It's official: stress is killing us. Half a million people in the UK experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill, according to research from the Health and Safety Executive, while another five million people believe they persistently feel "extremely" stressed.
No wonder, then, that this condition is blamed for triggering up to 85 per cent of chronic illnesses, from depression to cancer. To some extent, we all know when we are under stress and often, we think we know what to do about it - take a break, schedule some leisure time, eat better, get things in perspective. But knowing and doing are two very different things.
- The following 40 suggestions can help you to counter the stresses of modern life. Find 20 which resonate with you and incorporate them into your daily life. Even little changes can make a big difference.
Start in the Kitchen
• Fill your fridge with proper food; vegetables and fruit for antioxidants and protein for stamina. If you give your body what it needs, it will stop craving junk to leave you better equipped to deal with stress.
• Cut down on fatty foods. They affect your ability to use energising nutrients and make you feel heavy.
• Take time to chew your food slowly and thoroughly - 18 per cent of digestion occurs in the mouth.
• Eat breakfast, or you'll be seeking an artificial boost from caffeine or sugar to keep you going.
• Snacks - such as oatcakes with hummus rather than chocolate - help keep your blood-sugar levels steady and give you energy to fight stress.
• Cut out caffeine - since stress stimulates the production of the hormone adrenaline, drinking coffee only exacerbates the problem.
• Invest in multivitamins: stress reduces the body's absorption of almost all nutrients, and excessive stress depletes the body of vitamin C, vitamin B3 and magnesium, all of which support the adrenal glands.
• Cut down on alcohol when stressed. It will inhibit your body's uptake of vitamins and minerals and interfere with your sleep patterns.
Stay calm at Home
• Practise relaxing, in the way you would practise any other new skill - if you've become accustomed to severe stress, you may well not be able to just go home and "switch off ".
• Stop smoking; it stimulates production of adrenaline in the body, and can trigger a stress response.
• Have a quiet cuddle with your partner. It will increase the production of endorphins in your body, and has the power to lower your heart rate.
• Deep breathing exercises are effective at soothing the body and clearing the mind. Lie on your back with your knees bent and, breathing through your nose, take deep, slow, steady breaths (so that your stomach rises). Once you have mastered breathing into the stomach, try the technique when sitting up - so you can use it in the office, too.
• Meditation encourages positive thinking, clears the mind and lowers anxiety levels. To start with, try sitting quietly for just 60 seconds. Shut your eyes and bring your attention to the centre of your forehead. Breathe slowly and steadily, and visualise your favourite bright colour spreading through your body. If your mind starts jabbering away, bring your focus back to your forehead.
Out and About
• High-energy work in the gym helps disperse the adrenaline that stress has produced in your body. Exercise also releases endorphins, the natural " feel good" chemicals, into the body, and can help you sleep better.
• Try yoga, tai chi or just stretching - by concentrating on breath, postures, and moving towards a stillness of body and mind they engender calm.
• Twenty minutes of sunlight improves your sense of wellbeing and is a natural energiser, so take a walk when you get a chance, says exercise expert Kathryn Freeland (020 7834 0000).
• Try facial massage, says beauty guru Josephine Fairley in the 21st Century Beauty Bible (Kyle Cathie Ltd, £14.99). Massage your temples in small circles; slowly pinch along each eyebrow from the inner to the outer end; using the pads of your fingers, relax the forehead by pressing the fingers along the brow-line, then sliding them upwards in 1cm steps.
• Try to be in bed by 10pm at least twice a week.
• Have sex; the release that orgasm gives both relaxes body and mind, and so encourages better sleep.
• Lavender oil on the pillow can help you to relax because it slows down reaction times in the body.
• If stress is interfering with your sleep, try herbal remedies. But always seek professional advice.
In Others Hands
• Stress makes the body's tissues tighten - massage helps the body to relax and improves circulation.
• Try flotation - it encourages the brain to relax to a point where it produces "theta" waves (even slower brainwaves than the "alpha" waves generated during relaxation) which are accompanied by daydreaming, reflection and bursts of creativity.
• Acupuncture can be effective for helping stress-related conditions such as anxiety, migraines and skin conditions, by working the body back towards a state of balance.
• Cranial osteopathy is a refined, gentle type of osteopathic treatment that encourages the release of stresses and tensions throughout the body, including the head.
At Your Desk
• Make a priority list each morning, and be realistic about what you can achieve. Develop a plan of action for the day, to help you feel in charge of your aims.
• In your desk drawer keep a phial of Rescue Remedy - a natural remedy made from flower essences which is reputed to help with stress or trauma.
• Before a difficult meeting, prepare a list of positive statements about you, and rehearse them to yourself.
• Keep track of how you spend your time by jotting down what you are doing every 15 minutes of the day. This will show up how much time is really spent on productive work, and how much is squandered on semi-necessary tasks, or doing things which other people could do for you. Note, too, the times of day at which you feel most stressed, and see if there is a pattern.
• Burn frankincense oil at your desk; it has a light, sharp smell which won't offend colleagues, and it is very soothing to the nervous system.
• Drink more water. Being dehydrated by even 10 per cent can impair your mental faculties, thus worsening the stress you already feel.
• Try massaging your ears. According to Chinese reflexology, certain parts of the ear relate to certain parts of the body, so massaging the ear effectively treats and relaxes the body. Also concentrate on the hands: work into the joints, along the creases in the palm. This works the diaphragm, and helps take the tension out of it.