April is Stress Awareness Month, and since city life has a habit of offering up the rough – commuting, work stress, Insta-envy, extortionately priced houses – with the smooth, The Resident asks mental health campaigner Rachel Kelly to share her top tips for keeping a handle on stress
First for a basic biology lesson: a little bit of stress is fine. We are designed to respond to stressful situations, since we are all descended from those who managed to scarper fast when a lion popped up on the horizon.
The problem is that many of us are permanently stressed. If you fail to relax, your body is forced to rely on back-up energy, courtesy of your adrenal system.
‘We are designed to accommodate stress, but only in short bursts’
Your adrenal system in turn runs on adrenaline and cortisol. These are the ‘fight or flight’ hormones that keep you in a constant state of high alert, but cortisol also inhibits your brain’s uptake of the mood-elevating hormone serotonin, which makes us more prone to anxiety.
In short, we are designed to accommodate stress, but only in short bursts. That’s why the frantic 24-hour stress that so many of us live with today is so damaging.
Here are my seven top stress-busting techniques, small sanity-saving steps that really work. And I should know – I have a long history of anxiety, but thanks to my own toolkit of strategies, it’s just that – history.
1 Breath Through One Nostril
I remember when a psychiatrist first suggested I use breathing exercises about 10 years ago. Think about stress – it’s when you worry about the future, you regret the past, he said. Breathing keeps us in the present. It’s the best way to be calm and centred.
My doctor explained that when we are anxious, our breathing becomes fast and shallow. When we breathe more slowly this forces our racing minds to slow down as well. The easiest way I do this is to close one nostril with a finger – this means we breathe at half the rate than normal, rather like when we have a cold (it’s also a type of yogic breathing known as pranayama breathing).
About five years, as I was leaving a routine appointment with my GP about my anxiety, she said, ‘how about “happy foods”?’. I said, tell me more! She mentioned three: dark green vegetables, oily fish and dark chocolate – all of which have proven links between food and mood, she told me.
I was so intrigued that I went on to spend several years working with the nutritional therapist Alice Mackintosh and together we wrote a cookbook The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food. If I were to share one stress-busting tip, I would say nourish your body with some fish-oil supplements.
Omega-3 fats are especially mood enhancing. Take a supplement – data shows it is as effective as eating oily fish (which I don’t like anyway).
3 Dish Out Random Acts of Kindness
When I was still quite anxious, I noticed the best days of my week were those when I helped out an elderly neighbour who was unwell at the time. I didn’t do much – just bits of shopping and dropping in for a chat and cup of tea. When I left, I realised I was actually the person who felt better: I’m not sure I really made much difference to her!
Being kind to others has a very real effect on our happiness and helps reduce our stress levels. We become kinder to ourselves and develop a more compassionate, accepting inner voice, which you can call upon to help you counteract negative thinking.
- Pay a coffee forward
- Say hello to the barista/shop assistant/ticket collector/doorman/waiter
- When you are late say ‘thanks for being patient’ rather than ‘sorry I’m late’
- Pay attention when someone is talking to you. Listen to understand and not to reply. There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth.
When I did a mindfulness course three years ago, I learnt about this non-judgmental way of focusing attention on what we are experiencing in the moment work. But my challenge has been incorporating this into my every day life. I found it hard at first.
The answer has been to make an every day activity a mindful one: I use hand washing. I pay particular attention to the sensation of cold water, the sound of the tap, the smell of the soap. These mindful moments provide full stops amid the rush, and a reminder to slow down. Gradually I’ve built up more and more such activities and have found them a great way to reduce stress.
5 Use the Word YET
Watching my language is something I learnt after I did a course in Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy, the therapy of choice on the NHS. Much of the therapy is about rethinking, and one way to do so is to be careful about the language you use.
Since the course, I have been more aware of how I can rephrase statements about your own powerlessness. Language itself can make us feel more of a victim and gives our power to others. So instead of saying, ‘I can’t deal with this’, say ‘I can’t deal with this, yet’.
6 Learn this Poem
I’ve been a poetry lover since I was a child. When I was suicidal and in a psychiatric hospital, reciting healing lines of poetry was how I got through the really bad times. The magic of words replaced my screams. Reciting lines such as, ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ – which is actually a line from the Bible, but then the Bible is full of poetry – gave me a positive line to take.
We appreciate good times more by having experienced the bad. In fact, we would not appreciate sunnier times without living through the rainy ones. I love the way this idea is expressed in this poem by the 19th century Scottish writer Charles Mackay. Learn it, and recite it every time you feel super-stressed:
Oh you tears,
I’m thankful that you run,
Though you trickle in the darkness,
You shall glitter in the sun
The rainbow could not shine if the rain
refused to fall,
And the eyes that cannot weep are the
saddest eyes of all.
7 Adopt an Appreciation Pause
We are most likely to be stressed by other people, especially those who seem to be obstructing our progress. One answer for me is to turn my usual stressed response on its head – think of what you appreciate about someone rather than what annoys you about them.
These can be people who are just doing their jobs, but you may have overlooked them or taken them for granted, or indeed found them stressful – the person who serves you lunch, the office cleaner, the teacher who helped you solve a problem after class or a doctor who worked out why you haven’t been feeling well.
Take a moment to think of all these people in your life. Consider how our lives would fall apart without these individuals who look after our health, education, community and environment. Perhaps in the future you will make a point of thanking them.
While adopting an appreciation pause is designed to consider those you don’t know well, it also works well for long-term partners and close friends and family members whom we often also overlook. Pause for a final moment to think about them too and quietly say ‘thank you’ in your head.
Rachel Kelly is a writer and mental health campaigner, and an ambassador for Sane and Rethink Mental Illness. Her latest book, Singing in the Rain: An Inspirational Workbook, is available on Amazon