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The other epidemic
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April is stress awareness month. Which is funny because most of us would say that we’re very aware of how stressed we are. The stressy nature of modern life is pretty clear to anyone who’s ever watched the news, or who carries their inbox in their pocket (ie. all of us).
I suppose the ‘awareness’ is more about acknowledging the impact that stress can have on our health, and the importance of managing it.
It’s true that stress is the underdog pillar of good health. Look at New Year’s resolutions: we resolve to cut down on drinking, eat more healthily, do more exercise. It’s pretty rare to hear someone say they’re resolving to just chill out a bit.
But we should be prioritising it because the impact on our physiology can be major. The World Health Organisation has announced that we’re in a ‘stress epidemic’ and we don’t even seem to care.
Of course, stress isn’t always bad. Sometimes it’s very necessary. Anything that challenges the body or brain is a stress, so that can mean giving a presentation at work, or even just doing some exercise. That type of acute stress (intense for a short period) is actually helpful in those instances: the adrenaline and cortisol flooding your body can help you focus, or push you through a pain barrier.
The type of stress that we need to be aware of is chronic stress, at a lower level but aaaaall the time.
You’ve probably heard of the stress response, or ‘fight or flight’, which is when your body reacts to a stressful situation with tense muscles, quick breathing, sweating, gut issues and a racing heart. For thousands of years, this only really happened in response to physical danger. But now we face endless stressors, from reading about rapes and murders in the news, to the ongoing threat of wars and climate change, down to the relentless ping of work emails and the expectation of an immediate reaction to everything, no matter how small.
Unfortunately, the long-term effects of chronic stress on physical and psychological health are extremely wide-ranging. Repeated activation of the stress response takes an enormous toll on your body, impacting everything from your immunity to your blood pressure to your metabolic health, causing brain changes that contribute to anxiety, depression and addiction. Chronic stress also contributes to obesity, not only by affecting our sleep and hormone balance, but also because stress eating often involves less healthy food choices (anyone else had that 3pm feeling where you just need to some chocolate to push through the afternoon?).
So how do we manage stress? Well, first of all, it’s the usual things that I always bang on about: prioritising quality sleep, eating nutritious foods, moving your body, drinking less alcohol, getting enough vitamin D (ideally with daylight on your face first thing in the morning).
Then it’s about learning to let go.
Oliver Burkeman (whose book Four Thousand Weeks honestly changed my life) has spent much of his career seeking the ultimate productivity hacks. But, he says, it’s all led him to realise that, at any given moment, you can only ever be doing one thing. This means that whatever you’re choosing to do, you’re probably neglecting a hundred other equally worthwhile things in order to do it. The secret to a happily productive life is to make peace with that. Understand that you can’t do everything you want to. No one can. So stop stressing about it.
I know, I know. That’s easier said than done. So it’s worth implementing strategies to support your stress management where you can.
Last month I worked on a series of events with Omega, and picked up so many precious little nuggets of advice from the women I interviewed.
Career coach Jo Glynn-Smith said, if you’re working from home and have a day of online meetings, lie on the floor for five minutes between calls. It’s such a simple thing, but it calms your body’s stress response - while also being good for your laptop-hunched back.
Annie Ridout, author of Raise Your SQ, uses spiritual practices to manage stress. She makes decisions - big or small, life or work-related - by consulting tarot cards. It might sound silly to the less woo-curious among you, but giving a decision over to some higher power is freeing - and can help your mind work out what you really want to do, anyway.
Alice Olins, founder of the Step Up Club, was very firm about reducing distractions and prioritising what’s important. She recommends not looking at your inbox until you’ve done 30 minutes on the most important thing to achieve that day, every day.
Nutritional therapist Eve Kalinik, author of Happy Gut Happy Mind, talked about the relatively newly understood relationship between your gut microbiome and the brain. Stress can impact your gut health, and your gut health can impact your stress levels. Not for nothing is it sometimes called the ‘psychobiome’. So nurture your gut with fermented foods, fibre and a wide variety of different coloured nutrient-rich plants.
There’s a long weekend coming up and your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to chill out. Close your laptop, see friends, look at the sky. You can’t do everything anyway. And sometimes the best thing for your health is to do nothing.
This week I’m…
Watching other people getting stressed in Netflix’s Beef
Reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy, which is finally out this week
Delighted to see there’s 25% off Anna Jones’s vegetarian cooking course with code SPRING25
Having some time off in France for the Easter break - à bientôt!