How to tackle stress

January 2021

Gareth John explains how you can deal with stress and anxiety in these tough and troubling times.

Mental health and wellbeing are incredibly important topics at the moment and are likely to remain so throughout the coming winter. Many people will be experiencing increased levels of anxiety about the future, and stress about coping with the current situation. We need to take more time to look after each other, and ourselves.

Here are my top tips for reducing stress:

Look after your head

1. Deep breathing: Often when we are anxious our breathing becomes quite shallow, reducing the amount of oxygen we are supplying our brain and body with, which tends to make the feelings worse. By breathing deeply for a few minutes when you start feeling stressed you send a powerful message to your brain to relax and calm down. I try counting to four while breathing in, and to eight while breathing out, making sure I am filling my tummy with air rather than just my chest.

2. Meditation or mindfulness: Taking some ‘time-out’ can do wonders for calming down a panicking brain. For me this is often an extension of deep breathing, just done for a little longer. Closing my eyes lets me focus on my breathing in and out. I like to concentrate on the sensation of the soles of my feet resting on the floor. I try to notice every noise around me, and every feeling such as the gentlest breath of wind on my skin, every scent in my vicinity.

There is a saying in Zen Buddhism: “You should meditate for 20 minutes a day. If you are too busy for that, then you should meditate for an hour.”

Look after your body

The next three points in some respects go together, because when we are stressed and feeling overwhelmed they are the things that we are most likely to ignore, when they are actually some of the best solutions to those very feelings:

3. Eat well: Stress is often caused by being very busy, and at these times it is easy to find ourselves becoming reliant on junk food, sugar and caffeine. Challenging times in your life need to be fuelled in the same way as an endurance race; lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, good quality cereals and carbohydrates such as porridge, Weetabix, beans, bread, rice and pasta (brown carbs are always better than white) and small amounts of fresh chicken and fish. Snack on fruit and nuts during the day to keep up energy levels and give much-needed vitamins.

4. Exercise well: As with eating well, feeling stressed can make you less likely to follow your regular exercise plan, when exercise is actually one of the best things you can do to beat stress. Whether it’s running, riding, cycling or anything else that gets you sweating, exercise produces endorphins in the brain which promote a general sense of well-being. Improved strength and fitness will also make it far easier for you to take on the demands of each day. Exercising regularly can also improve your ability to sleep.

5. Sleep well: Avoid trying to work late nights, no matter how busy you might be. Dealing effectively with any challenge in life requires consistent good quality sleep of around eight hours a night. Remember that every hour of sleep you get before midnight is worth two hours of sleep after midnight, so don’t stay up too late. And try to avoid too much screen-time immediately before bed as the blue light given off by phones and tablets make your brain more alert.

Stay grounded

My final points relate to increasing your feeling of connectedness, which I think is important to avoid the feelings of isolation and loneliness that anxiety can bring. It is all too easy to start thinking you are alone to tackle your problems and end up focusing inward in an unhealthy way.

6. Take a walk in nature: As well as providing some valuable exercise, taking a walk in nature can be a really effective way to reduce stress. The fresh air and sunlight are really good for your body but will also be a big boost to your mental well-being. Even a twenty-minute walk along a river with my dog puts my problems into perspective and reminds me of the joy of life.

7. Make time to do the stuff that you really enjoy: Stress and pressure is always easier to deal with if it is interrupted with little doses of fun and pleasure. You should take the time to reward yourself for the challenges you have faced as this will make the next challenge easier to take on.

8. Talk to a good friend: They say that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ and one of the most powerful ways I have of reducing my own feelings of stress is to have a good heart-to-heart with someone I trust and who I know cares about me.

When you are really busy, and under pressure, it is easy to feel that the problems and hurdles ahead of you are far bigger than they really are. Old friends have a good way of helping you focus on the positives of your situation, of helping you see the strengths you have to deal with things, and of putting everything into a clearer perspective.

• Gareth John is Chief Executive of First Intuition Cambridge.