And that’s an order!
DO You hear me?
Your nerves may be frazzled, your muscles snapping with tension, your head pounding, but you’re to switch off right now and chill out!
Imagine if you could order peace to descend like a gentle drift of cloud around your shoulders; like a silky ripple of pleasure over your temples; like a complete absence of work deadlines, demanding children, callous bank managers, broken washing machines, idiosyncratic car engines, missed meetings, muttering colleagues, querulous relatives… Sorry, where was I?… Oh yes: contemplating tranquillity…
There can be few people who make it through life without experiencing stress of some sort. On the whole, we would probably find a stress-free life uninteresting. The trick, of course, is to rise to the challenges in a way that doesn’t destroy our minds, chew our muscles and reduce us to a blubbering wreck or a screeching martinet.
It may sound a wildly superfluous question, but how do you know if you’re stressed?
- Wake up at 5am every morning and lie there with your mind racing through the chores of the day ahead, instead of drifting back to sleep?
- Jerk awake during the night, or just as you’re falling asleep, and feel your heart pounding and your nerves on edge?
- Have terrible stomach aches or cramps whenever faced with a particularly tight deadline, a visit to the in-laws, an important meeting or Parents’ Day?
- Drink coffee after coffee in an unavailing attempt to keep awake and on schedule?
- Snap at loved ones and loathed ones alike, without meaning to at all?
- Cry easily and unexpectedly?
- See the future as an unending treadmill of joyless tasks and unrelenting pressure?
There are many more symptoms of stress, both physical and emotional/ mental, but if two or more of the above ring true to you, then you are probably pretty much stressed out. Hey, why are you reading this and not getting on with your jobs???… OK, relax - just kidding.
Let’s take a look at some of the physical factors behind stress reactions.
Sleep is the key to many of our problems, and good sleep will enable our bodies to unwind and repair after a bruising encounter with a stressful day. What stands in the way of good sleep? Caffeine, of course. It’s amazing how many people with sleep problems say to me, ‘But I only drink 2 or 3 cups of coffee a day.’ If you’re not sleeping well, you should be drinking a maximum of no cups of anything caffeinated a day. Remember that caffeine is lurking in many fizzy drinks. A shockingly depressed and stressed young man once presented to my clinic with what he saw as an admirable daily intake of 6 cans of Diet Coke per day. Super! You’ll sleep like a sock in a spin drier… It’s important that your adrenal glands can switch off when you sleep, otherwise you’ll do that jerking awake thing. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine keep the adrenal glands hopping, so your sleep will be restless at best. Use herb teas in the evenings and lavender on your pillow and in your bath.
Blood sugar levels should stay stable to give you a smooth ride through the day and night. Don’t starve whilst you zoom from task to task. Doing so requires your body to run on adrenal energy and that is jumpy, nervy energy that doesn’t switch off when you stop. Eat regularly and not on the run. A business woman patient started having a half hour lunch break – a real break, in which to relax and chew her food properly, not to run to the shops, catch up on unfinished tasks, run round the offices looking for missing files - and found it had such a good effect on her digestive pains that she ordered all her staff to do the same. Blood sugar also vacillates wildly if you take refined sugar: you get an initial surge of energy and then slump, reaching for the next chocolate bar to keep you going. You will get more sustained energy from dried or fresh fruit, some nuts or seeds, or one of the many fruit bars available in health stores (check the ingredients for refined sugar).
Get used to relaxing! This may seem a barmy thing to say, but your body needs to practice switching off. Don’t rush around frantically until the moment you expect to fall asleep. Unwind, have a warm bath, put the ironing and the fretting over tomorrow’s meeting aside. Go for a short walk in the fresh air or listen to some quiet music. Many people suffer from superhumanism: the belief that they need to support the whole world on their shoulders. It’s amazing how well the world around you continues to work if you take a more fallible, human role and give yourself a break.
OK, so you’re going to try everything we’ve talked about but you are fairly certain you need some extra help, at least to start with. Here are some options:
Vitamins. Vitamin B Complex. This is the stress vitamin and helps you to deal both physically and mentally with the demands of your life. Take it daily.
Minerals. Magnesium. A vital mineral for those whose muscles tense up under strain. If you get night cramps, this will be your favourite supplement ever.
Herbs. Well, I guess it sounds fairly dodgy to say that help can come in a bottle, but if that bottle contains a herbal remedy then the chances are that help is exactly what it will give you!
Avena sativa is the gentlest herb, suitable for hyperactive children and nervous exam-takers, those with low level persistent stress in their lives and those on medication. It will relax your mind and your muscles and can be taken long term.
Passiflora is a lovely herb, suitable for anyone and for any length of time. It helps improve sleep, relax strained muscles, soothe nervous palpitations and even helps when you are feeling down. It is fine with other medication, although it is silly to take any of these herbs if you are already on tranquillisers or sedatives from the doctor, as you’ll just duplicate the effect.
Valerian is another favourite herb, suitable for daytime use in fraught situations and night time use when sleep is poor.
Hypericum is well known for its effect on low mood, but it also calms nerve pain.
What else? Well, I always carry a bottle of Rescue Remedy or Emergency Essence with me, in case something traumatic happens, like the dawning realisation that I’m on the wrong motorway, going the wrong direction on the wrong day, with entirely the wrong briefcase…
These things happen – hey, calm down!