Feeling super stressed once in a while is perfectly normal. But feeling like this all the time? Ultimately, something’s got to give.
Now, sometimes stress can be a good thing, like when you get that little pump of adrenaline that pushes you to hit your goals or try something a bit challenging. However when stress is continuous it's really not so great.
Learning how to manage stress effectively is a crucial part of everyday life and looking after your overall wellbeing. It's especially important if you're one of the 10-20% of the population who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), as stress is a key trigger for this.
The good news is that there are simple, practical ways you can manage things better and even re-train how your brain responds in stressful situations.
What activities can reduce stress naturally?
1. Meditation and breath work can improve your stress levels long-term
Meditation is a great tool to use when it comes to reducing stress naturally. And it’s not just about sitting on a sequin cushion chanting ‘Om’.
Many people incorrectly think that meditation is a process of ‘emptying’ your mind. The truth is, for most human beings, this really isn’t possible – nor is it desirable. Meditation is actually a set of practices that help you develop a greater sense of focus and non-judgmental awareness. It’s particularly helpful if you have a whirring brain that regularly gets caught up in a whirl of stress-filled thoughts.
Regular meditation practice helps you manage stress over the long-term, including becoming more aware of your stress triggers. Becoming more conscious of this helps you switch on your thinking brain, rather than your reactive brain, during stressful times.
It can be so powerful that your mind actually develops something like muscle memory – when you’re faced with a stressful situation and are moving, for example, into an unnecessary ‘fight or flight’ state, turn to techniques such as slow breathing, gentle repetition of a calming phrase or mindful walking to calm you.
In fact, just the act of taking a few deep and slow breaths can start to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and – which is useful to know if you struggle with IBS – it stimulates saliva production and increases blood flow to your digestive tract (both of which help with digestion). There is even evidence that regular meditation can help reduce the grey matter in the amygdala – another area of the brain that is connected to anxiety and stress (1).
2. Exercise you actually enjoy can boost your good vibes
Exercise has time and time again been shown to have a positive impact on mental health. When it comes to exercise to reduce stress, it's helpful to do a workout you actually enjoy as it makes it a bit easier to stick with, particularly when times are tough.
You don’t need to go overboard and commit to HIIT classes three times a week because you think it will make you feel better (unless, of course, HIIT totally is your thing!). Breaking an intense sweat isn’t the only method of stress relief with exercise – especially as when you find yourself, for example, in the middle of something like an IBS flare up, anything too intense can feel a bit much for your body.
It’s therefore important to be kind to yourself and find a form of movement that you genuinely like. This could be dancing, yoga, walking in nature, tai chi, active gardening… There are so many things to choose from. Also, slower-paced activities, particularly yoga and tai chi, can be another way to help build your body awareness and your connection with your breath.
3. Spend time with positive friends and family to de-stress
Don’t underestimate the power of spending time with positive people. A comforting chat or walk together is a simple, practical, soothing technique. You might even want to try out doing one of your favourite exercise options with another person – which has the added bonus of making it easier to stick with through the extra accountability, along with the fun factor of a shared experience.
If you’re new to a city or don’t have a solid group of friends or family around, there are plenty of options out there! Have a look on Meetup.com or Google for local special interest groups to help you find like-minded people to spend some stress-free time with.
4. Writing out your feelings can help you manage your stressors
Journaling is an extremely therapeutic way of understanding your stress triggers, as well as just getting stuff out of your head. It's a great way to recognise what you’re feeling and, like in meditation, trying to do this without judging those feelings.
If you can, write for 15 to 30 minutes in the morning or evening, ideally by hand. However, if this feels too much, just a few sentences or bullet points are a great place to start.
Ultimately, dealing with stress is about finding a handful of simple, practical tools that work for you. Explore activities you enjoy and things you know you can stick with when you’re faced with a stressful situation, as well as at times when you’re feeling more in balance. And, one final tip, just make small changes one at a time. This is much easier than trying to completely overhaul your life, which, let’s be honest, is stressful in itself!
Health Note: Please note that meditation may not be suitable for you if you suffer from certain mental health/health conditions. If you have been diagnosed with epilepsy, depression, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or a dissociative personality disorder, please ensure you check with your supporting clinical team before taking part in meditation.
1. US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/