Everything about the world we live in is designed to stress us out. Finding time to unwind and manage stress can be crucial to our health and wellbeing.
It’s the silent killer which could be causing almost a million premature deaths every year, yet everything about our society is geared to making stress worse. Stress was the world’s biggest pandemic, long before COVID-19 ever got going, and the busier we get the worse it becomes. Long working hours and an ‘always on’ lifestyle mean that, as a society, we are more stressed than ever, and the effects can be deadly. Taking the time to manage stress levels is one of the simplest ways to improve you health and longevity long term.
Stress – the silent killer
A recently published paper by experts from a number of institutions including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that globally, three quarters of a million people die from ischaemic heart disease and strokes caused by excessive working hours every year. In the US, the American Institute of Stress estimates than 120,000 people die every year from work related stress.
Stress has been linked to just about every serious disease or mental health condition going – from heart disease to depression and even Alzheimer’s. More generally, stress can have all sorts of other harmful effects, such as reduced immunity, heightened risk of disease and – in the longer term – a shorter lifespan.
It all has to do with the body’s hormonal reaction to stress. When we’re stressed, the body releases cortisol which increases heart rate and blood pressure, making it better prepared to react to a perceived threat. The trouble is that’s only supposed to be a short-term reaction. Thanks to the way we live, many of us exist in a permanent state of stress.
Ways to manage stress
Managing stress, then, is critical for our health and wellbeing, but this is much easier to say than to do. We all live busy lives. Working hours are growing and our always-on lifestyle and the rise of remote working means it can be impossible to escape work even when at home. Furthermore, the rising cost of living means many of us are having to work twice as hard just to stay level. Stress reduction has to happen around rather instead of our busy modern lifestyles. So, how can we do it?
Positive mental attitude
The first suggestion is easy to say, but much more difficult to do. When you’re under stress, you can feel overwhelmed. Being told to effectively ‘look on the bright side’ of the situation doesn’t seem helpful. However, stress is essentially a state of mind. Rather than viewing everything as a threat you can instead see it as a challenge. This can leave you feeling more energized and optimistic and may influence the impact stress has on your body.
Managing stress with exercise
Exercise naturally reduces stress. Finding a spare hour a day for a walk or a bike ride gets you out into the fresh air and releases endorphins which actively fight stress. Busy people can find it difficult to schedule enough time into their daily routines – and exercise is often the thing that gets left out. However, it is important to find time – perhaps by breaking it up into small chunks or incorporating it into your daily routine.
Some specific exercises have been shown to reduce stress such as yoga, Thai Chi, Pilates and other martial arts. Yoga, for example, is a mind/body exercise which uses a series of movements and poses to promote your body’s natural relaxation response. Thai Chi, meanwhile, uses flowing movements and breathing exercises to calm the mind and condition the body. You can do these alone or joining a group which can also help you build social connections which may improve your wellbeing.
Get some sleep
Sleep is one of the most powerful tools we have to fight stress. Regular sleep routines calm and rejuvenates the body leaving us more energised and clearer of mind. A lack of sleep, meanwhile, can leave struggling with issues such as brain fog and fatigue. It reduces our mental clarity and makes it more difficult to deal with the challenges the day presents us.
Busy people often make the mistake of cutting back on sleep, for example by working late, but this can be counterproductive. Not only does it make you more stressed, but it will also reduce your productivity – which in turn will pile on the stress. A decent amount of sleep will keep you healthy and rejuvenated to deal with all the pressures which come your way.
Learn when to say no
If none of these work, the only option may be to learn how to say ‘no’. Many people are taking too much work onto their plates because they simply forget how to say no to the demands people make of their time. Learning to say no to some things will give you more time to look after your own personal wellbeing and manage your stress levels.
No matter how busy your life gets, then, it pays to think about stress and the impact it is having on your wellbeing, health and at the end of the day, your lifespan. In a world in which many of us are working ourselves to death, reducing stress should be an essential part of self-care.