Diving into a pool and taking a few strokes until you are calm has been found to be one of the fastest ways to turn off the panic reflex, says Holford. And while we don't all have a swimming pool handy when our stress levels soar, there is another way to do it. If you are experiencing a panic attack or a moment of extreme anxiety, Holford suggests dipping your head into a basin of cold water and holding your breath for 30 seconds. This triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which switches off a stress reaction.

'The Stress Cure - How to Resolve Stress, Build Resilience and Boost Your Energy' by Patrick Holford and Susannah Lawson, €21, is out now


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