Beat the vicious cycle of stress

Changes to your routine can help you relax and defeat unnecessary anxiety. Photo / Thinkstock
Changes to your routine can help you relax and defeat unnecessary anxiety. Photo / Thinkstock

Stress can kill. Yet it's a normal human reaction to our environment, designed, ironically, to protect us. Stress is your body's reaction to sensing danger.

When you're stressed, adrenaline and cortisol hormones are released into your blood, preparing you to take emergency action. Your blood pressure rises, heart pounds and your senses step up a notch.

But not everyone's stress buttons are programmed correctly. They get stressed over relatively small threats - such as getting a report in on time, or having to interact with a short-tempered boss. There are, however, easy ways to make you less stressed:

1 Don't be late. Do you remember the last time you missed the bus or train, or got caught in a traffic jam on the way to work? How stressed did you feel when you arrived? Choose to be early. It gives you time to settle in.

It's also a good idea to write a work schedule that includes breaks. Know exactly what you need to do and schedule the tasks in - including time to walk, relax, read or have lunch with a co-worker or friend.

Don't keep breaking off to look at email, says Dr Mark Thorpe, head of psychology at AUT University. It uses up too much energy from the frontal cortex of your brain.

2 Tidy or beautify your work space. Make your workspace a relaxing place. Clutter on your desk is stress inducing - especially if it represents tasks not completed.

3 Join your work wellness programme. If your employer is offering anything from free gym memberships to workplace counselling, jump in boots and all and sign up. These perks can improve your mental and physical health.

4 Sleep more. If you often find yourself being stressed at work, go to bed an hour earlier at night (or even half an hour if that is all you can manage). Sleep deprivation fuels stress at work. But it can be a vicious cycle because stressed people often have difficulty sleeping. If that's the case, read on for more tips that might benefit sleep.

5 Take up a new hobby or pastime. You may feel like you're using every hour under the sun, but taking up a hobby can help keep the office stress in check.

6 Exercise. Being active is nature's antidote to stress and office tiredness.

Generally, the more exercise you do on a regular basis, the more energy you have. Exercise lifts your mood, boosts energy and helps improve sleeping patterns. It's also a good idea to take relaxation classes.

Do yoga, meditation or deep breathing. Learning how to relax is really important for stressed people.

7 Cut back on your caffeine. That includes tea, coffee, cola and even some "health supplements" that contain caffeine or guarana. Both caffeine and stress elevate levels of the hormone cortisol, which inhibits the body's relaxation response being activated after a stressful event.

Too much cortisol in the blood has all sorts of negative effects on the body including decreased bone density and increased blood pressure. What's more, caffeine can disrupt sleep.

8 Drink less alcohol. Before you grab that de-stressing glass of wine, stop. Some researchers argue that small amounts of alcohol can reduce stress.

Too much has the opposite effect - especially when it comes to producing adrenaline. Ironically stressed people drink more than relaxed ones (and also smoke more and eat less healthy foods). That's not to say that you need to give up alcohol.

If stress is a problem at work, however, cut back during the week.

9 Have a mental health day. Just don't tell Prime Minister John Key, who wants to stop insincere sick days. A small number of enlightened employers even offer "duvet days" or "navel-gazing days", says the EEO Trust. Mighty River Power gives employees a whopping five "my days" a year, which they can use at their discretion. Those are days employees can take off on a whim, even if it's just because they can't be bothered going to work. Make sure you use your mental health days effectively and do something for you - even if that's lying in bed all day reading a book.

10 Get a job that you're passionate about. Dr Kirk Reed, head of Occupational Science and Therapy at AUT University, says engaging in work can have a positive effect on your health. In fact sometimes the act of compulsion of work makes people stressed, not the actual activity.

"The way we get meaning in our life is through the things we do," says Reed.

If you need further help, seek counselling sessions through your Employer Assistance Programme or privately.

- Herald on Sunday

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