• While stress serves a healthy function, any chronic stress is incredibly bad for your mental and physical health

  • If you're struggling with stress at work, Noa Belling has 7 simple tips for managing stressful and anxious feelings

  • If you need support from a therapist, find yours here

Stress can rob your ability to function at your best. It can drain your energy so you get tired more quickly, interfere with concentration and problem-solving and get in the way of your ability to communicate well with others. This is because when stress hormones run high the human brain and nervous system are hardwired to bypass thinking and heartfelt interaction, in favour of leaping into action for survival purposes. 

This is helpful when you really are in danger, but it can be overused in our fast-paced lives, and be triggered by the accumulation of minor irritations, moderately stressful incidents and generally busy-ness.

7 hacks to get back on track

To be skilful with stress, you need to wake up your thinking brain as well as your ability to come from a heartfelt place so that you can respond in ways you feel good about. Here are seven ways to pivot quickly from stress autopilot to effective and skilful stress management. The added bonus is that these are all ways to boost stress resilience. Try them out to discover what works best for you.

1. Sit or stand tall to boost inner strength and decisiveness

When stressed, it is common to be caught up in thoughts, worries and to-do lists. Posture can close in on itself as tension mounts or tiredness sets in. Unfolding your posture to sit or stand taller can be an instant perspective shift. It can open your mind to see a bigger picture and can make you feel stronger in yourself and more able to be decisive.

2. Release tension for an energy boost

Where are the tension hot spots in your body? Stress creates tension and we all hold tension in different areas, such as in our shoulders, back, abdomen, chest or throat areas. Where is it for you? Pausing now and again through your day to pick up on this and taking a few moments to release tension can give you an instant energy boost. 

To do this, you could take a few moments to stretch or shake out tense areas in a way that feels good and allows your breathing to deepen as you do so.

3. Remember to breathe!

Stress affects how you breathe. Breathing might be held or shallow and focused in the upper chest area, especially when there is also anxiety or when consumed in thoughts or feelings. Next time you feel stressed, pay attention to your breathing and encourage your breathing to relax and flow more freely. This might involve encouraging breathing to penetrate tight areas of your body. Use gentle, slow breaths to avoid feeling dizzy. You can also imagine breathing from the ground up to encourage deeper breathing for a calming effect that can also feel subtly energising and open your mind to think more clearly.

For added stress release, blow air out of your mouth on exhalation, breathing out for as long as you can. This activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system to increase the calming effect.

4. Hand to heart for emotional awareness and resilience

When you feel stressed, try placing a hand in the centre of your chest. Doing so draws attention down from your thoughts into your heart area. It can be a tangible reminder to centre in yourself, pay attention to your feelings and offer yourself some self-soothing through this gesture. It can also invite tuning into what feels most important in this moment and then, from this more heartfelt space, you can choose what to do next. 

This simple action can help you feel you can cope better and over time can build emotional resilience.

5. Take stock of where your mind is, especially when anxious

When feeling anxious, stop for a few moments to ask yourself what the trigger is. Naming the trigger/s can quickly land you in a more grounded, clear headspace for considering how to deal with your challenges. This is instead of anxiety spiralling without clear awareness of what set it off or focus on what you can do about it now. 

Ask yourself: “Is there something I can do that could be helpful, now or later?” Go through this in your mind or write down your ideas if you have pen and paper handy. Then choose what to follow through with. Even if your choice is to do nothing, being decisive can help to keep anxiety at bay.

6. Come into the present moment to refresh concentration

This can work well when you have been focusing on a screen for a while and need a break to clear your mind and feel refreshed. To do so, carry out a short five senses check to bring your attention into the present moment for the mental clarity that this creates: 

  • Look around and take in your environment through fresh eyes

  • Listen to sounds around you, near and far. What is the furthest sound away that you can hear? 

  • Tune into your sense of smell and notice the scents in the air

  • Tune into the taste in your mouth.

  • Tune into your sense of touch, taking a few moments to touch an object near you, with attention to texture, temperature and shape. You can notice the touch of your clothes on your skin or the feeling of sitting in your seat or standing on the ground. You could also take a few moments to stretch out your body and notice how this feels from the inside out. 

With refreshed focus, and perhaps a subtle energy boost too, return to your day. 

7. Write it down!

Making to-do lists, jotting down ideas, setting goals, journalling - these are all ways a pen and paper can come in handy. Holding ideas in your mind can either be stressful or lead to forgetfulness. Keeping pen and paper nearby is a great way to ease the stress of trying to remember. It can also make you more efficient and effective, keeping you on track with all you wish to accomplish. 

Journalling about your feelings or goals can also be beneficial. For your feelings, when you name and write about what is going on for you, it can stimulate new ideas to help you through your challenges and can support emotional resilience. For your goals you can spark motivation and inspiration. To do so you could write about what you wish to accomplish in the shorter and longer term, describing your current reality and brainstorming different ideas for how to move from your current reality to your goals. End off, choosing to follow through with what feels most achievable. Then revisit the process as often as feels helpful to inspire and track your progress over time.

Noa Belling is the author of new book Stress Less: managing anxiety in a modern World, published by Rockpool Publishing

Further reading

Three brains theory: Why head, heart and gut matter in decision making

Techniques to survive burnout

How unconscious forces drive our behaviour at work

Why rest isn't a waste of time and how to do more of it