International Stress Awareness Day bills itself as an opportunity to “speak up and speak out about stress”. It’s a timely issue: this year, Prince Harry made startling admissions about the stress he suffered following the tragic loss of his mother Princess Diana.

Meanwhile, a new study of 5,000 UK adults has found that Britain is losing almost five billion hours of sleep worrying each year. The research, undertaken by YouGov for the Swinton Group, showed that this has a negative impact on their day-to-day wellbeing of 6 in 10 people.

Home security doubts, money worries, health concerns and work woes are among the most common causes. According to the Health and Safety Executive’s Labour Force Survey, in 2015 and 2016 stress accounted for a considerable 37pc of all work-related cases of ill health.

An independent ‘Thriving at Work’ review commissioned by Theresa May in January also revealed this week that 300,000 people actually lose their jobs due to poor mental health and stress management each year, at a cost of £99bn a year to the UK economy.

For Hansa Pankhania, a fellow of the International Stress Management Association (which organises International Stress Awareness Day) and a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the lack of awareness about simple stress management tools is “shocking”. Pankhania states that stress and mental health are intertwined, and stress is inextricably linked to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

But according to Pankhania (who is also the author of From Stress to Success and runs a stress management consultancy) there are a number of highly effective tools at our fingertips that are free and easy to integrate into our daily lives. “It’s so important to raise awareness of simple things you can do without falling back on alcohol, which only compounds the problem,” she says.

So without further ado, here’s some easy (and most importantly, affordable) ways to manage stress in your day-to-day life, as recommended by the experts.

1. Physical activity
The benefits of exercise for combating stress are well documented, but it doesn’t have to be anything too complicated. “You can simply put your coat on and go for a brisk walk to shake the stress out of your body,” recommends Pankhania. The immediate change of scenery and body chemistry can drastically reduce stress. Anything from a short 15-minute exercise routine in your living room to a leisurely swim can help.

More vigorous exercise such as weightlifting or higher intensity cardio releases endorphins that make us feel good and help battle our stress hormones. Be sure not to push exercise too hard though, especially at times of high stress, as this will be yet another stressor.

2. Spend time in nature
Natural scenery can be a useful tool in helping reduce psychological stress. A study by researchers at University of Illinois confirmed last year that viewing trees helps people become less stressed, and that the effect increases the more trees are visible.

Forest bathing – being in the presence of trees – is a Japanese practice which is known as ‘shinrin-yoku’. The benefits were explored in a recent paper in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology. It’s been proven to boost the immune system, and to decrease stress and lower blood pressure, as well as to boost the immune system and contribute to an overall sense of wellness.

3. Talk to someone
Talking to someone you trust, and who is going to keep your worries confidential, is one of the simplest ways to alleviate stress. “The verbalisation of negative thoughts and emotions helps you to offload them from the body,” explains Pankhania. “This is why counselling helps. When you name it, you release it from your body and that in itself is a coping strategy.

“If I’m holding on to something, I can’t make sense of it or see it. When I verbalise it and someone is listening, I can put it into perspective and move on from there. That’s why building a support network that you can fall back on, on a reciprocal basis, can be so important.”

4. Talk to yourself
In the absence of trusted confidantes, Pankhania recommends the empty chair technique. The absence of friends or a counsellor, she says, shouldn’t stop you from having a “rant and a rave” to get it out of your system. As mad as that might sound, she promises that the practise of talking to an empty chair has a sound empirical basis. You can read more about how the open chair technique (also known as Gestalt therapy) works on the Counselling Directory website.

5. Write about it
If neither talking to friends or talking to yourself appeals, therapeutic writing could be the answer for you. “Stress is a build-up of negative emotions and negative thoughts that builds up and affects the way we function,” says Pankhania.

“When we write our emotions down, we offload them and prevent them from being bottled up as anger or negative emotion, which eventually manifests itself as stress. Unsent letters can be an invaluable free and easy tool; uncensored, they can be used to really let everything out.”

6. Relaxation and meditation

As with exercise and physical activity, relaxation and meditation doesn’t have to be complicated. “Relaxation and meditation can last for any amount of time,” recommends Pankhania. “You can even use it in between meetings. You can take yourself away for a moment, try a breathing technique and then come back to a problem with a calmer outlook.”

Healthy living guru Julie Montagu suggests inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six seconds. “It sounds obvious, but it works wonders. I do it when I cycle to meetings, but you can even do it on the tube, bus or before a meeting,” she says. “Studies have shown that making your exhale longer than your inhale calms the central nervous system, creates space between your thoughts, stabilises your emotions and gives you more mental clarity.”

In terms of stretching, she recommends simply folding your body forwards (for example, by standing up and trying to touch your toes). “You can forward fold yourself to calmness. Again, you can do this anywhere. You’ll get fresh oxygenated blood flow into the head and it will release built up tension in your neck and shoulders. You don’t have to go to a yoga class for an hour – simply doing this will put you in a much better head space.”

7. Have fun and do things you enjoy

Having hobbies can be more of an investment in terms of finances, time and space depending on what it is you enjoy doing in your spare time, admits Pankhania. However, doing things that you simply enjoy is an invaluable means to relieve stress.

8. Turn off your phone
“Dedicate some time each day to unplugging from your gadgets and technology,” says Julie Montagu. “Disconnecting from the constant stream of information that we are becoming increasingly dependent on will help to restore balance in your mind. It will also re-focus your attention to the things that are truly important. You will be surprised at how much of your day is consumed by technology and how much you have to gain from reducing the amount of attention you give it.”

9. Make a positive affirmation
Positive affirmations and the setting of intentions can affect your train of thought and lead to positive action. “Remind yourself of the good in your life. Before you go to bed at night, make a list of three things that you’re grateful for. Remind yourself of the things in your life that mean the most to you, because managing stress starts with mental wellbeing,” says Montagu.
Websites and resources such as Free Affirmations and Pinterest are readily available to give you instant inspiration.

10. Get a good night’s sleep
Finally, a regular sleeping pattern is vital for managing stress. “You should be getting 7-8 hours,” Montagu says. “I’d recommend that people who have trouble sleeping get an eye mask I wear mine every night. The dark calms you and helps to ease you into a sleep pattern. When you’re well rested you take care of yourself the following day, and in turn you’re more likely to sleep that night. It’s a positive cycle.”

Taking a daily nap also has a number of health benefits and is a great way to reduce stress and keep you focussed. Spanish scientists believe they have proved a siesta is good for you and have even issued guidelines for the perfect nap.

By Madeleine Howell, as published in The Independent on 1st November 2017

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