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Stress comes in many guises; be it that every-train-has-been-cancelled stress or the no-money-big-bill kind of stress, it’s become one of the biggest health epidemics of our time. In fact, a study by PwC - a management consultancy firm -in July this year found that a third of UK workers said they experience stress (and its familiar friends, anxiety and depression) and had taken time off work to improve their mental health. From prompting hormone imbalances and muscle tension to raising blood pressure and the amount of adrenaline in your system, it can take its toll in big ways. So, take a deep breath, and read our simple guide to alleviating stress and attaining that elusive peace of mind.
First for a little scene-setting science. When we’re stressed, our body goes into fight or flight mode, meaning it reacts by releasing stress hormones (two of which are adrenaline and cortisol) that help us to cope with the stressful stimulus. You might notice your heart gets a little bit faster, your breathing is shallow and you’re more focused and alert; welcome to stress city. And while these hallmarks of the stress response are okay in the short term, when they become chronic they can impede how the immune system and brain work, as well as lead to bad headaches, heart disease, anxiety and depression.
So breathing then. It’s that thing we do on autopilot everyday and normally we don’t even realize that it has become shallow or quicker in any way. Now is the time to start paying attention: “Slowing down the breath and lengthening each exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms and quietens the mind,” says Triyoga yoga teacher, Bridget Woods Kramer. Deep inhalation, on the other hand, stretches and opens lung tissue, which helps relieve stress. She recommends doing equal ration breaths for total equanimity: “For example, inhale for four counts and exhale for four counts,” she says, pointing out that you can increase the number of counts to six or eight, depending on your lung capacity.
“We live our lives on our smartphones,’ says Alex Will, creator of guided meditation and mindfulness app, Calm's, new sleep mist. “Which means we need to make effort to develop a greater awareness of the world around us.” There are many different types of meditation but a good place to start is with an app, like Calm or Headspace, who encourage a combination of deep breathing with awareness of what’s happening in the body (e.g. the breath itself). It can help you access a state of calm that’s difficult to find when you’re living in the fast lane of stress. Start in the morning with ten minutes – don’t worry if you don’t ‘get’ it yet – and persevere to make it a habit. The more you do it, the more you’ll get out of it.
The thought of going to the gym might sound stressful but actually exercise in any form helps relieve stress, not to mention whips your body into shape (and boosting self-confidence). Movement makes the heart pump which in turn triggers the brain to boost the number of feel-good endorphins it produces; cue happy you. And, because exercise is something you typically need to concentrate on (or it’s so painful that you can think of nothing but), you typically end up in a meditative state.
Self-care is all about putting yourself first; so may we suggest one of the best massages ever to grace this planet? Espa’s Inner Calm massage combines that deep, rhythmical, whirling massage (that will have you feeling like a space cadet when you walk out of the room) with de-stressing aromatherapy oils to diffuse any tension in mind and body.
The Inner Calm Massage is available at ESPA Spas and Salons nationwide. Price starts from £55 for 55 minute treatment.
Have a bath
A hot bath after a long day is an obvious cure-all. But there’s science behind it too. When the body is submerged in hot water, its temperature slowly increases; then when you get out, the switch from hot to cooler prompts the brain to release the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. It’s also time away from your phone and a chance to pamper yourself and ease muscle tension. Add in essential oil blends like Bramley’s Soothing Bath, Body & Shower Oil, £20, or Olverum’s Bath Oil, £53, for some real chill time. Bath time wouldn’t be bath time without a good candle, either. Laboratory Perfumes’ Atlas scented candle, £39, smells like heaven and will fill your bathroom with airborne relaxation.
Saved the worst news for last. Caffeine is really quite bad for you. Although each coffee you have might give you a bit of a boost each morning – it increases cortisol, dopamine and adrenaline production – what goes up must come down and you’ll inevitably experience a slump later on (e.g. fatigue and feeling glum). Most people combat this slump by drinking more coffee (or ingesting more caffeine in whichever form it comes) and so you become addicted. New year’s resolution set.