By Magnus Davies
Assistant at Mantality
As a society we have never been so rich.
We have technology that can switch on our oven before we get home from work. We have phones that enable us to order a month’s food-shop and book a doctor’s appointment within minutes.
On paper our lives look fucking easy- but it seems like we are more stressed than ever. Every year in the UK, 828,000 people take a sick day off work due to stress. Since 1990 the impact of chronic stress is acutely evident in the UK’s significantly increased suicide rates.
Professor Daryl O'Connor
In preparation for this article, I listened to the Mantality podcast with Daryl O’Connor. I’ve listened to plenty of Mantality’s podcasts and I would say this one was my favourite. O’Connor is a Psychology Professor at the University of Leeds and specialises in how stress directly affects our health.
These are the main points I took from the podcast:
- Stress can literally kill you: It can lead to unhealthy behaviour and it can wear down our bodies through the constant activation of the fight or flight response.
- Genetics can determine how well someone can cope with stress.
- Stress is unavoidable: the key is to limit and manage it.
- The best coping mechanism is exercise.
- Unresolved trauma may be causing stress in your life.
- Talking about your stress will lead to a spike in stress but will reduce stress in the medium to long term.
Some Stress is fine
Daryl O’Connor said stress is simply caused when we believe there is a demand in our life that we do not have the tools to deal with. Whether it’s a tax bill that we are worried we might not be able to cover or a divorce that we don’t think we have the emotional strength to weather – these are often the catalysts for stress.
Stress is normal. The fight or flight response is hardwired into our brains to protect us. Prior to modern society, the fight or flight was a useful practical response. It helped to pump blood and adrenaline to our extremities so that we could fight off a threat or flee from danger.
Stress can be a useful tool in our lives. It can often help to highlight what is not working for us. Ongoing stress in your job may be an indicator that the job isn’t for you. Stress can help athletes get into the zone and perform better on high-level occasions
Chronic Stress Is The Problem
However, many people have an unhealthy relationship with chronic stress. Some people are permanently living in fight or flight without realising it. Living in this state is not healthy and can cause health problems such as heart problems, cancer and increased chance of suicide.
Today the fight or flight response is rarely triggered by a wildebeest or a sabre tooth tiger but more likely when we are pushing a trolley down the aisle in Tesco’s! Everyday responsibilities shouldered in day-to-day life can often be enough to tip us over into the stress zone.
Chronic Stress Is A Modern Disease
The problem is that today’s technology is way ahead of our psychology. Historically, we are not used to encountering more than 100 people in a year and today we might see 500 online in a day.
On the work front, our nomadic ancestors would have been outside walking in the fresh air or more recently, engaged in physically-taxing labour. This is a far cry from being sat for 8 hours every day with eyes glued to a computer screen.
We have hours of free-time we would never have had to dwell on our problems. At the same time, we are sold lifestyles that have airbrushed feelings of unfulfillment out of view so that emotions are kept a lid-on. All of these factors are having a cumulative effect on our daily stress levels.
Four Ways To Reduce Your Stress
We can whip out all the fancy mind-hacks in the world, but nothing is more effective than getting 30 minutes of exercise in a day. Whether that’s a leisurely walk in the woods or a HIT workout at the gym, there is no better remedy to alleviate stress.
- Allocate 30 minutes a day to exercise: walking, running, swimming, you name it.
2. Write down your worries:
Research has shown that simply writing down your worries can reduce their frequency. If you spent as little as 10 minutes writing down your worries it has the effect of clearing the thought from your mind and putting the worry into perspective. When a worry is written it instantly shifts shape from a monster to a cuddly toy.
Experts recommend that you ‘budget a worrying period’, preferably in the evening. For example, you make an agreement with yourself to spend 15 minutes writing down what is causing you to worry. By doing this you contain negative thinking to confined periods rather than letting negative thoughts disperse throughout your day.
3. Control and acceptance
Epictetus: “Just keep in mind: the more we value things outside of our control, the less control we have”.
There is no coincidence that all ancient philosophies (e.g. Buddhism, Stoicism, Taoism) share the sentiment that we should willingly accept things outside of our control.
Most of our stress comes from worrying about things that are outside our control. But what good is that? Worrying about things we can’t control only depletes us of energy we can expend on the things we can control.
We can’t control other people’s opinions of us, but we can control our attitude and our work ethic. We can’t always control whether we catch an illness but we can control our diet and exercise routine.
When we make peace with the fact that we lack control, the less energy we waste on rumination and the more energy we can spend on actions that will make a positive impact on our lives.
- Write down what is worrying you and figure of what you can and can’t control. If you can’t control it, the best course of action is to accept this fact and concentrate your energy on what you can control.
- Accept that there will be parts of every day where you feel stressed, sit with the feeling and accept that you will not always feel great.
3. Don’t expect to achieve something great every day. Reduce your expectations and be grateful for what you have
4. Find time to relax:
Constantly working can lead to burnout and mental fatigue. It’s important that you find time to do things that require no effort or thinking. Many of us think that mindlessly swiping on Instagram is a way to relax. However, spending time on your phone depletes your energy, whereas other activities like going on a walk or reading a magazine are activities that help you recharge.
It’s important to devise clear work and relaxation boundaries. This issue has never been so important because many of us are working from home since the lockdown started. Sometimes it’s hard to put your laptop or phone down and stop working. For those who work for themselves, they live and breathe their business so they’re more exposed to burnout because they struggle to have solid work-life boundaries.
The key is to detach yourself from work as soon as you’ve finished your shift.
- If you work from home, make sure you don’t work and sleep in the same room (if you can avoid it).
- Switch off your phone once you’ve finished work.
- Do activities that are totally unrelated to work like walking, reading, meditation, socialising.