How to Reduce Chronic Stress in a Busy World

Practical tips for reducing stress. Briefly describes the physiology of the stress response, then identifies 16 areas where you can make changes to stop it.

A stressed woman multitasking

This article explores the corrosive effects that stress has on our bodies and to our general wellbeing. I recommend over 60 changes that you can make to your life to improve how you recover from, avoid, and react to stressful situations. These recommendations are grouped into categories which can be read independently of one another.

The Stress Response

01. Eat the right foods
02. Enjoy a soak in the bath
03. Get enough sleep
04. Reduce caffeine intake
05. Rest your senses
06. Stop multitasking
07. Write Lists
08. Arrive early
09. Lower your standards
10. Avoid decision fatigue
11. Streamline your wardrobe
12. Declutter your house
13. Detoxify your social circle
14. Acknowledge your menstrual cycle (women only)
15. Go to your Doctor
16. Practice Mindfulness

Introduction: The Stress Response

Although we usually think of stress as a mental response to challenging circumstances like overwork or bereavement, stress is primarily a physical response. When the body is under stress, it releases hormones into the bloodstream which prepare the body for fight or flight. Adrenaline and cortisol are the two main chemical messengers involved. They work to divert blood to target muscles, get more oxygen into the lungs, and make more energy available for sudden action. This is experienced as a pounding heart, faster breathing, and a jittery, restless feeling. With all this frenetic activity going on, non-essential bodily functions like digestion and reproduction are switched off, and the immune system is weakened.

This survival mechanism is helpful in an emergency situation, but can be distressing when it is launched at inappropriate times. And the more frequently the stress response is triggered, the harder it becomes to shut down. The body can get stuck in a state of chronic stress, unable to distinguish minor day-to-day upsets from life-and-death situations. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can cause serious health and wellbeing problems, such as depression, insomnia, digestive disorders, infertility and autoimmune diseases.

Although chronic stress may initially be triggered by a traumatic event, modern lifestyles and living environments exert a constant, insidious drain on our bodies’ resources. Our social and economic structures are built upon the idea that we must constantly be busy planning and doing. This makes it hard to find time for rest, reflection and replenishment. And even if we do carve out time for self-care, this is often viewed as a guilty indulgence rather than a nourishing necessity. It is hard to step out of this thought world and reject the idolatry of constant productivity and stimulation.

There is no single, quick-fix solution to reducing stress. Instead, the answer lies in making lots of iterative changes to your lifestyle and environment – some small, and some large. On a personal level, I suffered from chronic stress for several years after my sister died unexpectedly. This manifested itself in irritable bowel syndrome, infertility problems, personality changes and a general inability to relax and switch off. If I had to pinpoint one thing that made the single biggest difference, it would be going on a mindfulness course. Although I do not meditate, I learnt to slow down, pay attention to my body, and be kinder to myself.

  1. Reactive Recovery: to start with, it may be easiest to focus on developing coping mechanisms that bring you back down to a calm state as quickly as possible when you feel acute stress. This could involve breathing exercises, taking a walk in nature, or immersing yourself in a gentle activity that you enjoy, like music or gardening.
  2. Proactive Protection: the next step begins with identifying your stress triggers, and then limiting your exposure to stressful situations. This involves taking control, and trying to change or avoid things.
  3. Adaptive Attitude: some things are outside your control. You cannot change other people’s behaviour, but can change how you react to it. The final step involves retraining your thinking, so that challenging situations do not trigger a stress response. “Some people walk in the rain. Others get wet” – two people can experience the same event, but have a completely different reaction to it.

01. Eat the right foods

The stress hormone cortisol causes your blood flow to be rerouted from the stomach, which disrupts digestion. Complex carbohydrates take a long time to break down, so your body will not waste energy trying to extract the digestible nutrients. Instead, the food particles pass undigested into the large intestine, where they linger and feed ‘bad’ bacteria. This can cause bloating, diarrhoea and general discomfort. Although stress hormones suppress the appetite, it is important to eat regular meals. Your body needs fuel to deal with the energy- and nutrient-depleting effects of stress.

  1. Limit starchy foods: avoid white potatoes, dairy products, sugar, legumes (peas, lentils and beans), and grains (rice, oats, wheat, polenta etc.). Replace white potatoes with sweet potatoes, and sugar with honey. If you must eat complex carbohydrates, replace difficult-to-digest brown rice with white rice, and milk with cultured dairy products like yoghurt or sour cream.
  2. Eat protein and vegetables: these are easy to digest, especially if they have been broken down by slow-cooking, or by pureeing. (For this reason, raw vegetables are best avoided.)
  3. Carry emergency snacks: when the body needs refuelling, it becomes hard to concentrate and you start to feel tired. Date and nut bars have a long shelf-life, while fresh bananas and boiled eggs are easy to transport. Keep a permanent store of snacks in your bag, car and at work.
  4. Avoid sugar on an empty stomach: this gets absorbed too quickly, causing your blood sugar levels to spike and then fall. When this happens, you feel shaky and nauseous, and should eat protein as quickly as possible. Don’t forget that fruit contains a lot of natural sugars, and wine is also sugary.
  5. Eat little and often: this will keep your metabolism going, and help stabilise your blood sugar levels.
  6. Devise meal plans: sit down on a Sunday and plan what you are going to eat during the week. Tie your meal plan in with your work and social calendar, so you always have something prepared on busy days. Batch-cook and freeze soups, stews and curries on a weekend afternoon, so that you don’t need to cook during the week.
  7. Buy a slow cooker: leave your dinner to cook itself while you’re at work. Mr D’s Thermal Cooker doesn’t need to be plugged into a power source. It is ideal for long car journeys, overnight porridge and no-stir polenta.
  8. Just cover the food groups: sometimes food is just about consuming calories. An omelette or tinned sardines served with white rice and steamed vegetables provides a simple supper that covers the basic food groups.

02. Enjoy a soak in the bath

You don’t have to swallow nutrients to absorb them – your skin is highly absorbent (think nicotine patches and suppositories). Stress produces adrenaline, which acts as a hormone inhibitor and depletes your body of magnesium. You can replenish magnesium by taking a bath in magnesium bath salts. If you bathe in ordinary tap water, the water will actually leach minerals from your body, via osmosis. If you add salt, the reverse will happen, and your body absorbs the minerals from the water.

  1. Buy non-branded salts: you don’t need to pay a lot for bath salts. Any salts which describe themselves as ‘magnesium bath salts’ or ‘Epsom bath salts’ will do the job. You can find these in a chemist, or buy cheaply from the internet.
  2. Be generous: you need to add about 2 cups to be efficacious, so take an all-or-nothing approach when adding bath salts to bath water.
  3. Keep hydrated: make sure you drink a big glass of water afterward, as you have effectively ‘eaten’ a very salty meal!

03. Get enough sleep

This is easier said than done. Sometimes there simply aren’t enough hours in the day, and it’s not feasible to foreshorten the day by going to bed early. If you can’t increase the length of your sleep, at least increase the quality. Try to create an environment in which you fall asleep quickly and deeply. This means preparing yourself physically and mentally for sleep, rather than rushing around all day, flopping straight to bed, and wondering why you can’t switch off and fall asleep.

  1. Take a bath or shower: increase your body temperature and then let it to cool down before you go to bed. This sends sleep signals to the brain by mimicking the thermal pattern of sleep.
  2. Impose a digital sunset: stop looking at electronic screens after 8 pm. You may also wish to avoid bright lights which mimic daylight, using lamps and candles instead.
  3. Avoid troubling thoughts: don’t read or watch things which set your nerves on high alert, or are emotionally upsetting. Avoid the news and psychological thrillers.
  4. Turn your bedroom into a calm oasis: minimise furniture and clutter, and introduce a soft colour palette devoid of bold colours and patterns. If you can’t stand mess but don’t have time to tidy up, buy an underbed storage drawer, and shove everything in it before you go to bed.

04. Reduce caffeine intake

We all know it’s a bad idea to drink coffee before bed, but chocolate and alcohol are also stimulants that can frustrate relaxation. If your body is stressed, then it is already in a state of over-stimulation. It’s tempting to go for a short-term pick-me-up when you’re tired, but this just perpetuates the cycle of tiredness.

  1. Drink weak coffee: most coffee shops put 2 shots of coffee in a standard cup. Wean yourself down in quarter-shot increments to a 1-shot coffee.
  2. Impose a caffeine sunset: switch to caffeine-free hot drinks in the afternoon like herbal tea. Avoid chocolate after an evening meal.
  3. Drink decaffeinated: Rooibos tea is naturally free from caffeine, and you can get good quality decaffeinated coffee these days. Try to buy one that has been stripped of caffeine using the Swiss water method, rather than harmful chemicals.

05. Rest your senses

Cortisol sharpens your senses, like a gazelle on the savannah sniffing the air for danger. This makes you more sensitive to your surroundings, and the onslaught of sights and noises can feel overwhelming. When you are stressed, try to reduce the amount of sensory information that your brain has to process.

  1. Reduce background noise: turn off the car radio if you are running late, or about to attempt a tricky parking manoeuvre. If it feels appropriate, ask for loud music or televisions to be turned down in public places like waiting rooms. Noise-cancelling headphones are useful in the work place and on public transport.
  2. Seek out nature: avoid enclosed spaces, bright lights and garish colours. Supermarkets and IKEA are notoriously stressful places. Instead, go for a short walk in a green space, or find a room with a view and some natural light.
  3. Withdraw: escape to a quiet place by yourself until you feel refreshed. When attending large social functions like a wedding, this could mean sitting in your car for 20 minutes. When working in an open plan office, this could mean working out of a small meeting room.

06. Stop multitasking

Your brain is programmed to focus on one thing at a time, so tasks should be performed sequentially rather than simultaneously. Switching between unrelated tasks is called context-shifting. When this happens, your brain has to commit information to your short-term memory. This constant interring and disinterring of information means that you tire much more quickly when you multitask. As your mental and physical dexterity diminishes, you begin to make mistakes and drop things. This means that the standard assumption that multitasking saves time is not even true.

  1. Narrow your focus: multitasking includes holding a conversation while cooking, eating while reading, and carrying too many things to avoid making another trip.
  2. Don’t half-start things: for short tasks at least, wait until you have enough time to do them in one go, rather than weaving in and out of them.
  3. Ignore intrusions: don’t get distracted from what you are doing by new tasks, and immediately jump off on a tangent. Turn off email and message notifications, and discipline yourself to check for new messages every hour or two, at a suitable pausing point.
  4. Group related tasks together: this makes the shift less jarring.

07. Write Lists

Stress causes forgetfulness, as cortisol inhibits the formation of memories. It’s common to forget something you were meant to do during the day, only to suddenly remember at the end of the day, when you’re in no position to do anything about it. (The twilight zone between consciousness and sleep is a particularly galling time for memory recall). Writing things down means that you don’t have to worry about holding everything in your head. After all, you wouldn’t attempt to memorise all your work meetings and tasks. Approach life admin in a systematic way.

  1. Do things straight away: if you need to schedule an appointment as a result of a phone call, do it there and then so you don’t need to commit it to your memory bank.
  2. Write to-do lists: download an organiser app like Wunderlist onto your phone. Create entries for all the things you need to do, and set due dates and alerts. This is also a good place to store shopping lists.
  3. Don’t over-commit: listing your tasks for the day is a way of identifying if there is a disconnect between your expectations and your abilities. If the list is too long, shuffle things out before you get started. That way, you’ll be able to switch off at the end of the day, rather than worrying about half-completed tasks, or feeling like you haven’t achieved anything.

08. Arrive early

Time passes quickly when you are stressed. This is because your brain is in a hyper-aware state, and has to process lots of information. When you are relaxed, time appears to pass slowly, because you have less to occupy your mind. It’s tempting to leave for appointments at the last possible minute, in the belief that you gain more time. However, because pressure shrinks your perception of time, it actually feels like you have less time.

  1. Set false deadlines: if you aim to leave the house at 9.30 am, chances are it will be closer to 9.45 am by the time you finally shut the door behind you. So be a bit sneaky and set everyone a deadline that is 15 minutes earlier than it needs to be.
  2. Build in leeway: even if your route planner says you will arrive in 1 hour, allow 1 hour and 30 minutes. Route planners do not factor in time for parking, or for correcting accidental detours in unfamiliar traffic systems.
  3. Learn acceptance: if you are going to be late, accept that there is nothing you can do. Glancing obsessively at the clock and shouting abuse at hesitant drivers will not get you there any quicker. If it’s safe to do so, phoning ahead can relieve some of the anxiety.

09. Lower your standards

If your to-do lists are unfeasibly long, this is a sign that you are trying to do too many things. Do they all really NEED to be done? and do they really need to be done by YOU? The first point involves questioning those commitments that you feel ought to be done, but from which you gain little benefit. It’s easy to fall into doing things you resent from a sense of social expectation. The second point involves identifying things that need to be done, but questioning whether they can be delegated to family members or outsourced. Just because you’re capable of doing it yourself, doesn’t mean that you have to. Which would you rather spend right now: your time or your money?

  1. Perform a chore audit: write a list of all the household chores. Put them into three groups: essential tasks which can’t be outsourced, essential tasks which can be outsourced, and non-essential tasks which can be dropped.
  2. Aim for ‘good enough’: your house does not need to look like a photospread from a Better Homes magazine. Focus on the things that matter to you. You may get a lot of enjoyment from a well-tended garden, or a scraggly hedge may leave you completely unmoved.
  3. Get a cleaner: no one likes cleaning. And an unfair division of labour can drive a real wedge into relationships.
  4. Get a handyman: although fixing a squeaking door may be a 5-minute job, by the time you’ve researched how to do it, and bought all the tools, and thought about doing it, and put off doing it, you’ve used up a lot more time than you think.
  5. Save up jobs: handymen charge by the hour, and usually have a minimum call-out time of 2 hours. They can turn their hand to most things, from building garden walls to hanging curtain poles. Don’t be embarrassed to throw lots of trivial jobs their way. Remember, it’s not that you can’t do them, you just don’t have time to do them.

10. Avoid decision fatigue

Your brain is a physical entity like any other body part, and becomes tired when over-exerted. The decision-making process draws on a part of the brain that has limited capacity. When this resource is exhausted, it becomes harder to make decisions, and you are more likely to make poor ones. A friend of mine once burst into tears in a sandwich shop because she couldn’t decide what to buy when she got to the front of the queue. This is called decision fatigue, and explains why you feel overwhelmed by simple decisions, and exhausted by mid-afternoon.

  1. Follow a routine: getting up at the same time and eating the same breakfast limits the number of decisions that you have to make at the start of the day.
  2. Anticipate: if you have an important day ahead, like a job interview, anticipate what the day might entail. Plan ahead what you are going to wear and how you are going to get there.
  3. Be strategic: if you have to make a big decision, process it early in the day, after you have eaten. If you recognise that you have reached decision fatigue, stop, and come back at a better time. Reach a mutual agreement with your partner about the best point in the day for having important discussions.
  4. Keep it simple: fewer choices make for easier decisions.

11. Streamline your wardrobe

If your brain has a limited capacity for making decisions, do you really want to exhaust it prevaricating over what to wear in the morning? Steve Jobs thought not. He famously wore blue jeans and a black jumper every day. Feeling like you have nothing to wear is usually a symptom of having too many clothes, rather than too few. Your everyday clothes should fill no more than one hanging rail, allowing you to assess your options in one glance. (Formalwear and sportswear are an exception, and should be stored separately.)

  1. Quarantine clothes: make a pile of all the clothes you never wear, dislike, or are past their best, and put them away in a box. If you haven’t taken them out after six months, get rid of them.
  2. Colour match: decide on a colour palette, and stick to it. If all your clothes are in complimentary colours and tones, you can practically pull things out at random. Get your colours done by a style consultant, who can also advise on the best shapes for your body. This will pay for itself by eliminating regret purchases.
  3. Invest in quality: over time, build a capsule wardrobe of good quality essentials that are interchangeable with one another, versatile, and won’t go out of fashion. Identify true gaps in your wardrobe and take a targeted approach to shopping.
  4. Devise a workplace uniform: stick to dark trousers, light-coloured blouses, and inject colour using necklaces, shoes and blazers. You do not need to reflect your personality through work attire.
  5. Wear the same clothes: no one notices or cares if you wear the same thing two days in a row.

12. Declutter your house

Living in a cramped and cluttered environment can make it difficult to relax. It exerts a constant call to action: either there’s mess in your eyeline that needs tidying, or it’s impossible to find anything. The knee-jerk response is to get more storage. However, buying more stuff in which to put all your stuff does not address the root cause. Less stuff, not more storage, is the answer.

  1. Be systematic: Marie Kondo’s bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever offers a step-by-step guiding to decluttering. If you only take one thing away from it, fold your clothes the Marie Kondo way.
  2. Follow the toothbrush principle: keep things in the room in which they will be used. You wouldn’t keep your toothbrush in the dining room, so why keep shoes far from the front door? Make it easy to return things to their rightful home.
  3. Go digital: scan documents into your computer, buy a Kindle, and download films onto your television.
  4. Banish specialised gadgets: a fork can be used as a mini-whisk, a spoon can be used to de-stone avocadoes, and a sieve can be used as a steaming basket. No one needs a dedicated tool for de-hulling strawberries.
  5. Invest in quality: gradually replace worn-out household items with high-quality ones that last e.g. a cast iron casserole is a wonderful multitasker, and will never need to be replaced.

13. Detoxify your social circle

Like possessions, you can also accumulate friends who have outlived their usefulness. Old friendships can get redefined when there is a change in your circumstances. New friendships can become harder to form, as stress heightens our emotions and makes us behave erratically. When you’re feeling vulnerable, it’s important to spend time in relaxing company, where you can express yourself without worrying about judgement. This may mean placing a temporary embargo on social events that involve meeting new people, and reassessing some of your existing relationships.

  1. Root out emotional vampires: stop spending time with people who leave you feeling drained rather than nourished. This may mean culling toxic friends for good, or reducing the amount of time that you spend with certain family members.
  2. Set boundaries: avoid losing your temper and creating a family rift by taking control of where you meet. Family homes exasperate tensions, as it is all too easy to revert to rebellious child and critical parent. Meet on neutral territory, like an equidistant landmark. People behave better in public spaces, and there’s less risk of rubbing each other up the wrong way when you don’t have to support a host-guest dynamic.
  3. Learn to say “No”: just because someone invites you, it doesn’t mean you have to go. Don’t go for drinks with colleagues if you don’t spend as much time as you would like with your actual friends. This also applies to family gatherings. Put yourself first, and spend Christmas where YOU want to.

14. Acknowledge your menstrual cycle (women only)

Just as stress can affect energy levels and mood, so can the hormones that are released during a woman’s menstrual cycle. Oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone rise and fall in a specific pattern during the month. Traditional societies are attuned to this, and excuse women from daily duties while they are menstruating. This is not about banishing women, but giving them space to take care of themselves, and honouring their life-giving abilities. Post-industrial societies take no account of this, and expect women to perform on an even keel, even while their bodies are being flooded with chemical signals. Listen to your body’s internal compass and synchronise your activities with your menstrual cycle.

  1. Menstrual phase (days 1 – 5): your body prepares itself for a new cycle. You shed the womb lining from your previous cycle, letting go of what you no longer need. Now is the time to rest and retreat with female companionship.
  2. Follicular phase (days 6 – 13): your body prepares itself for mating. Your womb lining thickens, egg cells grow, and you secrete vaginal mucus to act as a sperm escalator. As your oestrogen and testosterone levels increase, so does your desire for sex and socialising. Now is the time to be brave, meeting new people and doing new things.
  3. Ovulation phase (day 14): your body prepares itself for nurturing life. You release a mature egg, and your body temperature increases by 0.5°C as progesterone levels start to rise. Oestrogen and testosterone levels peak. Now is the time to be energetic, taking part in activities that involve stamina or pain.
  4. Fertile phase (days 9 – 14): eggs survive for 12-24 hours, while sperm survive for 5 days in the female body. This means that you can only get pregnant for 6 days of your cycle – the 5 days before ovulation, and the day of ovulation. Your most fertile window is in the 1-2 days before ovulation. Whether you want to plan or avoid a pregnancy, the Natural Cycles app can be used to predict your fertile window.
  5. Luteal phase (days 15 – 28): your body prepares itself for the end of a cycle. Oestrogen and testosterone levels fall, while progesterone rises. This can leave you feeling low, anxious, tired and irritable – aka Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. As you approach a new cycle, progesterone levels fall and your temperature drops back down. Now is the time to reflect and slow down, performing self-care rituals like taking long baths and massages.

15. Go to your Doctor

When you are stressed, your body switches off reproduction as a form of self-preservation. In women, progesterone stocks are converted into cortisol. This means that female sex hormones effectively get eaten by stress hormones. The hormone system is a complicated feedback loop. If you introduce too much of something, the effects cascade down the system. Feeling tired and irritable all the time is not normal. It’s possible that some of the symptoms you are experiencing may be due to hormonal imbalances. Ask your doctor to take some bloods and check for common problems. Whether or not you are trying to conceive, it is harmful to leave a hormone imbalance unchecked.

  1. Low oestrogen: symptoms include low libido, difficulty producing vaginal lubrication during intercourse, recurrent vaginal secretions as your body tries and fails to ovulate, long and irregular menstrual cycles, very light bleeds, infertility, and a long follicular phase (26 days or more). Your doctor can refer you for assisted reproduction if necessary.
  2. Low progesterone: symptoms include low body temperature, premenstrual spotting during the luteal phase, recurrent early miscarriage, infertility, and a short luteal phase (10 days or less).
  3. High testosterone: symptoms include weight gain, excessive hair growth, acne, unusually long or unusually short menstrual cycles, and infertility. Experts currently believe that high levels of androgens (‘male hormones’) are responsible for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). This is usually diagnosed by performing an internal scan of your ovaries.
  4. Low thyroid (hypothyroidism): symptoms include feeling tired, loss of libido, and cold hands and feet. Your doctor can prescribe a course of Thyroxin tablets if you are deficient.
  5. Low iron (anaemia): symptoms include feeling tired and pale skin. Your doctor can prescribe a course of iron tablets. (If you have a digestive disorder, do not take these tablets, as they will cause bad diarrhoea. Instead, eat lots of iron-rich foods like red meat, beetroot and liver.)
  6. High insulin (hypoglycaemia): symptoms include shakiness, dizziness, hunger, nausea, headaches, personality changes, confusion and anxiety. Insulin is produced in response to eating. It enables cells to absorb glucose (sugar) for energy. If your body releases too much insulin, the cells draw away too much sugar from the blood, resulting in low blood sugar levels. Sugar and complex carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, so should be restricted in favour of foods that do not cause a sudden spike in blood sugar levels.
  7. Ditch hormonal contraceptives: needless to say, taking synthetic hormones upsets your hormone system. The effects can last for years. Natural Cycles is a certified contraception app that is as effective as the pill.

16. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about acknowledging what you are experiencing right now. These sensations can be physical or emotional. If you are busy and stressed you become disconnected from your body, and ignore what it is trying to tell you until it reaches crisis point and breaks. You also become trapped in a constant churn of self-critical thoughts, unable to process and enjoy what is happening in the present. If you cannot live in the moment, you either live in the past and become depressed, or live in the future and become anxious.

  1. Be more child-like: young children are naturally mindful. They get thoroughly absorbed in what they are doing, express how they feel but then move on, and dawdle so that they notice what is going on around them.
  2. Check-in with yourself: take a short pause and identify what you are feeling several times a day. Ask yourself: “What is going on with me right now? What thoughts, feelings and sensations am I experiencing right now? Where in the body am I feeling this?”.
  3. Breathe deeply: when you are in a highly stressful situation such as a traffic jam, exaggerated breathing can help calm you down. Breath in through your nose for 3 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, then breathe out for 4 seconds. Repeat, keeping your focus on the breath.
  4. Do a mindfulness course: these are typically 8-weeks long, and you need to be able to commit around 3 hours a week in total to the class and homework. There is no quick-fix to eliminating stress. This is the only recommendation I can pick out that fundamentally changes your thoughts, rather than just modifying your actions. And so I have saved the most important point till last.

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