We all experience stress, but how we handle it affects our lives to various extents. Maybe you’ve tried to be less stressed, but you haven’t found many effective ways to cope with stress.
Before getting into how to reduce stress, let me give you an introduction to what stress is.
There’s no medical definition of stress, and health care professionals often disagree over whether stress is the cause of problems or the result of them. This can make it difficult for you to work out what causes your feelings of stress or how to deal with them. Stress affects us in a number of ways, both physically and emotionally, and in varying intensities.
During my career, I’ve helped many people that had an extremely demanding lifestyle (mainly due to their job) to manage and reduce stress. The core of my practice is to help busy people feel good (both physically and mentally), and managing stress is often the most important component of every program I write.
Over the years, I came up with a set of practices that, when done consistently, can help even the busiest executive to keep his/her stress levels under control and generally be healthier and more productive.
Did you try to be less stressed but with poor results?
To fully understand why these practices are so effective, we first need to understand that stress can actually be divided into two different categories that are tightly intertwined:
Emotional stress is a feeling of being under abnormal pressure. This pressure can come from different aspects of your day to day life; such as an increased workload, a transitional period, an argument you have with your family or new and existing financial worries. You may find that it has a cumulative effect, with each stressor building on top of one another.
During these situations, you may feel threatened or upset, and your body might create a stress response. Your body’s reaction to your emotional state is the release of a multitude of stress hormones that, in turn, affect the way your body feels, moves, and responds to external stimuli. This can cause a variety of physical symptoms, change the way you behave, and lead you to experience more intense emotions.
You can see that emotional stress has a tangible physical repercussion on your body. This is due to your body’s reaction to your thoughts and not to physical activities or external sensory inputs.
In simple words, when you’re thinking “stressful thoughts,” and you are unable to stop thinking about them (especially if you are worried about something that is outside of your control), you experience what I call emotional stress.
Physical stress is your body’s reaction to external stimuli that trigger a “fight or flight” response and also, your body’s metabolic reaction to what you breathe, drink, and eat.
Physical stress is not intrinsically bad; in fact, it can be very helpful. For example, exercising causes physical stress, but it relieves emotional stress. Also, having a stress response because a car is about to hit you while you’re crossing the road may turn out to be life-saving.
On the contrary, eating processed food, drinking alcohol or sugary beverages, and smoking or using recreational drugs are all negative physical stressors.
Physical stressors like exercising are something that we want our body to experience often, but they are still a form of stress that, when added to a lot of other stressors, may actually have a detrimental effect on our health.
For example, trying to run a 10k fasted when you had a four-hour sleep and an emotionally stressful week may not be optimal for your health. You would probably be better off doing a 5k after a good meal and a 20-minute long meditation.
At this point, it’s easy to see that everyone experiences stress to various degrees. However, when it is affecting your life, health, and wellbeing, it is important to tackle it as soon as possible.
7 Effective Ways to Reduce Stress
If you had looked online for “ways to reduce stress,” you probably found a bunch of generic advice like “try to sleep more” or “exercise regularly” and “eat healthily.” While these are all great things that we all should do every day, I found that, when trying to help a very busy client to reduce his/her stress levels, this simple advice wasn’t really helping them. In fact, it only made things worse.
For this reason, instead of giving you generic advice, I am going to give you 7 practical strategies that instantly reduce stress, and can be implemented in your daily routine without taking too much of your precious time.
Reducing Physical Stress
1. Manage Your Blood Sugar Levels
When we ingest foods or drinks that contain sugars (20g or more) or high glycemic carbohydrates (like white rice, bread, or potatoes), we quickly experience a burst in energy. This is due to our blood sugar levels rising. When this happens, our pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which, in turn, lowers blood sugar levels by storing the nutrients we have in our bloodstream either in our fat cells, muscles, or liver. This process causes an “up and down” in our energy levels and, also, when the blood sugar levels become low, we experience hunger and cravings.
These ups and downs in blood sugar have been linked to an increase in stress. It’s easy to see that, when we are having a stressful day, being all of a sudden tired and hungry won’t really make our stress levels go away. Quite the opposite, in fact, fatigue, and eating disorders are clear symptoms of stress.
In the book 12 Rules For Life, Dr Jordan B. Peterson explains how, when treating patients suffering from stress and depression, he always prescribes them to swap their breakfasts and lunches with low carb options like eggs, meat or fish. Dr Peterson says that this little trick is often as effective as prescription drugs. In fact, most patients won’t need any prescription drugs and simply get better because they have stabilized their blood sugar levels throughout the most stressful part of the day.
If you are used to having a high-carb breakfast like yoghurt, cereals, Caffe-lattes, or fruit smoothies, try to swap them with scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, or sliced meat. You can do the same for your lunch by having meat or fish with some vegetables. This little bio-hack will allow you to have a more stable level of energy throughout the working day and, also, give you a feeling of satiety. Reducing hunger and fatigue will inevitably help you reduce stress too.
2. Drink More Water
Drinking water has a multitude of health benefits, but when it comes to reducing stress, the most noticeable are:
A well-hydrated body allows you to think clearer and faster and get more things done because you won’t feel as tired. Most biochemical processes that happen inside the brain require water and minerals. Staying constantly hydrated will optimize your brain function and help you to perform better at your job.
Having too many things to do and, yet, feeling unproductive, is a huge cause of stress amongst busy people. Something as simple as having a refillable water bottle always with you and sipping every five minutes or so can have a positive impact on your stress levels, health, and performance.
3. Working out on the Same Day/Time Each Week
I already said that physical exercise had been proven to reduce stress levels (despite being metabolic stress itself). I also said that working out when you are already stressed and short on time may actually have the opposite effect and increase your stress levels even further.
Having a fixed day and time each week dedicated to exercise (preferably in the morning, before meetings, and calls start to disrupt your day) is essential if you want to reduce stress.
A very useful trick is to book the time blocks you want to dedicate to exercise a week or two in advance, before booking work meetings and social events. By doing this, you accomplish two very important things that will lower your stress levels:
- Be more consistent with exercise (since you will be less likely to skip your sessions once they’re pre-booked in the early mornings)
- Remove the thought that “you still have to exercise” from your head, so that you won’t have to think about ways to squeeze that hour-long workout within an already packed working day. The less stressful thoughts you have in your head, the lower your stress levels are.
4. Sleep Following Your Circadian Rhythm
We all know that sleep is paramount when it comes to managing stress. What you might not know is that each individual may benefit from sleeping and waking up at different times.
In the book Why We Sleep, Dr. Matthew Walkers observes that some individuals benefit from a regular sleeping pattern (the typical 10 pm to 6 am) while other individuals have a better quality of sleep when they can sleep late at night and wake up late in the morning ( 1-2 am to 10 am). This phenomenon is due to the body’s tendency to follow the circadian rhythms (basically our natural clock that is affected by the movement of the Earth).
Dr. Walkers noticed that, when the latter group of people had a typical 9-5 job, they were much more prone to stress, and they were also more likely to develop conditions like depression and neurodegenerative diseases.
If you are a fan of early mornings, waking up as early as 5 am and going to bed as early as 9 pm is probably a good thing for your health and will definitely lower your stress levels, since you will have some extra time in the morning to either exercise or to get ahead with your to-do list.
If you are a nocturnal animal and you struggle to get to bed before midnight, you should try to get at least three lay-ins (when you wake up later than 9 am) each week. This could be done by taking some late shifts at work and not booking early activities during the weekend.
Reducing Emotional Stress
Before exploring my favourite ways to reduce emotional stress, I need to stress the fact that physical stress should be addressed first. This is because emotional stress is often due to interaction with other people or situations that are outside of our control zone.
You might be emotionally stressed because you’re being pressured by your boss or because you’re experiencing some tension in your relationship. You also might be stressed because you’re worried about things that you can’t do much about (like someone else’s health or the economy).
Emotional stress is often outside of your control zone, while physical stress is nearly always a conscious choice that you have total control over. Put simply, you can’t change the economy, but you can definitely exercise, eat well, and sleep more.
Now that I’ve made this clear let’s move on to my favourite ways to reduce emotional stress.
5. Carefully Plan Your Week on a Sunday Evening
The one thing that will help you manage and reduce stress after taking care of your health is “improving productivity.”
Being able to get more done in less time can help you stop feeling overwhelmed and allow you to find some extra time to do activities that reduce stress like meditation, being in nature, or reading a book. For this reason, spending a whole hour on a Sunday evening to carefully plan your working week, hour-by-hour is a must-do. Use this system to maximize the efficacy of this exercise:
- Start by booking exercise, grocery shopping, and time alone (to do whatever non-work-related activity you desire). Give those activities the same priority you would give to a work meeting.
- Once you booked those, go through your to-do list and prioritize the different voices from most important to least important. Book them accordingly.
- Make sure to book the least important activities later in the week, so that you can reduce the stress load caused by the most demanding tasks before it starts to build upon you.
- Last but not least, book your sleeping time. This might sound funny to you, but you probably check your calendar more than 20 times each day. Seeing a time-block called “sleep” at a precise time in your calendar will automatically instruct your brain to prepare for sleep around that time.
6. Book Big Chunks of Alone-Time for Your Most Demanding Projects
Another crucial factor in reducing stress is avoiding distractions. Phone notifications, emails, phone calls, and interactions with people can totally disrupt your flow when you’re working on a demanding task.
Multiple studies confirm this. Distractions don’t just eat up time during the distraction; they derail your mental progress for up to a half-hour afterwards (that’s assuming another distraction doesn’t show up in that half-hour). In other words, that “30 seconds to check Twitter” isn’t just 30 seconds down the drain; it’s 25 minutes and 30 seconds.
And all these distractions not only hurt productivity, but they also have negative emotional effects. Research has shown that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, a bad mood, and lower productivity.
In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport explains how the greatest thinkers in history had the habit of isolating themselves for hours (or even days) to fully focus on their most meaningful work. While you don’t need to move on alternate weeks on a medieval tower with no electricity (like Carl Jung used to do), you can definitely find a quiet space where you can immerse yourself in your most stressful tasks.
When you do that, make sure to turn off all phone notifications and ask not to be disturbed. You will be surprised by how big of an impact this practice has on your overall stress levels.
7. Delegate the Least Important Tasks
Last but not least, spending time on doing tasks that you don’t deem important or could/should be done by someone else can cause stress. This is due to the fact that you won’t dedicate time to the most important voices of your to-do list and, consequently, build up emotional stress.
When you plan your week, spend some time thinking about how you could delegate those annoying tasks to either a paid professional or someone that would be eager to help you. Don’t be afraid to open your wallet and hire someone like a cleaner or an online assistant. If you fall ill because of stress or you end up in need of a therapist, your bill will turn out much higher.
Here’s a guide to help you learn to delegate: How to Delegate Work Effectively (Step-By-Step Guide)
These seven tricks I’ve just listed are extremely effective and very easy to implement in your day-to-day life. Feel free to experiment with them and find the perfect mix that works best for you.
Note that I didn’t mention any strategy to deal with your own negative thoughts, I actually wrote a whole book about it — Stress-Free in 7 Simple Steps: A practical guide to mindfulness for beginners. When your negative thoughts are the main cause of stress, you should always seek the support of your loved ones and also the help of a skilled therapist.
More About Stress Relief
Featured photo credit: Radu Florin via unsplash.com