The expert view: stress management
December 2021   BODY & MIND

The expert view: stress management

Experts from different professions offer their advice about handling stress.
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According to Cigna’s Global Well-being Survey, 70 per cent of people are stressed, but what is the best way to handle it? We asked the experts – from nutritionists to doctors to personal trainers – for their advice...

The doctor’s view

“The first step is to recognize you’re stressed – and never to feel alone”, says Dr Rachel Ward. “Every single person suffers from stress at some point – you need to acknowledge and recognize it, then address your own triggers,” she explains. 

“Find the root cause”, she suggests. “Is it work, finances, family? When you’ve identified the main trigger, the next step is to find someone who can help you with the problem. Whether that’s talking through issues with family, or seeking professional advice about finances, sharing your stress burden will be incredibly beneficial,” she explains. “Keep a diary of events and rate your stress levels at the end of each day to work out what might be causing this rather than ploughing on through life, hoping things get better on their own.

“Reaching out for help to the appropriate people doesn’t show weakness, it shows you have a growth mindset and that is the path to a healthy, happy life.” 

The professor’s view 

“It’s a vicious cycle – you’re stressed so you sleep badly, and you’re tired so you’re even more stressed, then sleep even worse,” says Professor Jim Horne from the Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Centre. “Optimise your sleep by actively addressing your bedtime protocol - such as cutting out evening caffeine, avoiding all screens in your bedroom, and even trying a mindfulness app to help you relax before lights-out. 

“Keep a notepad and pen beside your bed so you can make a list of what you still have to do, or what’s worrying you”, he recommends. “Facing up to it in black and white makes it seem much more manageable and means you don’t have to worry about remembering,” he says. “But leave your pad out of sight in your bedside drawer so it doesn’t remind you of tomorrow’s to-do list.”

Counting sheep is simply too boring to keep your mind off problems and concerns, according to research from Oxford University’s experimental psychology department. A group of 50 insomniacs who were told to think of relaxing images – such as waterfalls - fell asleep more than 20 minutes before they normally would, while those who tried distraction techniques, such as counting sheep, fell asleep even later than normal.  “Picturing an engaging scene takes up more brain space than the same dirty old sheep,” says Professor Horne. 

The personal trainer’s view

“Exercise can be as good for the mind as the body”, says Becky Fuller, of workoutwoman.co.uk. “Running and exercise in general is one of the most effective treatments for stress, and in many cases has been proven to be as, if not more, effective than medication,” she explains. 

“Exercise releases endorphins, which have a positive effect on your mood and well-being. This helps with anger, tension, sadness and anxiety which are often stress triggers. It also helps improve the quality of your sleep, again something that can often suffer due to stress.” 

It also helps your breathing. “Stress makes your heart beat faster, which leads to shallow, fast breathing, a build-up of CO2 and a lack of oxygen in the brain, leading to more stress,” explains Becky. “Running actually forces you to regulate your breathing, as well as to breathe deeper to expel any lingering CO2, both key methods used to alleviate stress in non-runners – you’re practicing proven clinical techniques without knowing it.

“Even a 20-minute brisk walk outside, away from your desk, gives you a chance to clear your head and focus on something else - the sights and sounds of outdoors, your movement patterns or your breath. 

Yoga is especially good for breath focus; transferable skills that can be used when dealing with stress. 

“Ultimately, find something you enjoy, whether that’s running, lifting weights, going on a bike ride or taking a swim,” she says. “You’ll also make new friends and see a whole host of other health benefits.” 

The psychologist’s view 

Researchers at West Virginia University found 35 participants who underwent ‘mindfulness meditation’ saw a 44 percent reduction in psychological distress over three months. “Just sit quietly for 10 minutes, focusing on one point on a wall in front of you, and breathe deeply in and out through your nose for a full three seconds for 10 minutes,” says Mark Williams, Professor of Psychology at Oxford University

“Don’t worry if your mind starts to wander, whether it’s to the past, to current worries, to future planning, even to fantasies and day dreams,” he continues. “Simply be aware of the wandering and note where your mind has gone before bringing it back to focus entirely on a particular breath in that moment.” 


The scientist’s view 

Ten minutes in the sun can make a tremendous difference to your stress levels. “It’s because we have a plant-like nature,” says Stephany Biello, Professor of Neuroscience and Biopsychology at the University of Glasgow. “We get a powerful surge of energy from sunlight.”

Grabbing a cappuccino can also be good, but only if you have company. Researchers at the University of Bristol discovered that when stressed-out workers consumed caffeine by themselves, they remained nervous and jittery. But when anxious executives caffeine-loaded as part of a group, their feelings of stress subsided. “Taking caffeine in a group seems to have a venting effect, helping you to vent uncluttered anxieties and communicate better, leading to lower overall stress levels,” she explains.

The nutritionist’s view  

It’s no surprise that a diet of fast food and alcohol isn’t exactly doctor’s orders when it comes to dealing with stress. “While there’s a strong psychological element to stress, your ability to deal with whatever life throws at you is made easier with the right diet,” explains nutritionist Jane Clarke. “The main recommendations are slow-release carbs, which help to reduce energy dips and feelings of lethargy during the day, and B vitamins, part of the assembly line that manufactures feel-good hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine for an immediate pick-you-up.” 

Research in Alternative Medicine Review found vitamin B5 in particular reduced production of cortisol in high stress conditions. Boost your B levels with wholegrains, cauliflower, broccoli, salmon, liver, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. 

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