Excerpt taken from an article in The Guardian in February looking at coping strategies and ways to stay calm in stressful situations.
There are ways to cope. Learning how to anticipate a stressful situation, how to reduce the intensity of your reaction, and how to speed up your recovery can significantly lighten your stress load.
1 Do some gentle morning exercise
In 2015, researchers from Berlin
found that in a group of young men, exercising at moderate intensity
reduced the cortisol response to psychological stress that happened 90
minutes later. Exercising may also help alleviate anxiety when faced
with a sudden, unpredictable shock – in a 2018 study in Maryland, US
volunteers who exercised at moderate intensity for 30 minutes, were
less startled when given an electric shock to the back of the arm
without expecting it, an hour after the workout, compared with those who
had not exercised.
2 Spend time with a close friend
A 2003 Zurich study
found a group of healthy young men had a smaller stress response to a
psychologically stressful experience if they had spent time with a best
friend immediately beforehand. Humans have evolved in tribes – we are
hard-wired to feel safer around human connection.
3 Start the day with time outside
Observing the natural world may help you recover faster from subsequent stressful experiences, according to a 2013 study by researchers from the University of Essex.
In the study, people looked at pictures of nature, so even if you can’t
head out to a garden or park, simply looking at scenes on your laptop
can do the trick.
4 Remember to breathe
Several studies demonstrate slow, deep breathing is calming. Most recently, researchers from Georgia, in the US, observed
that 15 minutes of deep breathing reduced reactivity of the nerve
network that is active during the stress response in veterans with
post-traumatic stress disorder.
5 Take control
Believing you are in control of your environment can help curb your
stress reaction. As you walk into a stressful situation, remind yourself
what is under your control – the length of time you spend in a room,
what you will or won’t say to somebody, for example. Or if being stuck
in a traffic jam is stressing you out, take steps to improve your
immediate environment, for instance by planning what you’ll listen to,
or using props to make your seat more comfortable.
6 Pour a brew
Tea has anecdotally been associated with stress relief, but this has seldom been tested scientifically. But in a head to head comparison of black tea with a different caffeinated drink, each containing 72mg of caffeine, researchers at University College London discovered tea drinkers recovered faster after stress.
7 Immerse yourself in something else
When you leave an emotionally stressful scene, you might have
physically left it but your mind is often still there, replaying the
scene on loop. Find an activity that stops your mind from wandering –
anything absorbing that you enjoy (even playing a game on your phone).
In 2002, researchers from the University of California
put healthy volunteers through a mentally stressful experience. Half
were allowed to rest afterwards while the others were given something
demanding to do, requiring their full attention – it was this group who
8 Go for a walk
After a particularly stressful experience, head for a walk or other
low intensity exercise. For the rest of the day, move at every
opportunity, so you’re physically tired by bedtime. Keep it gentle –
lighter exercise is best after stress, as it reduces the stress hormone
cortisol, while intense exercise can raise its levels. Your heart may
not appreciate an all-out workout after a bout of intense stress,
either. A 2016 study spanning 52 countries
found exercising vigorously while you’re emotionally upset or angry can
triple your risk of a heart attack. If you can be around nature while
you exercise, even better. Exercising on a cycling machine while
listening to birdsong or looking at a nature video reduced perceived
stress more than exercising alone. If you’re short on time, even a
15-minute walk can calm you down.
9 Write it down
During a distressing experience, your emotions colour your perception
of the event. If you revisit the scene without these emotions, the same
event can appear very different. When you’re calmer, write down what
happened as if you were a third person observing the scene. When you put
your experience into words, you omit emotions and sensations that are
irrelevant to the story. As you record the event on the page, you
rewrite its memory in your head.
Stress-Proof: The ultimate guide to living a stress-free life by Dr Mithu Storoni is published on 21 February by Yellow Kite, £14.99
Tune in, chill out: books, podcasts and apps to lift your mood, chosen by Hannah Booth:
• Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope by Johann Hari (Bloomsbury). First published last year, this bestseller offers radical new ways of looking at anxiety and depression.
• Worried? Science investigates some of life’s common concerns by Eric Chudler & Lise A Johnson (Norton). This
witty but rigorous study by a neuroscientist and an engineer debunks
some of our most common worries – from shark attacks to bedbugs.
• Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (Penguin). An accessible and insightful guide to reducing your use of digital tools for a more productive and peaceful life.
• Ten to Zen by Owen O’Kane (Bluebird). A highly practical workout for busy minds – in 10-minute bursts – from this NHS mental health service practitioner.
This app uses a CBT-based approach to counter cycles of negative
thoughts, with relaxation and mindfulness techniques and audio
exercises. Free app; from $3.99 for extras.
• Headspace: A popular app offering guided mindfulness and meditation from former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe. Free starter programme, then from £5.99 month subscription.
Over 100 guided meditations covering anxiety, focus, stress, sleep,
relationships and more – along with a library of bedtime stories
(calm.com). Free seven day trial, then $59.99 annual subscription.
• Happify: Short, science-based activities and games designed to improve your emotional wellbeing and life satisfaction. Free app; from $14.99 a month for advanced options.
Personalised mindfulness meditations, life-coaching, stories, music and
more to soothe stress and anxiety and help users sleep better. Free app; from $7.99 a month for advanced options.
Generates bespoke music and background noise to help you relax, focus,
or relieve anxiety – including waves, rustling leaves and forest
birdsong. $1.99 for the app.
Happy Place: Broadcaster Fearne Cotton talks to well-known people – from Tom Daley to Gary Barlow – about love, life and loss (itunes.apple.com). Free.
Soul Music, BBC Radio 4:
A powerful, uplifing podcast – currently on series 27 – that explores
one piece of music or song, and how it has affected the lives of people
around the world. Free.
How to Fail With Elizabeth Day: Stressed at work? Hearing about
other people’s fails (and what they learned) might lift your mood. Free.
Fascinating documentary series that explores regret; notably, the point
in people’s lives where it all went wrong – and how they put it right. A
fourth series is on the way. Free.
Oprah’s Masterclass: Honest life lessons from heavyweight celebrity guests, from Jane Fonda to Smokey Robinson. Free.