How a stress-free week could reboot your health - and 5 tips on how to do it
As figures show that over half of people feel stress each month, Liz Connor finds out how relaxing more can really help us both physically and mentally
No matter how resilient we think we are, stress is something that can easily take its toll over time. From feeling under pressure at work to juggling too much at home, there are plenty of reasons why you might regularly struggle to switch off at the end of a long day.
In the United Kingdom, a Health and Safety Executive study found that more than half a million people suffer from work-related stress, while a Bupa Health Clinic assessment reports that 59% of people admit they feel stress or strain across the course of a month - equating to almost 28,000 people potentially putting their health at risk.
"Stress is our body's way of responding to any kind of demand or threat," says Dr Kim Glass, a GP from Bupa Health Clinics. "It causes physical changes that help us to face these challenges - but too much stress can be damaging to our health.
"It can negatively impact sleep, diet, heart health, mental health and more - all of which are essential to living a healthier, happier life."
The complexities and demands of modern life mean that learning to let go is easier said than done - but for those who regularly live with stress, there are plenty of good reasons to address the situation.
Here, Dr Glass explains the full extent to which living stress-free for seven days can have a positive impact on your health, both physically and mentally.
1. Better sleep
It's everyone's worst nightmare on a Sunday evening. Tossing, turning and staring at the ceiling for hours, struggling to drift off peacefully because all you can think about is tomorrow's to-do list.
"Most people who experience bouts of stress find either getting to sleep or sleeping through the night difficult," says Dr Glass. "This is because stress causes hyperarousal, which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness."
As a result, Glass explains that you're often left feeling unrefreshed, grouchy and exhausted during the day.
Not only is this unpleasant to deal with, it can be dangerous to your health over time, as consistent poor sleep can put you at risk of serious medical conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
"If you're heading to bed stress-free, you're much more likely to fall into a deeper, uninterrupted sleep, meaning you will wake up refreshed, energised and ready to attack the day ahead," says Glass.
2. Improved diet
In times of stress, it's not unusual to turn to sugary or high-fat foods as a way of coping. "When we're under pressure, our brains are wired to crave comforting foods," says Glass. "We're likely to want to snack on chocolate and other treats which give us dopamine - otherwise known as the happy, reward hormone.
"In a world without stress, we can be more aware of our diet. We shouldn't crave sweet treats and will feel more motivated to prepare healthy meals, so our diet would become more regulated, more nutritious and healthier."
3. Clearer mental health
"Not addressing stress can result in continued strain on the body and mind, which can contribute to mental disorders such as anxiety and depression," says Glass.
She compares stress to a car being driven continuously in the fast lane, resulting in wear and tear on the engine.
"When you're stress-free, you often think much more clearly, find yourself better equipped to make the right decisions, and have a much more positive outlook on what's going on around you - both at work and at home."
4. Less stress on the heart
Chronic stress exposes our body to unhealthy levels of adrenaline and cortisol, which can increase the risk of heart problems.
"A week away from stress would reduce the strain on our heart so it's important to consider rest and relaxation when things get tough," advises Glass.
"A health assessment allows you to see what's happening on the inside as well as on the outside and make necessary changes.
"If you're suffering from stress, it's helpful to check in, to ensure there are no deeper health problems occurring, such as high blood pressure or unhealthy levels of cholesterol."
5. Increased productivity
"Stress and productivity can be a vicious cycle. Take work for example - it can cause stress, which can lead to absenteeism, putting us behind and fuelling more stress.
"Elsewhere, you may have found yourself putting off heading to the gym, cutting the lawns or other tasks you usually face head-on.
"A stress-free week is sure to increase your productivity, make challenges more achievable and leave you ready to defeat whatever task lies in front of you."
Dr Glass says that in a short amount of time it's possible to relieve the feelings of stress, and the benefits both mentally and physically will be clear to see -whether you find yourself eating more healthily, being more productive at home and at work, or simply spending more time with friends.
"Everybody gets stressed, but it's important to recognise in yourself when things become difficult, so you don't take on too much and take the necessary steps that are right for you," she says.
Dr Kim Glass's tips on ways of managing stress better
- Try mindfulness, meditation and yoga: some people find that meditative approaches can help reduce stress and anxious thoughts, making you calmer and helping to relax your mind.
- Reduce alcohol and caffeine intake: while people might turn to a couple of drinks or more coffee to help them cope through difficult periods, this will only make them feel worse in the long-term.
- Know your limits: it can be hard to say 'no' but it's important to know when you are at your maximum - whether at work or at home. Don't take on too much and ensure you get enough rest.
- Make time for the things you enjoy: you're more likely to neglect the things you enjoy when you're stressed. If you enjoy meeting friends for a coffee, going to the cinema, or something else - make sure you allow yourself to do so.
- Make time for physical activity: the benefits of physical activity on both the body and mind are clear. Go for a run in the park or simply head out on a brisk walk to help clear your mind.
- If you're feeling stressed, it's always a good idea to think about how you can relieve some of the tension in the short term. If you're continuing to struggle though, it's always worth speaking to a GP who can help you to explore therapies.