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I spent a month trying stress hacks - here's what worked

Spoiler: involves Celine Dion

Tom Ward

What’s more stressful than feeling stressed? Googling ‘How to help stress’. Some 20 million responses in 0.29 seconds, that’s what I found.

So how on Earth are you supposed to discover what’s really going to chill you out? Studies reckon chocolate can do it (not so great for the waistline, though). The NHS suggests you take 'control’ (great, but how?). Other sites suggest spending less time at our desks and more time in the pub. We wish.

Here’s the thing: we’re all stressed, and it's partly because of our “always on” work culture that sees us checking our emails before we’ve even brushed our teeth. According to a recent government report, 12.5 million working days were lost to work-related stress, anxiety, and depression between 2016 and 2017.

One reason we’ve reached a stress epidemic is because we’re apparently tackling it all wrong. “Stress is a useful tool,” says psychotherapist Chris Johnson. "Historically, stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine put us into a state of hyper-arousal, giving us a surge in energy and a heightened response to threats.”

So, if stress is useful, what’s the problem? “We can think our way into states of stress that don’t reflect the reality of the situation – like over-thinking awkward social encounters, or work deadlines,” explains Chris. “One effect of this self-imposed stress is that our body can’t produce the happy hormone serotonin at the same time as stress hormones. Evolution had no need for a person in a life-threatening situation to also experience chilled-out bliss.”

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In other words, once we get worked up about our commute, a uni presentation, or meeting a partner’s family, it’s difficult to calm down. And too many of us are wrongly reaching for our phones to help. “It is a vicious cycle that I’ve seen with nearly all of my clients,” says Chris. “The stressed-out office worker who barely takes a deep breath in the day, and is then glued to electronic devices to try and relax – but isn’t left feeling better.”

For a long time, I was one of these workers. Then, last year, I left my full-time job to go freelance. That’s when the stress I hadn’t dealt with came flooding out, and I experienced depression for the first time – something I’m still dealing with today.

There’s a misconception that stress is (stereotypically) a female emotion. Of course, it isn’t. As Chris explains, stress is the result of chemical processes, which men and women undergo. The difference is that women are (typically) more able to speak about their stress. Men tend to keep things to ourselves, allowing the stress to build until it all becomes too much. Blame outdated ideas of masculinity for this.

To help understand what actually helps when stress hits, I decided to trial five popular hacks for a month. They may not be the best but they're some of the most accessible. From cognitive behavioural therapy and music to a form of meditation being billed as the “new mindfulness”, here’s what worked (and what didn't) for me...

Sophrology

Touted as “dynamic relaxation”, sophrology involves closing your eyes, taking a deep breath as you tense all of your muscles, then letting the breath go, and relaxing the muscles.

“Sophrology induces serotonin production and the deep breathing promotes calm by circulating oxygen around the body,” says Chris Johnson.

The exercises can be done in 10 to 30 minute bursts, and promises to instil a “sense of calm and overall happiness,” according to sophrology practitioner Dominique Antiglio on her website.

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I try it for 10 minutes in the morning after going through my emails. I feel calmer for a moment, but I’ve still got a full inbox. Maybe I need to try for longer.

I practise the technique every morning. At first it’s difficult to concentrate, and then, about three weeks in, something clicks. I can focus on each part of my body and physically feel myself relaxing in the moment. I’m able to employ it in most day-to-day situations when I’m out and about, and even stay calm when I miss the bus and get to the supermarket just as it closes. Consider me converted.

Music

The next stress-buster also gets the thumbs up. According to a study published by the Royal Northern College of Music, even mediocre singing “can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations”. Phew.

After nailing an intense late night deadline, I pick up my dog, Ralphie, and start singing the greatest love song of all time: Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On. Ralphie doesn’t seem relaxed, but oddly, I do. 

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“Many of my patients say music is one of the most useful stress-coping strategies,” says Dr Muhammad Nasim, a GP at Northwood Medical Centre, Birmingham, who regularly sees patients suffering from stress. "[Listening to music and singing] reduces stress hormone levels in the blood.” Dr Mark Winwood, a London psychologist, also tells me that music fires “positive brain neurotransmitters”, which basically means you get more positive images in your head, which helps you relax. 

Encouraged, I start playing guitar in the evenings after work. Instead of a tight knot in my chest, I feel the vibrations of my voice, and my brain focuses on trying to sing in tune, instead of whatever I was worrying about before. I keep it up throughout the month – when I’m walking Ralphie, waiting for ages at a bar, doing my weekly shop. After a while, though, I become self-conscious and imagine everyone is staring at me and making scathing comments behind my back. In the end, anxiety gets the better of me, and I fall silent.

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Cold showers

I find I’m most stressed in the morning. From a primitive perspective, Professor Steve Peters writes in his book The Chimp Paradox that when we wake up, an older, more instinctive part of our brain wakes first, and searches for danger. The second ‘narrative’ part of our brain then tries to attach meaning to these primal impulses, giving us a reason to be on edge, which explains why my brain takes a while to settle. Luckily, cold showers are said to help. 

The idea was popularised by Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof, who regularly bathes in ice water. The cold, Hof argues, improves circulation, increases alertness and decreases stress by focusing your mind on the ‘real’ threat of freezing water. In short, it works by breaking your stress down and channeling it into physical activity, instead of attaching it to unrealistic goals like maintaining a six-pack, or keeping your boss happy.

I try it out for 30 freezing seconds. It’s unpleasant, but I do feel more alert afterwards. Obviously, I can’t take a cold shower whenever I’m stressed, and while it refreshed me first thing, by the time I sat down to work the effect had faded.

Not only are the effects limited, but it seems your brain builds up tolerance to the shock of the icy water on your system. I’m not sold.

Exercise

When it comes to stress-busters, exercise is an old favourite. It increases endorphins (the same 'happy hormones' that are released during sex) and, apparently 150 minutes of physical activity over a week (that's about 20 minutes per day) is enough to make you feel better. 

“Exercise is brain protective,” says Dr Mark Winwood, "which means it promotes the growth of those parts of the brain that help you deal with stress, which in turn equips you to beat depression and protects against anxiety disorders.”

I already run occasionally, but for the sake of this challenge, I commit to running four times a week. Running really focuses your body and your mind as you pound the pavement. It’s kind of like sophrology in that sense. Except, the exhaustion and sweat that comes with running make me feel like I’ve achieved something. 

The more I run, the quicker I’m able to shake off my stress. Until the moment when I’m forced to miss a run for an early morning commute into London, and become so stressed by the journey that I spend all it swearing under my breath. 

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CBT

Last on the list is CBT – short for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It’s something I’ve tried ever since I first felt low. CBT teaches you to consider negative thoughts from other angles by practising exercises that help you; for example, accept that maybe someone didn’t talk to you at a party because they were nervous, not because they didn’t like you. 

Practising these exercises can build new pathways in your brain, that help you feel more positive and calmer. CBT has been known to help people manage stress, anxiety, and depression – and if it's recommended by a GP, the NHS suggests seeing a therapist once a week or once every two weeks. There are entire books dedicated to the topic, and there are a number of apps available that are designed to teach CBT techniques.

I spend the month reading Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies. Progress is slow, but it does teach me how to refocus my energies in a stressful situation. I try it when a careless driver cuts me off in a car park, and when meeting new people in the local pub. I notice I'm increasingly ‘training' my brain how to calm down, instead of feeling angry or socially anxious. 

The verdict

The key, as with all areas of health, is balance. There’s no one solution for beating stress. Running helps me loosen up my body and ‘burn through’ the physical symptoms of stress, while CBT and sophrology help me find quiet time for my mind. And singing the Titanic theme tune at the top of your lungs can at least bring a smile after a heavy work day.  

Obviously these hacks won't work for everyone, so if you're worried about your stress levels, you should see your GP, but during this month, I’ve learnt the key to fighting stress is keeping an open mind. Being willing to try new things can really help. Jumping naked into freezing water first thing in the morning definitely jolted me out of my morning anxiety, if only briefly.  Oh, and remember to step away from your screens, too. Asking Dr Google for help is guaranteed to send your stress levels skyrocketing again – and there’s far too much stress out there already.

If all else fails, canine cuddles are always a calming winner.  

Information and support for mental health issues is available from these organisations.