Eminé Rushton gets real about the serious health dangers of sustained stress  – and suggests how to bring essential balance back into our busy lives.

In 2016 the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Burden of Disease Survey estimated that by the year 2020, stress-related mental health conditions will be the second most common cause of disease (after ischemic heart disorders). Oh my.

New Year, with its optimistic tradition of good resolutions may not feel like the best time for a spot of sobering reading, but let’s be honest – how many of us find ourselves feeling exhausted and overwhelmed at this time of year?

With Christmas over, the reality of over eating, over drinking and over spending sink in and while it can be lovely to catch up with family, that can also bring its own unique stresses – and sustained stress is something we all need to start taking very seriously.

“Stress is something we can take active steps to alleviate – almost immediately”

If we take a look at the physiological impact this might have upon our bodies, we’ll see that periods of sustained heightened stress keep us in a holding pattern of increased cortisol and adrenaline. The former is our stress response hormone, the latter, our ‘fight or flight’ hormone and while they are both essential for human survival in extreme situations (or they were when our ancestors were at risk of saber-toothed tiger encounters), if they are permanently ‘on’ they can cause serious damage. So if we don’t give ourselves ample opportunity to catch our breath, properly rest and wholly unwind, our stress levels can tip us over into chronic health conditions.

“Rather than helping us push through, this pressure can make us feel overwhelmed or unable to cope,” says the Mental Health Foundation. 

When the BBC’s Dr Rangan Chatterjee announced earlier this year that he no longer believed poor diet to be the biggest contributing factor to ill health, naming stress instead as the main culprit, a lot of people sat up and started to take notice.

But, as bleak as this may sound, there is some good news. Unlike a chronic untreatable disease, stress is something we can take active steps to alleviate – almost immediately.

Lifestyle factors make up the main causes of excess stress in our modern lives: lack of sleep, too much time online, overly busy lives, insufficient restorative time, but hearteningly these are the easiest to rebalance. Here are some tips.

1. Draw clear lines between work and rest. Get into the habit of putting your Out of Office on your email when you are off work, and don’t feel compelled to respond. You are paid to work certain hours, not to be eternally ‘on’.

2. Mute your WhatsApp if it’s overwhelming and turn off all apps via the notification centres. Get used to a life that is not dominated by bleeping symbols. Realise that life does not begin or end with your device.

3. Almost all devices now have inbuilt timers and switch off modes – so when you have had your 30 mins on Instagram, it will turn itself off. Instal Night Mode onto your devices too, to ensure that if you must be online late, you are at least cancelling out that cortisol-raising blue light. Better still, switch off entirely at least an hour before bedtime, every single night. Light a candle, read, bathe – learn to leave ‘life’ behind, and choose rest instead.

4. Build a daily meditation habit. “Mindfulness and guided meditation apps can be really valuable for improving wellbeing and aiding relaxation,” says Eve Critchley, from mental health charity Mind. If you’re a tech addict, put it to better use: download Headspace, Calm, Aura or Stop, Breathe and Think.

5. Go to a regular yoga class. All yoga classes have a guided yoga ‘nidra’ meditation at the end. Even better is a dedicated yoga nidra class, which is all meditation.

6. If there are things about your life – from work to home – that are continually overwhelming you, make a bold and honest list of what you can realistically do to lessen their impact. Can you say ‘no’ more often, and give yourself a break? Can you retrain or study on the side, to move into a role that is better-suited to your strengths and passions?

7. Visualise, don’t dream – focus on what is really possible, and how you can begin 2019 with a resolution that will ease your stress levels, for good.

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