Health and wellness coach Alex Pedley reveals five simple ways to manage stress and improve your mental wellbeing
This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in the Evening Standard
Some days seem to fly by. You rush out of the door in the morning, grab breakfast on the way into work and then it’s non-stop all day. By the time you have made your commute home, finished a few chores and sat down – it is nearly time for bed. Then you realise that this is first time you have relaxed all day.
If this sounds like your normal day, then you are not alone. We assess our client’s heart rate variability (HRV) to get an insight into their stress levels during the day and how well they recover. We have found that many professionals spend the majority of their days with little mental downtime.
So what is HRV?
HRV is the measure of the variation between heartbeats. Higher variability signals that someone is in a relaxed state, well-recovered and generally fitter; a lower variability signals that a person is highly stressed, poorly-recovered and generally has a low fitness level.
Research has shown a relationship between low HRV and depression and anxiety; it is also associated with an increased risk of death and cardiovascular disease. A low HRV over an extended period of time also signals that stress may become chronic.
How do you spot if you are becoming chronically stressed?
There are signs of chronic stress that you can look for – such as having unusual mood swings, including increased emotional reactions, withdrawing from social situations or experiencing a loss of motivation, commitment and confidence. To avoid this outcome here are some strategies that you can integrate into your day that will improve your HRV so that you become more resilient to stress.
Improve your aerobic fitness
Low intensity cardiovascular exercise – such as going for a brisk walk, a swim or cycle ride – will not only improve your mood but also increase your tolerance to stress. A study in sports medicine showed that low intensity cardiovascular exercise increase your parasympathetic activity (rest and digest) leaving you feeling calmer and more durable.
Aim for seven hours or more sleep each night
Sleep is often sacrificed when we are busy but this can lead to more stress and actually make it harder to sleep the following night. This is because our body boosts its levels of stress hormones when we do not sleep well. Also, when we sleep poorly, our body keeps pumping out stress hormones because the brain chemicals that signal to the body to stop production are activated in deep sleep. The following day, you may feel more stressed, and that night you may find it harder still to fall asleep – and this cycle can continue.
To improve your sleep quality, aim to keep a regular sleep pattern, going to bed and waking up the same each night and morning. Reduce bright light before bedtime and avoid caffeine in the late afternoon to aid sleep quality.
Breathing deeply and mindfulness help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, triggering the body to secrete hormones to decrease blood pressure and heart rate and inducing a relaxation response. Simply taking a few minutes to take some deep breaths between tasks will leave you feeling calmer and more focused.
Eat a whole, real food diet
Consuming a diet high in fruit and vegetables, especially the green leafy variety, and the omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish, is shown to improve HRV according to a study at the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, University of Michigan School of Public Health.
Enjoy some relaxation time
Try to simply relax, whenever possible, without using any technology.
We now live in a society where we are constantly switched on, with little downtime. A poll by Ofcom showed that, on average, we check our ‘phones every 12 minutes. The same report showed that 40% of the nation checks their ‘phone within five minutes of waking up and 37% check their ‘phones before switching the light out before bed. This allows little time to completely unwind without any mental stimulation.
We have the power to control stress and safeguard our mental wellbeing; it begins by taking time to evaluate how your lifestyle is impacting your health. This may be the difference between burning out or burning brightly in a world that is more switched on than ever.