This month is Stress Awareness Month and with us all living through a pandemic the issue of stress is relevant to us all. In pre-Covid times I found most people, my self included, were trying to cram too much into our day-to-day lives, and now as we try and navigate working from home, furlough and home schooling, stress levels are surely higher than ever before.
Stress is our body’s natural response to everyday life and a little can be good for us.In fact when I was competing I used to use it to keep me motivated and alert. However, if we don’t cope well with stress it can have a very detrimental effect on our health, with prolonged stress resulting in suppressed immune function, increased susceptibility to disease and hormonal imbalances in the body. A strong healthy body will be better able to cope with the demands put on it by stress than a weak one. However, it’s important to understand that mental resilience is as important as physical strength, as the mind is affected by stress too. And issues with our mental health have a huge impact on our lives.
So with stress an inevitable part of life at the moment, how can we manage it and reduce the affect on our health? Unsurprisingly my number one way to deal with stress is exercise. It won’t get rid of the stress completely but it will help to relax you and it also releases a chemical called serotonin, which will make you feel less stressed. I am not suggesting anyone takes up a new exercise regime, but it’s so important to try and get out for a daily walk or a run if you can. Being outside in the fresh air and sunshine, (when it comes out), also has a hugely positive effect on your mental health too. If you do enjoy attending a gym or going for a swim, it’s great news that we can start doing this again. Despite not being part of a team during my professional career I love exercising with my family and attending my group Pilates classes, as the social aspect is as fun as the exercise!
Eating and sleeping are also important. Eating sugary foods leads to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which will affect your sleep and that is going to overall have a negative effect on your stress levels. So try and think about eating a balanced diet and keeping to a good sleep routine. I wrote about the power of sleep last month, so check out that blog for lots of tips on sleep hygiene.
As a professional athlete, as well as training I spent a lot of time working on my mental strength and the tips I learnt I still use today in both my working life and at home. Talking is so important when life gets stressful, so I really recommend finding a friend or family member who you can talk to if things get too much. Sometimes another perspective is all that is required to resolve an issue. And with lock down easing it’s becoming easier to spend time with friends in person, as it’s appreciated it’s just not the same talking over zoom.
Another thing I find really helps manage my stress levels is to take time to prioritise and organise my day. Daily and weekly to-do lists breakdown what can often seem like an endless list of tasks into something more manageable and I always find it so satisfying whenI tick things off my list. And don’t be afraid to delegate or ask for help. They say ‘it takes a village’ to raise a child and I believe that sentiment can be applied to everyday life, even if we are not raising children. As a professional athlete even though I mostly competed on my own I always had a team around me and I was able to rely on them to help me get through an event .. . no one can do it all on their own.
Lastly I really recommend that to keep stress at bay you make sure you take time for yourself. It’s easy to let stress take over from everything else. Make sure you set time aside for yourself and enjoy it. And please don’t feel guilty as it can make such a difference to your health, it’s not simply an indulgence. I like to take my dog for a long walk as I find a solo walk allows me time to think and get my head straight and I am able to come back ready to take on any challenges that are waiting. And finally my favourite me-time treat is relaxing in our hot tub, but if the weather isn’t good then a long soak in the bath is just as good.
With the vaccine rollout progressing well, schools open again and lockdown easing life will hopefully start to get easier for us all, we might even get some more warm weather soon too. But whatever happens, remember to look after yourself and stay as positive as possible.
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