By Jane Gammage: It has been said on more than one occasion that stress is at the root of all ailments and illnesses. In my own case I can certainly trace a lot of current health and wellness issues back to chronic stress.
About six years ago I found myself at a place in life where everything around me caused stress. I was made redundant and a failed relationship led to financial challenges; it took me eight months to secure a job by which time I was a bag of nerves, low on confidence and self esteem and suffering with insomnia. I also started to gain weight even though I was barely eating. The stress I was under led to lower back pain and eventually I had surgery to repair a herniated disc in my lower back. One month later doctors discovered a tumour in my abdomen and so that was removed. After these two invasive surgeries I did not recover and my health went into rapid decline and I was in and out of hospital for three months before almost losing my life in November 2014. I was diagnosed with Graves Disease and hyperthyroidism, I suffered a massive thyroid storm and as a result of the undiagnosed symptoms I was starved. Along with the genetic predisposition for autoimmunity it is thought that stress and trauma act as triggers – something I wholeheartedly agree with.
As a result of how little help I received to help me understand and manage my new circumstances, I completed a Wellness Coach certification to add to my Life Coach qualifications so that I can help guide people through these turbulent times. And managing stress plays a vital role in our wellbeing.
Stress Management Strategies
Stress management strategies fall into two overarching categories:
- Decreasing the number and severity of stressors in life
- Increasing resilience (or decreasing the effect that stressors have on you)
In order to achieve this there are a few things that you need to remember
It’s okay to say NO!
It’s okay if you can’t do it all
It’s okay to ask for help
Try to set up a few simple strategies to help you feel less stressed in your day-to-day life. The smallest actions can make a huge difference to how we feel.
- Ask your spouse to cook once or twice a week
- Work out a weekly schedule of household tasks that the entire family commits to so that everyone knows their responsibilities
- Accept help and learn not to criticize, even if things are not done the way you would do them – does it really matter how a pair of socks are folded?
- Set up a good support network and be their for one another; we live in a foreign land, we don’t have our families close by so we do need to establish a tribe
- Look at you work situation
- Is it physically uncomfortable to be at work? What can you do? Request a change of space, a stand up desk or alternative lighting (I used to turn off all the strip lights and brought in my own desk lamp)
- Is it possible to reduce your hours? Maybe by job-sharing or reducing hours to part time. Alternatively see if it is possible to work from home for part of the week – you will be surprised by how many companies are actually prepared to listen to us when we open up and speak honestly and with sincerity
- Leave you work at work when you go home at the end of the day – you should not be made to feel that you have to have you work emails on your phone, nor should you be required to answer work calls in the evening. Learn to set boundaries and to stick to them. In France it is illegal for a company to contact an employee outside of working hours!
In addition to this type of small change that can be made in our daily lives it is important to look at out diet, lifestyle and rest patterns.
When we are suffering from the effects of stress we often fall victim to making poor food choices. The terms stress eating and comfort eating are very commonly heard and usually indicate that there is some sort of an emotional crisis going on. It is very important to maintain a healthy diet at all times but when your body is under stress it is essential to boost all of the systems of the body with good nutrition.
My advice is to avoid sugar, refined carbohydrates, gluten and dairy as much as possibly, and most certainly during times of stress. The adverse affects of these food items on the body contributes to fatigue, brain fog, inflammation and body aches and pains – all of which will be magnified during times of stress.
Something I advocate strongly is the use of as much fresh produce as possible, organic where possible. Do not see food only as the end product on the table but make the entire experience a mindful experience filled with love; enjoy the process of selecting the foods you will prepare, the textures, fragrances and colours of the foods that are experienced during preparation and presentation and of course we should take joy in the sharing of this lovingly prepared food. Take the time to sit down and savour your food, allowing time to properly taste and experience, listen to your body to know when you have had enough and stopping eating at that time. Finally, and, very importantly allow your food time to digest. Eating on the run is never a good idea as when we do this we are not mindful of the process of eating and we do not listen to our bodies telling us when we our hunger is sated.
Often during times of stress we crave certain foods, which usually means our bodies require certain minerals. For example when we crave chocolate it can mean we need magnesium that can be obtained from nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit; craving for fizzy drinks may indicate a need for zinc that can be obtained from pumpkin seeds, leafy vegetables and root vegetables.
Having a good diet is a great place to start but it is not enough on its own, we need to move our bodies. When we say the exercise of lot of us freeze and panic; exercise has become synonymous with images of perfect bodies in skimpy clothes rigorous exercises that seem so far beyond our reach that we cower in a corner and prefer not to do anything. This is the sad state of the fitness industry – it seems that the average person, carrying a few extra kilos and being very fit, does not sell fitness. Surely it would be better to start targeting those who need help to get moving instead of essentially body shaming them. So my answer to this is that we just need to move; thirty minutes of walking per day is a great stress buster and will also help to tone the body and any form of exercise naturally makes us feel good.
Exercise releases endorphins, or feel good hormones, so the more we move the better we feel.
You do not need to get into the latest sports gear or take out an expensive gym membership in order to move your body – clean the house, go for a swim, walk the dog, park a distance from the supermarket or mall entrance and walk, put on your favourite music and dance around the house…there are so many fun ways to move and they are all good for you.
Sleep and Rest
Getting enough sleep and rest is vital when managing stress. Get into a good sleep routine and stick to it, as they say, early to bed, early to rise, makes a men healthy, wealthy and wise… People’s sleep needs vary but we should all be aiming for a good six to eight hours sleep a night.
There are people who sleep soundly for approximately five hours and then wake up for up to two hours and then go back to sleep for another three to four hours. This is not as abnormal or unusual as it may seem and it is called Biphasic sleep; it can be managed quite well once you know it is happening. The trick is not to allow yourself to become anxious about waking up as this just adds stress to your life and that is what we want to avoid. Rather:
- Stay in bed and remain relaxed
- Try to stay in the dark when you wake up, if you must turn a light on wear yellow or amber tinted glasses to counter stimulating blue light
- Listen to an audio book – have this set up ready to press play so that you do not have to fiddle around too much
If you are a Biphasic sleeper you will need to adjust your bedtimes accordingly to ensure that you are well rested.
In order to ensure that we sleep well we should be cognisant of our circadian rhythms – the twenty-four hour cycles all living beings follow; the cycle of light and dark.
In order to ensure that these rhythms function properly it is important that we spend time in the light and sleep in the darkest space we can. Spending at least fifteen minutes per day outside in daylight is beneficial to our bodies, as is ensuring that we wind down at night by :
- Using soft, yellow lights and not blue light as blue light stimulates the brain
- Turning off TVs, computer screens and devices at least one hour before going to bed
- Installing blackout curtains in your bedroom
- Wearing a sleep mask if the room is not dark
- Wearing yellow or amber tinted glasses in the evening to counter the stimulating blue lights of screens and light bulbs
In the morning, immediately upon waking, open curtains and take in the light of the day as this stimulates the body’s physiological processes into ‘daytime mode”.
These are the fundamental steps to ensuring a balanced body, and a balanced body is more able to cope with stress (to be resilient). There are however other ways to cope with stress and maintain a harmonious balance in our lives.
Connect with Nature
We are Nature’s children and as such we need to have a connection with nature. For a lot of people this is a challenge – we work long hours in offices, we live in high rise buildings and we are forever running short of time. Wherever possible get out into nature and enjoying the earth; walk barefoot on the grass or beach, sit and watch and listen to the sea and spend time amongst trees and flowers. If you feel that you do not have the time, or opportunity to connect to nature, here are a few ways you can bring nature to you:
- Download some sounds and images of nature – thunder storms, the sea, birdsong…anything that brings nature into your home as the sound of nature has a very calming effect on the brain
- Create a balcony garden or window box, plant herbs and enjoy the fragrances they give off
- Keep a bowl of fresh fruit to tuck into, or a vase of flowers to admire; the colours and smells regularly
One of the most beautiful ways to relieve stress is to reflect on what you have instead of what you don’t have. It is all too easy to look at the world and see only what is perceived as the bad stuff. Try rather, to look at what you have in your life. Keep a Gratitude Journal and each night before you sleep take five minutes to reflect on your day and write down between one and five things that you are grateful for in you life. This makes you actively look for the good in your life and as you are doing it day by day the things you find to be grateful for are very current. The effect is a calmer, less stressed demeanour as you begin to notice more and more of the wonderful things life offers you on a daily basis.
Another lovely activity, especially if you have children, is to do “Highs and Lows”. We, as a family, used to do this every evening at the dinner table. E would simply go around the table and state the low point of our day and we would chat about how and why that event or feeling happened and then we would do the same with the high point. Always try to do the high point last as the positive energy from this experience will be the energy left with you once you have expressed the experience. Not only does this bring you together as a family but it allows you a sneak peak into other family members’ days and reduces your stress and worry about how they are coping with their lives.
Use Your Brain
Most people think that in order to combat stress we need to stop thinking; we hear terms like “you are over thinking things” and “stop thinking so much”. I am pretty sure we all know how hard it is to not think! So what is the answer? Well try to do something different from what you spend you day doing at work; stimulate your brain through:
- Jigsaw puzzles
- Read challenging books
- Sign up to a short course on a subject that interests you just for the pleasure of it
- Take up knitting, sewing or crocheting
- Play, or learn to play, a musical instrument
Try to do these activities every day and see how it improves your stress levels by taking you mind off current issues and refocusing your brain.
Switch Off Your Brain
How many times have you said, “I wish I could just switch my brain off!”? Well you can, and you should. There are activities you can do for as little as five minutes per day, that will help you to unwind and reduce those feelings of stress.
- Be mindful – this simply means be present in the activity you are doing, whether it is driving your car, taking a walk or cooking dinner. Engage fully in the activity and do not attempt to multi-task or be drawn into other distractions
- Meditate – this does not mean sitting for hours in the Lotus Position chanting Om. It means spending a little time each day focussing on your breath or following one of the many beautiful guided meditations available online
- Breath work – this is as simple as it seems! Sit in a quiet place and take a few minutes to focus on your breathing. A good place to start is to take a deep breath in for a count of three, hold for two, exhale for three and hold for two before breathing in again. Repeat this as many times as you are comfortable with and remember to breath into you belly, filling up your body with cleansing white light with each breath
- Yoga is a beautiful way to stretch and tone your body and it is a distressing activity. Remember that it is called yoga practice, which means you do not have to be perfect – you do what you can for as long as you can and you enjoy doing it. Once again do not allow yourself to be intimidated by the bendy bodies you see in advertising, anyone can practice yoga and there are many, many short and simple tutorials online that you can use in the comfort of your own home.
- Walking and running are wonderful ways to “zone out”. If you have ever been a runner you will know that there comes a point in your run where you are totally in tune with your body and all your worries slip away; it is a truly amazing feeling and ticks the boxes of switching off the brain and getting exercise. Of course not everyone is able to run but a lovely long walk is just as satisfying as long as you walk in a mindful manner, being present in the activity and not aimlessly trudging along mulling over your problems. Leave them at home and enjoy the experience – you will reap physical health rewards too as thirty minutes of good paced walking per day is a very healthful practice
Remember that ten to fifteen minutes of any of these activities per day will have positive effects on your overall health and wellbeing.
Sounds simple right…
Before I share some really easy ways for you to have fun in your every day life, let me tell you why you should make the time to have fun.
The very act of smiling has a positive affect on mood, reducing stress and anxiety. When we smile our brain is stimulated to produce endorphins, also known as feel good hormones, an these in turn increase the release of dopamine, a neuro transmitter that
- Boosts mood and inhibits negative emotions
- Increases motivation
- Improves sleep quality
When speaking of fun it is important to remember that what is fun for me might not be fun for you, fun is an individual perception. Whatever your choice of fun activities is it is important to make time each and every day to do something fun.
- Try a new activity
- Listen to music
- Draw, colour, paint
- Arrange flowers
- Ride a bicycle
- Watch your favourite movie or TV show (just remember not to do this for hours and hours each day)
- Meet friends
- Have sing-a-longs in the car
- Go to karaoke
- Have a spontaneous dance party – alone or with family members
- Create a home by running a fragrant bath and lighting candles in the bathroom, add some lovely soothing music and lose yourself for half an hour
One of the places that cause us the most stress is our place of work. On average people spend up to eight hours a day at work – in Dubai that number may be significantly higher! This makes it very obvious that we need to be able to find ways of releasing the build up of stress throughout the day so that we remain calm and relaxed and there are a number of ways that we achieve this:
- Maintain good posture in your work space, sitting in a ‘j’ position rather than an ‘s’ position
- Have you computer monitor at eye level as this helps alleviate eye and neck strain
- Be sure that your keyboard is lower than shoulder level
- Place post-it notes around your work space to remind you to ‘breathe’, take a break’, ‘smile’ and ‘walk around’
- Stand up and move regularly – a sedentary life style contributes to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes (two minutes of movement in every forty will negate most of the negative effects of prolonged sitting)
- Stretch, do some shoulder and neck rolls and walk around regularly
- If you are on your feet a lot be sure to spend a bit extra on good quality, comfortable shoes
- If you need to, set a reminder on your phone so that you do not end up sitting all day
It is important to remember that you need to be resilient and that means having the ability to adapt successfully in the face of stress and adversity. It does not mean that the stressful situation or event will not have a effect on you, but rather that you have developed a strategy to manage them – to take them in your stride with confidence.
In order to do this you will need to have coping strategies in place; for example how do you cope if you have an argument with you partner? Having a good coping strategy might mean you calming inform him/her that you need to walk away for an hour so that you can clear you head in order to have a rational discussion rather than an argument. Or perhaps you have financial difficulties; do you bury your head in the sand or do you adopt a more beneficial coping strategy? Planning a tighter budget to control spend, consolidating loans, consider a new job that pays more or moving to less expensive accommodation. All of these strategies will help you to remain in control and therefore alleviate some of the stress; the problem still exists, but you have more control over it.
Set up healthy routines – make sure you have a regular bedtime routine (for all the family), batch cook for the week on a Saturday, make time for daily exercise, turn off your phone and hour before bed. All of these are small things to do on their own but when you group them together and you are in a place where you are doing them all, you will be in control of your own life and, hopefully, stress in your life will be low.
Finally, find a positive attitude. Of course life is not all sunshine and rainbows but if you can find it within you to see the beauty in life and maintain a positive outlook you will be a much happier, ore resilient person.
[This article is exclusive to FoodeMag and is a part of #BringBackBalance, a FoodeMag campaign in collaboration with Oman Insurance Company (OIC) and Bupa Global. A series of bespoke events follow at various venues for the next few months, so do stay tuned to enter the next competition to join us for our second event.]