Stress is a normal human reaction to everyday physical or emotional stressors. It can produce helpful responses such as ‘fight or flight’, our body’s natural reaction to a perceived threat (i.e. getting out of the way of a growling dog or taking cover during an earthquake).

On the other hand, there’s also chronic stress, which involves prolonged periods of stress that can be harmful to our health. High levels of cortisol (your body’s main stress hormone) can lead to serious health problems if not well managed. Studies show that high levels of cortisol can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure, all risk factors for heart disease.

So how can the ‘serially stressed’ among us find ways to unwind and let go of anxiety? Whether you’re dealing with a lack of boundaries between work and your personal life, suffer from anxiety or are going through hard times, there are things you can do to change how you respond to stress – which will eventually lead to a happier, healthier and calmer you!  

  • Practice patience and self-compassion: When you’re already chronically stressed, putting pressure on yourself to relax has the opposite effect. Learning how to relax when you are in a state of constant anxiety is not as easy as it may seem, so be patient with yourself and remind yourself that you’re doing your best! The body is now used to stress; it takes practice to get out of it and build new habits. Remember, it’s a journey and not a sprint to the end!
  • Breathe: There are many deep breathing techniques designed to counter stress and calm our nervous system. For one that’s easy to do anytime and anywhere, try the box breathing technique. First, slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds, then inhale deeply through your nose for 4 seconds. Next, hold your breath for another slow count of 4, before exhaling again (expelling air through lungs and abdomen) for a slow count of 4. Finally, hold your breath for the same slow count of 4 before repeating the process.
  • Find time for mindfulness and gratitude: Mindfulness practices include meditation, yoga and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs that increase our ability to accept the present moment and develop a non-judgmental attitude towards our experiences. 

    Gratitude is another way to relieve stress and uncertainty. Consider keeping a daily gratitude journal to list the things you’re most grateful for.  It could be your kids, pet or a talent you’re most proud of, for example. Sam Squire, mindfulness coach, shares more ideas for incorporating these practices into your routine here.
  • Move your body: Whether you prefer to lift some weights or dance to your favourite songs in your living room, exercise or movement releases endorphins, which trigger positive feelings in the body to help raise your mood and lower feelings of stress (not to mention it’s good for your physical health, too!). You should consider discussing an exercise program with your doctor first, especially if you have any health conditions.
  • Do a grounding exercise: Focus on both tactile and mental techniques to redirect your thoughts away from distressing feelings to the present. Try one of the below types of grounding exercises:

    • Physical grounding: This type of grounding activates your senses to help quiet distressing thoughts or feelings. Clench your fists or muscles and slowly release, dip your hands into cold or warm water, walk outside for 5 minutes in bare feet or indulge on a treat or snack with your favourite flavour. Take the sensations that have positive connotations and incorporate them in the day to day.

      For something you can do at your desk during the day, you can play with a fidget spinner or gently stroke a worry stone (smooth stones with an indent). Etsy has a whole slew of fidget jewellery and toys!

    • Mental grounding: This is a thought process to distract and refocus. For example, name 5 colours in the room you’re in, visualize a place you enjoy or find relaxing (i.e. picture a spa or a beach from a past vacation), or recite a poem or song. Seemingly trivial observations or lists help distract the mind from unwanted thoughts or emotions.
  • Connect with loved ones: Spending quality time with our favourite people is one of the most rewarding and relaxing things you can do to reduce stress. While the pandemic has made it harder to be as social as we used to be, carving out quality time to spend with loved ones, whether in person or via Zoom, can be a stress reliever. 

Remember, it’s important to show compassion towards ourselves; stress has become a habit and it takes practice to undo or form a new one. Don’t be shy about seeking extra help, either: Those with high levels of chronic stress and anxiety may also want to consider counselling for a personalized approach to stress management.

Implementing the techniques above can help reduce your stress levels and proactively build resiliency for when stressors arise. While we can’t predict exactly when we’ll be stressed, we can add these science-backed techniques into our daily routines when we need some relief and to counteract the effects of chronic stress over time.