This week is International Stress Awareness Week. In recognition of the ever-increasing, and seemingly overwhelming, burdens that so many are shouldering as social, political, economic and environmental systems become ever more unstable, we offer our top take-homes to help you refocus and bring what the Swedish refer to as ‘lagom’ into your life.
Stress affects us all, but not always negatively. Love it, loathe it or become ambivalent about it — we can’t escape it. But it's actually not stress itself that's the problem, it's only when we react negatively to it that physiological, mental and emotional problems develop.
We are actually exquisitely wired to deal with stress, which is why a little bit of it now and then is good for us. That's what our fight and flight response is all about - it's central to our survival. But it's also often central to us performing at our optimum. It helps us tackle tasks, solve problems or handle threats. However, it’s when stressors keep building and continue over time that we move from a state of positive stress, to one of toxic stress. A chronic condition that’s one of the most harmful for us to be in for any length of time.
An absence or deficiency of stress isn’t necessarily a good thing for all aspects of our health. On the positive side, while people who experience very little stress in their lives appear less likely to develop chronic health conditions, they also score lower on cognition tests and are less likely to experience positive events or to give and receive emotional support.
We can all learn from the Swedish practice of ‘Lagom’, which provides a much-needed antidote to the tsunami of stress that we’re now facing. Lagom means ‘just the right amount’ and it embraces the art of balanced living. One that actively works to reduce or transform stress before it becomes a problem.
Becoming stress adapted
The stress response evolved to increase the ability of organisms to cope with situations requiring action or defence. It’s not a singular action, but instead, a complex symphony of physiological changes primed to create an internal environment capable of adaptation and resilience in order to ensure individual and species survival. Mounting a response to a stressor, or multiple stressors, is intense and very demanding of energy and resources. It was only ever designed to be short-lived.
A recent survey of American adults found that over a quarter of those surveyed are struggling to function on a day-to-day basis because they’re over-stressed. It’s a tragedy that approximately 1 million Americans miss work every day due to stress, whilst in the UK in 2021 alone, over three-quarters of a million workers were reported to be suffering from work-related stress, anxiety or depression. The coronavirus crisis has continued to heap stress upon stress for so many around the world, with survival stress being one of the most insidious. As coping mechanisms narrow along with people’s adaptive range, the impact is directly translated to health and happiness, reducing quality of life and placing more burden on failing healthcare systems.
Long-term stress is dangerous and harmful. It can and does significantly impact normal body functions and impair immune system function, which we can ill afford given the increase in circulating pathogens currently.
We are all so different and individual that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to combating stress. But one thing that we all benefit from is inner peace, that helps us transition from a place of sustained adrenaline-driven, 'fight and flight', sympathetic autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity, to parasympathetic, 'rest and digest' ANS activity. Among the well researched behaviours or techniques that can help transition us towards parasympathetic ANS activity are breathing or mindfulness techniques, meditation, spending time in nature, around animals or with children, gentle to moderate outdoor physical activity, forest bathing, listening to or playing harmonious music, and eating meals around a table or fire with loved ones.
In 2021, even the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK, recommended the use of a range of nonpharmaceutical interventions, that included exercise, mindfulness and meditation, before antidepressant drugs were prescribed.
Below are some suggestions and resources to help you practice your version of ‘lagom’ as you balance and manage your stress:
- Breathing — the practice of breathwork is one of the most powerful ways to help you to relax and manage stress as it shifts your state from 'fight and flight' to 'rest and digest' very rapidly. Create a daily breathwork practice with Meleni Aldridge's Sovereign Breath Practice
- Enjoy time in nature — getting outside into nature is a simple way to bring some mindful space into your life, that delivers a host of other health benefits too. Engage in the ancient Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku — researchers found that engaging in forest bathing has a host of benefits including improvements in mood, connection to nature, compassion and more environmental awareness
- Mindful eating — slow down and take time to sit down to eat your food. When we’re stressed our ability to digest our food and assimilate nutrients is reduced. Mindful eating helps us to bring our awareness to what we’re eating, reduce stress and anxiety so our body can digest what we eat properly
- Indulge in a nutrient-dense wholefood diet — eating a diverse range of foods provides us with essential nutrients to help protect us against the ravages of stress. It also helps to stabilise blood sugar, support our adrenal glands and sustain our energy through the day
- Learn to say no! — have you become a people-pleaser? How often do you say yes, when you really want to say no? Setting boundaries that work for you and learning to say no will help you to avoid being subsumed by yet more stress
- Cultivate a positive, can-do attitude to life wherever possible. It doesn’t mean you won’t experience negative emotions or challenging situations, but it will help you deal with difficulty and stay in the flow of your life more easily
- Take regular breaks — regular small breaks from your work throughout the day. Even a five-minute break can have a positive effect
- Move more — activity and movement, particularly when done outside, create endocannabinoids (happy hormones), which lift our mood and reduce the impact of stress hormones on our body
- Prioritise sleep — not sleeping properly reduces our ability to cope with stressful situations. Check out our tips to make the most of your sleep time here, here and here
- Be generous — no matter how big or small, giving a gift makes both the giver and receiver happier. Gifts don't have to cost money either. Compliments, kind words and your listening time are precious, valuable and free!
- Regular meditation — this can take many forms and can be as long or short as you wish. A recent study found that practising transcendental meditation (TM) twice a day for 3 months reduced levels of anxiety and stress in participants. If TM isn't your thing, then there are plenty of other ways to meditate - relax with our meditation Health Hack
- Practise mindfulness - just one session of mindfulness training has been found to significantly reduce pain and negative self-talk
- What’s your hobby? — making time to do what you love takes your mind off everyday problems
- Spend time with your loved ones (including animals or pets!) — time spent with loved ones helps us stay connected and don’t forget to hug them to release the ‘love and bonding hormone’ oxytocin.
ANH resources for managing stress
>>> Treat yourself to a copy of our book, RESET EATING
>>> Get informed about using Heart Rate Variability to cope more effectively with stress
>>> Find out how stress sabotages attempts to make changes to our behaviour
>>> Dip into our monthly, guided, Intention Circle meditations on Soundcloud
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