The whole concept of ‘stress’ and how it fits into a healthy life is tricky. We’re increasingly told about how harmful it is, but when you’re already on the ropes, the fact that you’re not finding your inner-zen is just another stick to beat yourself with. As it seems to be such an essential part of good health, finding a bit more calmness is near the top of my current to-do list.
What’s so bad about stress?
Basically, our bodies are designed to handle stress if it comes in the form of an immediate danger, like getting chased by a bear. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released, sugar gets pumped into our blood, the heart starts to pound, blood pressure increases and our immune system gets primed for action. This is fine and dandy presuming it’s an occasional occurrence, and can be a good thing, with nerves before a presentation or exam giving us a sharper mind.
Problems arise when we feel constantly stressed and cortisol/adrenaline are released across the whole day for weeks or months or even years on end. In this scenario, the ‘rest and digest’ mode of our nervous system is overridden in favour of ‘fight or flight’ mode and the background activities that keep our bodies ticking along nicely, like absorbing nutrients, detoxifying our blood, repairing cell damage and making our reproductive and thyroid hormones are put on the back burner. Chronic inflammation and elevated blood sugar can also result and contribute to major health problems. So unfortunately, even if you are doing everything else right (which you probably aren’t), if you’re suffering from chronic stress, good health is going to be hard to achieve.
But isn’t it just part of life?
It is, so we can’t expect to avoid stress altogether, but can try to improve the way that we respond to those situations that give us that blood-rushing, chest-tightening feeling. For some people, the circumstances that they find themselves in are so difficult that they need to make big changes like leaving their job (or partner…) or moving house- but for me, just trying to maximise my ‘rest and digest’ time and changing my mindset are the goals. Here’s a list of what’s been helping.
- Get enough sleep. My lovely window of child-free time in the evenings has been getting tinier and tinier, so my cunning work-around was just to stay up later. Bad move. The world seems much more horrible when you’re tired and even though I find early nights extremely boring, they’ve got to happen. If you are already chronically stressed, sleep probably won’t be as easy as just going to bed early but there are some great tips here.
- Enjoy the great outdoors. As a dog owner, getting outside is non-optional and in fact a great bonus to having him around. Lots of studies have shown the benefits of connecting with nature and the other morning after I was lucky enough to watch dolphins leaping around in the bay I really felt on top of the world. Hanging out with Hector is also (mostly) relaxing just by itself, so if you don’t have a dog, maybe you know someone who would be happy to share theirs now and again?
- Mindfulness/Meditation. I felt really calm last year using the Headspace app, but then got lazy and thought that I’d just bin it and go freestyle as required. This hasn’t worked out so it’s time to renew my subscription and start again. You can try Headspace free for a few sessions which I highly recommend if you are interested in mindfulness and would like a well-supported introduction.
- Exercise. At the moment I’m doing a couple of high-intensity gym classes each week which I love. There’s something about battering a punchbag that’s extremely cathartic. Exercise is well known to be great for stress reduction, but if you really feel on the edge of burnout, I’d be focusing more on gentle, restorative things like yoga.
- Learn to let it go. Trying to live up to unrealistic expectations from other people or the media stresses me out, so these days I just try to disengage. Happily, this seems to become easier as you get older!
- Epsom Salt Baths. The magnesium in the Epsom Salts helps your muscles to relax and if you haven’t taken a bath for a while, these just feel amazing. You need a good couple of cupfuls of Epsom Salts in each bath and the best place to get them in bulk is amazon.
- Get into something that isn’t your smartphone. My name is Ellen and I’m a smartphone addict… I can feel it making me restless and squirrely and even though browsing through social media feels like it’s what I want to do when I try to relax, it makes me totally unrelaxed! I love reading so the new goal is to always have a book on the go, and if I start one and don’t like it enough to want to pick it up again, it gets abandoned in favour of one that I’ll actually read. Have just started The Goldfinch which I am loving. For other people perhaps it’s music they can get lost in, or something crafty, the important thing is to focus on something that takes you out of the daily grind.
- Laughing. Whether it’s with friends, at a show, or on tv, it’s the best. I’ve heard a few health-advocate types say that you can’t relax and beat stress by watching tv, but Curb Your Enthusiasm works for me… (also, haven’t they watched GBBO? – it’s televisual prozac).
- Going easy on the booze and coffee. Whilst I’m oh so tempted to deal with a stressful day by launching myself at a glass of red, knowing that it’s rarely just the one, and that I’m just making things worse for myself the next day means that I’ve greatly increased my AFDs (that’s Alcohol Free Days…). With each coffee, you are kickstarting your stress hormones and even though I’ve cut down, I am considering a coffee-free experiment just to see if it has a noticeable effect.
How do you chill out and where do you carve out time in the day for it?
Recipe: Pumpkin and Smoked Paprika Soup. For me, making soup is totally relaxing; there’s just something about it that give me the warm and fuzzies, especially now that the Autumn chill has arrived here in Scotland. This makes loads, so there’s hopefully some left over for the freezer but if you prefer to just halve it, it will still work.
- 1 butternut squash.
- 2 sweet potatoes.
- 1 white potato chopped into small cubes.
- 2 onions chopped.
- 2 large carrots chopped.
- 1 courgette/zucchini chopped.
- 2 sticks celery chopped.
- 500g punnet of mushrooms chopped.
- 2.5 litres of good chicken or vegetable stock (or bone broth if you have it).
- 150g quinoa.
- 2 tbsp butter.
- 2.5 tsp smoked paprika.
- Salt and pepper.
- Cut the pumpkin and sweet potatoes lengthwise into 4 and deseed the pumpkin. Brush with olive oil and cook in the oven at 170C for 40 minutes.
- Melt the butter on a low/moderate heat and sweat the vegetables starting with the onions. Take your time with this and if the mushrooms release lots of juice, wait until this has evaporated before adding the stock.
- Add the stock to the pot and simmer for 45 mins. Skin the cooled roasted pumpkin and sweet potato and add these for the last few minutes.
- Take the pot off the heat and let it cool slightly before blitzing with a stick blender to get a smooth texture.
- Finally, lob in the quinoa and smoked paprika, give a good stir and season to taste with salt and pepper. Put back on the heat and bring back to a simmer just until the quinoa is done (no more than 10 mins). If you love the paprika, just add more to taste.
Listening recommendation: If you’re not familiar with Desert Island Discs, it’s a BBC radio series in which a famous person has to choose what songs they would take with them if they were abandoned on a desert island. There is a huge archive on the BBC website, and if you are trying to escape stress you could do a lot worse than setting yourself up with an episode whilst taking an Epsom Salts Bath. Heaven.Follow me on facebook or twitter.