Everyone is subject to stress. Every day approximately 430,000 Danes have symptoms of severe stress and 35,000 are on stress leave.
Stress is a natural reaction to perceived "dangers" in life to help us either fight or escape. It is an unconscious reaction to protect us - the classic "flight or fight" response. The sympathetic nervous system takes over, triggering the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, to encourage quick action. Fat and sugar content increase in our blood, pulse and blood pressure rise, our immune system is strengthened and our autopilot is witched on, reducing our cognitive abilities in favor of immediate instinctual responses.
In the short-term stress is positive as it enables us to “flight or fight”. It allows us to perform on stage, gather a high level of energy to finish up a project, take a quick decision or save a child from a fast driving car. The problem arises when stress is prolonged or chronic. The body’s stress response continues after a threat has passed or when the source of stress is constant. Cortisol and adrenaline hormones stay high in our body putting our mental and physical health at risk. Our body start developing physical, cognitive or behavioral stress symptoms. Here are some examples:
Cognitive stress symptoms:
Forgetfulness and disorganization
Lack of overview
Inability to concentrate
Difficulties to make decisions
Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
Physical stress symptoms:
Headaches or migraine
Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
Weak immune system
Loss of sexual desire and/or impotence
Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Bleeding disorders for women
Exacerbation of chronic disease
Behavioral stress symptoms:
Changes in appetite - either not eating or eating too much
Higher sensitivity (easier to tears)
Withdraw into oneself
Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing
Warning signals only get worse, and the consequences more serious and long-lasting if ignored. Persistent, prolonged stress is a risk factor for developing health-threatening problems such as:
Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders
Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and stroke
Obesity and other eating disorders
Skin and hair problems, such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema, and permanent hair loss
Gastrointestinal problems, such as reflux, gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon
Depending on your degree of stress, I suggest that you either look for help from a stress specialist or apply the following recommendation to reduce and prevent stress in your daily life.
1) Sleep well and enough
Sleep is of utmost importance to function optimally and feel good. Too little sleep gives stress. The body and nervous system are recovering during sleep and the brain is being cleansed.
In order to increase your chances to sleep well and enough it is important that you:
Go to bed at the same time everyday
Do not take a nap after 2pm
Do not drink coffee or caffeinated drink after 3pm
Do not drink alcohol after 7pm
Do not watch television or use screens an hour before going to bed
If you have difficulties falling asleep or if you wake up during the night write down everything you think about on a piece of paper. When your thoughts are on paper they don’t fill as much space in your brain. You can also try to relax your body and face, and focus on your breathing.
When we are feeling stressed we feel like running faster but this is exactly what we should avoid. We need to get our stress hormones to drop and therefore reduce our level of activity.
Prioritise - and only do what is absolutely necessary. I know it may feel like you need to get that market analysis done as well as finish off painting your garage while working full-time but you need to only do what is absolutely necessary and postpone the rest until you feel better.
Disconnect - take a break from your phone. Put your phone on silent, turn off your notifications, start a social medias detox and only watch your phone when absolutely needed or at fixed times. Notification alerts are increasing our stress levels and compromising our productivity. According to studies it can take up to 25 minutes to get back to your task, after you have been disrupted by a notification.
Schedule some “do nothing” time. It can be extremely challenging when we feel stressed not to do anything, but this in turn what we need the most. Here I invite you to sit on a bench outside or lie down on your couch chilling or listening to music.
Avoid rushing: When you are in a rush, your stress hormones rise. This is what you want to avoid when you are already stressed. Make sure to have good time before you meet with your doctor, deliver your kids to kindergarden or meet up with a friend.
3) Practice 30 minutes a day of moderate physical activity
Physical activity is a prerequisite to feel good. It clears the mind, it is relaxing and it gives a better quality of sleep. Indeed, many good hormones are released when we exercise. Endorphins help relieve pain and stress and trigger a happy feeling within our body that are accompanied by a more positive outlook on life. Serotonin boosts our mood and overall sense of well-being. It can also help improve appetite and sleep cycles, which are often negatively affected by stress. Regular exercise also helps balance our body’s level of stress hormones, such as adrenaline.
Moderate physical activity can be anything from going for a walk, a relaxing bicycle ride, a short yoga practice or gardening.
However, it is important NOT to practice an intens physical activity when feeling extremely stressed as it drastically increases the levels of adrenalin and cortisol which are already high when suffering of chronic stress. Ultimately, it can worsen stress symptoms and lead to a burnout.
4) Relax your mind.
Often when we feel stressed our mind is agitated, we have racing thoughts and we always feel like we need to be productive. This is your nervous system tricking you. You actually need to do the opposite in order to get your body and nervous system in balance again. A good way to slow down is to practice mental relaxation to disconnect from your invasive thoughts. If you are very stressed, you may not be able to meditate, this is perfectly normal. In that case, focus on disconnecting by watching slow television instead.
Watch slow TV, comedy series or travel and wildlife documentaries.
Listen to soothing music
Soak in a warm bath
Do breathing exercises
Practice guided meditation like Yoga Nidra, or meditate if you are already acquainted to meditation.
5) Take at least one work-free day per week-end
Work is important but so are you! Take a real day off or even better, two real day-off work per weekend. Turn off your work emails from your phone, leave your computer in your bag, and relax. Do not feel guilty for taking real time off, it will help you recharge your batteries, regain overview and ultimately, better endure work pressure in the long-term.
6) Plan some time to do what you enjoy and gives you energy
When you feel stressed it is important to plan some time for yourself to do the things you like. Ideally, once a day for 10 minutes to an hour depending on your available time. But it can also be a few times a week if this is more convenient. It will give you something to look forward to, recharge your batteries and teach you to prioritise yourself.
7) Listen to your body
You need to learn to follow the needs of your body, rather than your mind's requirement to deliver and perform. Ask yourself what you feel like doing and listen to what your body is telling you. Do you feel chest pain when you think about attending that family birthday? Then, don’t do it.
It might not always be an option to do what you want to do but it is always a good idea to ask yourself what you would like to do in the different situations. Whenever possible, listen to yourself. It is a good way to learn to be in contact with yourself.
Majken Matzau & Christina Bølling, Stressfri på tolv uger – eller mer’, People’s Press, April 2012.
Majken Matzau & Umahro Cadogan, Rigtige mænd går også i sort, People’s Press, April 2014.
Emilie Nagoski &Amelia Nagoski DMA, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Ballantine books, January 2020.
Malene Friis Andersen & Marie Kingston, Stop Stress: Håndbog for ledere, Forfatterne og Klim, 2016