Our biology, which was designed to insure our survival as hunters and gatherers, is a poor match for the sedentary digital age. Modern living doesn’t provide an outlet for the cortisol-mediated, fight or flight adrenaline stress reaction. What can we do when an email brings on sweaty palms, feelings of dread, and a heart-pumping impulse to run for hills?
Here are 10 scientifically proven techniques to help cope with stress and manage anxiety attacks from Dr Zaidi of Mind N Life:
1. Deep breathing. Simply choosing to take a deep breath before reacting can change how you feel. Taking a few deep breaths engages the vagus nerve, which triggers your nervous system to slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure and decrease cortisol.
2. Manage time effectively. Allocate different types of personal time into your diary. When you plan your week, make a point to schedule time for yourself, your family, your friends, and activities that help you recharge.
Take stock of activities and relationships that don’t enhance your career or personal life, and minimise the time you spend on them (social media, for example). Learn to respond to emails within working hours. After work, allow yourself to go offline. Prioritise your “to do” list and outsource some of the most time-consuming tasks.
3. Tend and befriend. Invest in a network of friends who help you cope in a positive way. The “tend-and-befriend” response is the exact opposite to “fight-or-flight”. The “tend-and- befriend” response increases oxytocin and reduces cortisol. Make an effort to spend real face-to-face time with loved ones, close friends and family who are there to listen and support you.
4. Seek optimal physical health. Developing healthy eating habits and getting enough sleep are important to combat the increased levels of cortisol in the body.
5. Exercise regularly. Any aerobic activity, like walking, running, hiking, swimming and biking, will burn cortisol. Research shows that 20 to 30 minutes of activity most days of the week lowers cortisol every day.
6. Get with the programme. Introducing and practicing effective and scientifically proven stress-reduction techniques helps reduce cortisol levels in the body. Examples include Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.
7. Keep a journal. Journaling allows people to clarify their thoughts and feelings, thereby gaining valuable self-knowledge. Research shows that it’s a great practice for overall stress reduction as well as self-knowledge and emotional healing.
8. Reflect, talk, listen, repeat. Effective communication skills help reduce stress in all areas of relationships.
9. Stay cool. Learn to respond and not react to situations.
10. Know yourself. Understand your underlying causes of stress (for example, thinking patterns that lead you to self-sabotage) and learn to cope with them effectively.
For more on stress self-assessment and how to determine how much anxiety you may have, take the questionnaire found on page 86 of the February/March issue of Expat Living Hong Kong magazine.
Dr Quratulain Zaidi is a British qualified and registered clinical psychologist who specialises in assisting families with issues from cybersafety to stress and anxiety disorders.