Being less stress is the number one life-change that the UK population would like to make, which doesn’t sound too great for our health, does it?
A new study has found that almost a third of people questioned put reducing their stress levels at the top of the wish list, followed by spending more time with their family and friends, and being more confident in their own skin.
The longer stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body. You might feel fatigued, unable to concentrate or irritable for no good reason, for example; but chronic stress causes wear and tear on your body too.
Stress can make existing problems worse; in one study about half of the participants saw improvements in chronic headaches after learning how to stop the stress-producing habit of ‘catastrophising’ or constantly thinking negative thoughts about their pain. Chronic stress may also cause disease, either because of changes in your body or the overeating, smoking and other bad habits people use to cope with stress.
Although stress is not a direct risk factor for cardiovascular disease it’s role is is often underrated and can be further exacerbated with unhealthy lifestyle activities such as smoking or overeating. Consequently, with many of us prioritising work and a social life over relaxation and balance, the impact of our busy modern lives can take its toll on our cardiac health. Dr Tom Stevens, Consultant Psychiatrist at London Bridge Hospital comments on what he considers to be the leading causes of stress in the UK:
“I believe most ‘mental’ stress today in urban societies is a result of the rise in complex human communication we encounter and the associated demands on our brains, as opposed to the rest of our body. Stress can be difficult to measure, but it can impact on your ability not only to concentrate, but can also lead to fatigue, sleep disturbance and mood swings, as well as being linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.”
It is argued that to prevent stress, it is a good idea to work on the triggers causing us to feel this way. Relaxing is one of the best ways to cope with stress and is more than just sitting back and being quiet. Rather, true relaxation is, engaging in activities that help us to maintain calm in our everyday routine. This could include a new hobby, making time for family and friends or simply a change in scenery. Dr Stevens supports this stating:
“The key to managing stress is a realistic balance in all aspects of your life – particularly the balance between work, life and family. Your thoughts and emotions set the stage for how stressed you will feel, so don’t fall into the trap of ruminating about the future or forgetting to enjoy the present.
“In order to de-stress, it’s important to take control of your time – spend time doing the things you enjoy, with the people who you care about. Make sure you take time to relax, this is not watching thrillers or drinking with friends, but something which allows the mind to rest, like yoga or a hot bath.”
The research, which questioned 1,000 respondents and was commissioned by Anamaya to examine the impact our stress levels have on both our work and home lives, also revealed that more than half of us actually only feel fully relaxed for just a couple of hours each week.
It appears that the environment we work in is one of the biggest contributors to stress levels – in fact the data revealed that being in a happy and welcoming atmosphere was listed as the most important aspect, with 40% of people stating the environment in which they work is more significant than financial benefits such as pay and a pensions.
The study has also confirmed that cases of anxiety and stress are on the rise and taking their toll on our careers – in fact, other than being poorly, stress and depression are listed as the top reason people take time off work with one in five respondents admitting to taking time off work due to stress.
So what’s the answer? Almost a third of people questioned acknowledged that they felt mind training and meditation could make a real difference to their day to day stress levels but a quarter was unsure how to integrate mind training into their busy schedules.
Graham Doke, founder and narrator of the Anamaya app and ex-city lawyer, comments: “The majority of us have experienced how, at one point or another, the stress and strains of our work life can be brought back home with us on an evening. If not addressed, this stress can have a detrimental impact on our lives.
“Our study shows that people are really struggling with getting the work/life balance right and are ultimately craving a less stressful life. When you look at the US and UK firms that have introduced mindfulness in the workplace, the results are overwhelming and show that simply taking 5-10 minutes out during your work day to focus on mindfulness, relaxation or to meditate, can have some truly remarkable results.”
The top five ways mindfulness can help you in the workplace:
1. Increased awareness of your emotions – office politics, rivalry, jealousy and competitiveness can all have a major impact on your work experience. When executed properly, meditation and mindfulness training can increase awareness of emotions and the awareness of other’s emotion – helping you to control your reactions and be more aware when people are trying to provoke.
2. Manage anxiety levels – anxiety is proven to be an inhibiter of good performance, and it produces a self-feeding cycle of greater anxiety and stress. Awareness of your anxiety leaves you able to deal with the emotion itself, and clears the way to better performance.
3. Ease the pressure – People claim they ‘work best under pressure’, and managers often feel they get the best from their team by being aggressively demanding. However, neuroscience shows that stress, pressure, reaction to aggression all produces a negative reaction in our brains. Anyone who thinks they operating best under pressure is simply not thinking straight! Meditation reduces the activity of this part of the brain and means we can think clearer.
4. Problem solving – meditation can change the structure of the brain, particularly the pre-frontal cortex – this change is measurable with MRI scans and leaves the meditator able to modify their behaviour. One of the most empowering changes that mindfulness can bring is the ability to be less fearful and more willing to approach a problem than previously.
5. Work/life balance – In the modern environment of instant information, instant reaction, and 24/7 availability, it is difficult to achieve any kind of balance. In this ‘always on’ culture, where it has become increasingly difficult to switch off thanks to technology, employers are now much more obligated to ensure their employees’ health and wellbeing is maintained.