If you’ve been feeling stressed during the past 12 months, you are not alone. Cases of burnout and stress were common before the pandemic, but the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and people’s emotional wellbeing has generated an environment where feeling this way is often the default, especially in the midst of restrictions, regulations and lockdowns. While it’s natural and normal to feel stressed, it is crucial to recognise when this silent scourge may be taking a toll on your physical and mental health.
According to research, high levels of stress over an extended period of time can drastically alter our physical functions and affect nearly every organ system in our body. It is also linked to sexual dysfunction, acne, anxiety, depression, psoriasis, hair loss, obesity, cardiovascular disease, personality disorders, insomnia and gastrointestinal problems, among other issues. “In my 20 years in the wellness and mental health industry, we have never received a significant increase in calls as much as we did in the past 12 months,” says Neil Shah, founder of the Stress Management Society. “Why? Because people need help.”
April is Stress Awareness Month, a global campaign launched in 1992 to help increase public awareness around the causes and cures of stress. “[Its] aim is to get people talking,” says Shah. “We encourage people to recognise the symptoms of stress early, before it’s too late. It should be taken seriously and the dialogue around stress and mental health needs to be destigmatised.”
Here, Vogue speaks to six health experts to find out their advice on how best to cope with stress.
1. Change your diet
Food can absolutely influence our mood. When sugary foods and refined carbohydrates cause blood sugar imbalances, mood swings may follow. If you have ever been ‘hangry’—so hungry you’re angry—you’ll get it. “What we eat can exacerbate stress or help alleviate it,” explains Maria Marlowe, holistic nutritionist and author of The Real Food Grocery Guide (Fair Winds Press, 2017).
“If you’re already stressed and have elevated cortisol (the stress hormone), drinking caffeine is a recipe for anxiousness, difficulty sleeping, a lack of energy and other negative health outcomes.” Marlowe suggests trying matcha tea as an alternative.
As well as kicking the caffeine, Marlowe recommends incorporating more magnesium-rich foods into your diet, such as dark leafy greens, beans, sea vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and organic tofu. “Magnesium helps the body deal with stress and helps us feel calm.” She also suggests adding in foods that are rich in vitamin B, which are also mood boosters, including wild salmon, organic grass-fed meat, lentils and eggs. Vegans might prefer B12 supplements.
2. Exercise your way to happy hormones
Exercise can help reduce the levels of stress hormones in our body, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act as the body’s natural painkiller and mood elevator. “Exercise isn’t about punishing your body, it’s about celebrating it and making yourself feel good—and if you do something you enjoy, you’re far more likely to stick with it,” says Stef Williams, personal trainer and founder of fitness app WeGLOW.
Any type of exercise will help. Many people find that using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion works best. Walking and jogging are the best examples, but some may prefer vigorous workouts.
“Honestly, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s about finding what type of movement works for you, what you enjoy and what makes you feel in control,” Williams explains. “But I couldn’t recommend walking more—taking that time to yourself, using it to call a family member or even to just distance yourself and be with your thoughts. Fitness doesn’t have to be complicated; so we don’t need to overcomplicate it. Find a routine you enjoy and build from there.”
3. Cultivate positive self-awareness with yoga
Yoga has been used for thousands of years to cultivate self-awareness, transformation and connection. It is also a significant tool to manage stress. “I believe that yoga is for everybody, but it looks different for everybody as well,” says yoga therapist, Kellie Livingstone. “Some people benefit from a more vigorous practice that builds strength, muscle tone and endurance. Others benefit from a more gentle practice that promotes relaxation, helps with pain management and targets the physiological systems that yoga can affect—immune, circulatory, digestive, endocrine, etc.”
According to Livingstone, the best time to practice yoga is in the morning. She explains that this helps us set the tone of our nervous system for the rest of the day so that we can navigate stressful situations with more awareness of our body and breath.
“When starting to use yoga as a tool for stress relief, it is essential to notice what is already going on inside your body before changing anything,” she advises. “For example, often when stressed, we carry tension in our shoulders, chest or belly. Our breath might be choppy, rapid, and shallow. To alleviate these systems, focus on poses that undo this physical manifestation of stress. Positions such as child’s pose, side bends, inversions getting upside down—and forward folds can help elicit a parasympathetic response.”
4. Talk your way out of stress through psychotherapy
Another great way to relieve yourself of stress is by talking about it with a professional via psychotherapy. “Healing of the soul is one way to look at this practice,” psychotherapist Jess Semaan, tells Vogue. “It is like a gym for your emotional and mental world; a space where you are able to get to know yourself better, what is driving you, your traumas and fears, accept them and start freeing yourself from them, so you can be a happier, more caring person towards yourself, others and the planet.”
According to Semaan, anyone can use and benefit from psychotherapy, however, it’s important to find the right therapist for you. “Do not settle. Make sure you listen to your intuition and consider speaking to different therapists before committing. Therapy is work, and sometimes it is going to be hard. Do not quit when you feel uncomfortable. Discomfort can mean the healing is happening. Take your time in the process. Some of our habits and patterns have been repeating for decades—they are not going to go away overnight.”
5. Let go of stress through shamanic journeying
If you’re looking for something alternative, perhaps shamanic journeying is for you. According to practicing shaman Sarah Negus, dealing with stress is one of the most important things anyone can do and something that can be achieved through this spiritual technique. “Shamanic journeying is where I take my clients into an altered state of consciousness with my intention and my voice. Here, they access alpha brain waves, which are the brainwaves that are running during sleep—they connect you to the right side of your brain, which can help you gain a different perspective of any situation and overcome habits.
“My way of helping clients is to recognise their unconscious drivers, acknowledge their needs that are not being met, reframe outdated and unhelpful beliefs, and then integrate these into new ways of living and being. When people realise they are free to make choices based on what they want, rather than what they think they should have or do, things change.”
6. Take a digital detox
For stress management expert Neil Shah, one of the most important ways to manage stress is by instigating a digital detox. “Though technology has given society advantages and benefits during the pandemic to destress, give a sense of escapism, regain control of wellbeing, and improve social connection, humans are social beings. So, we encourage people to engage in physical reality.” To do this, Shah recommends that we “unplug from the matrix. Find ways to reduce, if not eliminate stress completely. Learn something new, do mindfulness meditation, go on a walk in nature, spend time or talk to your loved ones, eat well and exercise. Have a balance.”
7. Learn the correct way to breathe
Stress’ grasp on our physical health can often manifest in shallow breaths or incorrect breathing techniques. Breathwork helps physical and somatic recovery, it’s a great way to instantly de-stress and channel your attention, intentions, and energy to the very act of breathing itself. More than just taking a few deep breaths, breathwork is an important way to restore balance in our mind and bodies. “Given that our state of being directly linked to the nervous system, it’s essential for people with high stress to be aware of their breath pattern to manage stress more effectively,” says sports medicine trainer and Breathera breathwork facilitator of Singapore’s Movement & Sports Medicine Centre, M.R. Jab. “Having more control of the breath means more control of your emotions, being able to make clearer decisions, improved creativity.” Breathwork offers every one the chance to “experience what they choose to experience, from moment to moment, with your breath.”
8. Edit your inner and external environments
For Yan Yi Chee, professional development coach and founder of Matter Inc, it’s about first recognising your triggers and the environment that’s destabilising you. “Your environment counts,” says Chee. “Turn off social, news, avoid traffic, declutter. Spend quality time with another human being who makes you feel safe and understood.” Taking time to pare back your lifestyle including decluttering your physical surrounds—perhaps it’s tackling that messy desk or organising the home—will help you regain a sense of calm and control.
9. Learn how to say no
Sometimes, a ‘yes’ to them is a no to you. Are you stretching yourself too thin with every task, event or appointment that you commit to? “Know your limits, manage your time, learn to set boundaries for yourself by taking control over parts of your life that can change and are causing stress,” says Chee. “Learn to prioritise and focus to avoid being overwhelmed. Managing stress is not easy, as it’s so intangible till it gets to a state of overwhelm. Take one small step forward and then the next. Be kind to yourself.”
If you think that you are struggling to cope with stress, contact your doctor. Your GP can recommend you to a therapist or counsellor. Local support groups are also listed here