7 Ways to Manage Your Stress

Burnout in the city

  • Do you get to work, but not feel like working (or doing anything)?
  • Have lots to do, but feel way too tired to tackle any of it?
  • Having difficulty concentrating or focusing on the task at hand?
  • Feeling disillusioned or being cynical at work?
  • Find yourself being more critical or irritable with others at work?

Did you answer yes to the questions?

There are inevitably days when we’re not motivated at all to be productive. We get to work but leave the tasks that need doing for “later”. Or we get started but take ages doing the stuff that needs to be done.

There are definitely work days when we’re too tired to be our efficient and productive model selves. Possibly from staying up late or waking too early. Or both. And we dose ourselves with (more) caffeine to keep going.

But having a feeling of being fatigued and unmotivated about work more than just occasionally is something to sit up and pay attention to. Feeling overwhelmeddisillusioned, and/or cynical at work are also warning signs of job burnout. Being less able to see things from the perspective of others at work (when you usually do) should also set off an alarm bell or two.

For those feeling the effects of burnout, it may be time to speak to HR or a professional counsellor. Doing a self-assessment may also be a step in the right direction:

  • Test yourself here.
  • Find out if you’re experiencing job burnout here.
  • Analyze why you may be experiencing stress at your workplace here.

For those of us who think our insipid days at the office occur as frequently as solar eclipses, we might still want to pay attention to how we deal with stress at work and home. Here’s how we can improve our ranking as a happy nation:

1. Carve out undisturbed time for work
A substantial number among the 292 local senior managers and business owners polled in an international 2015 workplace survey, said that they were most productive before 9am. It’s not that we need to shift our work hours. Rather, we need to carve out a block of time for work that’s not disturbed by emails and distracting conversations.

2. Put an embargo on emails
Checking your email later in the day allows you to take advantage of chunking. It’s more efficient to reply to a batch of urgent emails than to reply to every email as it comes in. It also has improves your mental wellbeing. A 2014 study found that those who checked their inbox only 3 times a day felt less stressed than their peers who had no limit on the number of times they could check their inbox a day.

3. Get the optimal amount of sleep
Employees in sleep-deprived Singapore usually say they need more sleep. So it might come as a surprise that there’s actually an optimal amount of sleep we should get, if we’re to maintain our mental and physical well-being.

The US National Sleep Foundation’s 2015 report recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep for working adults. A 2014 study which followed 3,760 adults in Finland for an average of 7 years, found that the optimal amount of sleep was 7 to 8 hours a night. Those who slept over 10 hours a night were just as likely to be absent from work due to sickness as those who slept less than 5 hours a night.

If you’re not getting the right amount of sleep, it may be time to review your sleep habits: “Do you have a regular sleep schedule? Do you have a bedtime routine? Do you make sleep a priority?” Get more tips here.

But it may be that your sleepless nights relate to work-life balance. A 2015 study found that employees increased their sleep by one hour a week and were more efficient in getting to sleep after participating in a 3-month programme designed to train managers and employees how to better manage work-family conflicts. You might not have access to such a training programme, but work-family concerns are issues worth reviewing. If only just to get more sleep and improve your mood. Small things like that.

4. Get happy by napping 
So okay, it’s not realistic to expect that everyone will get their much needed 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. Once every other week, you’ll mess up your routine with too much caffeine, partying too hard, overworking, getting tired and cranky infants to bed, looking after sick pets, and many other reasons too innumerable to list.

That’s when you should plan to invest in a good quality nap. A 2015 study showed that 2 half-hour naps reversed the adverse effects of having only 2 hours of sleep on our stress response and immune system. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you get started.

5. Walk around the problem
It’s easier to sleep when you exercise. That’s not new. Neither is the news that people with depression in their 20s tend not to engage in physical activities. What’s new is the finding that those who exercise more as they age are less likely to be depressed. That’s what was found by a 2014 study which followed 11,135 adults until the age of 50.

Similarly, another 2014 study finds that those who go for group nature walks report better mental well-being and less stress. This may be explained by a 2014 finding: Recent research suggests that exercise plays a protective role in shielding our brain from the adverse effects of chronic stress — depression (read this article to understand the science behind this mechanism). So, it may be time you explored a nature park near you. Try something new: Springleaf Nature Park or Kranji Wetlands.

6. Go nuts on fruits and veggies
You’ll have better mental health if you eat more fruits and veggies. That’s what a 2014 study on 14,000 respondents in England found. The majority of those who reported high levels of “optimism, happiness, self-esteem, resilience, and good relationships” said that they ate 3 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, with over half of them eating 5 or more servings daily.

It may be that those with high mental well-being tend to have healthy lifestyle habits. But if you’re mental well-being scores are low (find out here), you might want to ask yourself, how many portions of fruits and veggies am I eating every day?

7. Comfort yourself but not with high-fat foods
Research suggests that a high-fat diet can adversely affect our mental health. Animal studies link gut bacteria from a high-fat diet to an increase in anxiety behaviours, while studies on humans find that taking prebiotics and probiotics improves our stress response to threatening stimuli. What this means is that having good gut bacteria could potentially help alleviate anxiety symptoms. And eating less saturated fat and more fruits and veggies will encourage good bacteria to make a home in our gut.

We may not know if we’re the ones who suffer the most from stress (we do actually — those with a more variable heart rate will suffer more from stress, says a 2014 study — but it’s not easy for the average consumer to measure their heart rate variability). But at least we know a few things we can do to change it.

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Chew the fact (s)

Back View of Man Running on Stairs
“Chew the fat” is an eatery in the newly hip district, Everton Park. It’s only a 20-min bus ride or 15-min walk from the office. In spite of the lure of a much needed espresso or latte, waffles with maple syrup, traditional ang ku kueh, delectable polish dumplings, and food court prawn mee, it’s much too far in this heat and 84% humidity to walk to for a CBD lunch.

Although these are certainly things which would keep us happy. Social conversation over coffee and cake. A sugar high from ice cream to get us through our post-prandial afternoon lull. A nice walk through the restful Pinnacle courtyard en route to Neil Road. But these aren’t always quite enough to get us through a stressful week at the office. Even though we know the psychological (and physical) benefits of exercise.

We might not be ready for a 50km run for 50 days: But if you’re in the pret-a-ultrathon mode, look here for how to join this SG50 celebration. But for the rest of us trying to get into a fitness regime, here are some new ideas to chew on:

1. Believe in yourself
It’s one thing to know that you should exercise (or start exercising). And it’s another to get started. Especially if you’re self-conscious about your shape or size (read this article). Getting professional help in order to work on issues such as self-esteem, rumination habits, having negative and/or irrational thoughts can do much to help those in such a quandary.

2. Enhance your workout with music
A recent study found that those who listened to music of their choice exercised much harder during a high-intensity work-out than those who had no music to listen to while working out. Put on your exercise shoes and load up your favourite playlist. Music, maestro!

3. Start with small steps
It’s easier when you start with small goals. Instead of aiming to do the whole 5 floors up to your office, you can take the lift up to your office but walk down from your office every day. Or you can get an app (or two) which helps you squeeze in a brief exercise session every day — 5 minutes only. Another prospective study published recently found that those who ran for just 5 to 10 minutes a day were likely to live as long as those who fulfilled the usual 150-min-a-week physical activity requirements. So, exercising for just 5 minutes a day can have huge benefits to your health.

4. Professional counselling
Consider coaching or counselling to help you deal with the stress of trying to get fitter. Weight loss isn’t a walk in the park. It’s often an uphill battle that just gets harder the more we try. And trying to exercise can increase your stress hormones, leaving you feeling stressed about getting fit, says a 2014 study. Ways to manage the stress more effectively can be brought about with one-to-one coaching and through professional counselling sessions.

5. When did you last have fun?
Thinking about a positive exercise experience can be just the thing you need to help you keep at it. A 2014 study found that those who were asked to recall a positive exercise experience were more likely to exercise in the subsequent week than those asked to recall a negative one. Think of a time when you had fun to set yourself up for success (instead of failure).

6. Try paying yourself to exercise
Ever wanted to reward yourself for exercising? Well, there’s an app that does that. This new app PACT pays you to stick to your fitness regime. It’s because we’re motivated by concrete incentives. Try it out!

7. Four wheels good. Two wheels better.
A 2014 study found that those who cycled to work were happier than other commuters. It’s no wonder given the commuting traffic we confront every day. It might be that cyclists have the opportunity to focus on things which provide a therapeutic break from stressful thoughts about work. And being in a green environment makes us feel better. Whatever it is, try cycling to reduce your stress.

8. Hitting the sweet spot
Once you’re having fun, you can always have more fun! Although squeezing in 5 minutes of exercise a day is a great start, you’ll want to do more once you enjoy it. Recent research involving an overwhelming large number of participants through national databases indicates that going beyond the minimum requirement (150 minutes a week of physical activity) has long-term benefits to our physical health. Here’s that research explained.

And think about what that does for your mood and mental well-being! Chew on that (not just the fat)…

Drink up! It’s good for you!

Champagne

We usually think only of food. Should we reduce our intake of saturated fat? Are whole grain carbs better for us? Is too much sugar a bad thing? Will eating half a plate of vegetables at each meal reduce our risk of heart attacks and cancer? (The answer is yes, yes, yes, and yes).

We’re usually stressed about what we eat. And what we eat often adds to our stress. But our drinking habits may not be helping us. Here’s a closer look at the health benefits (or lack of benefits) of what we drink:

Alcohol
Previous studies found that moderate drinking reduced the risk of heart attacks and strokes. This has lead us to think that having a drink a day helps. A 2015 prospective study which followed 15,000 middle-aged adults for 24 to 25 years found that heart failure rate was lower among moderate drinkers, those who drank up to 7 drinks a week, than heavier drinkers. But the same study also found that heart failure rate was highest for former drinkers.

There’s a reason why they stopped drinking. Not everyone can have just that one drink. Which is why mental health professionals argue that “there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption” (Guardian, March 2011). Drinking impacts our sleep, immune system, our ability to think, remember, and make decisions, and most importantly, our mental health.

Moreover, research indicates that it’s exercise not wine consumption which improves cardiovascular health. Both red and white wine lower undesirable cholesterol levels (LDL), but only exercise increases desirable cholesterol (HDL).

In fact, health experts advocate cutting down on alcohol. Why? Because it doesn’t actually protect against heart attacks or stroke. A 2015 prospective study of 53,000 people found little or no health benefit to drinking alcohol. And two other recent studies confirm the benefits of drinking less: Researchers who studied those who get easily flushed from drinking and who therefore drink less over time, have better cardiovascular health.

Need help? Read this.

Soft drinks
It’s getting more and more difficult to recommend diet soft drinks. A 2012 prospective study which followed over 2,000 adults over a decade found that drinking diet soft drinks every day increased the risk of stroke and heart attacks.

recent study found that those who drank diet soft drinks ate more than those who drank the regular version if they were overweight or obese. Another recent study showed that diet soft drinks increased the risk for diabetes.

Diet drinks don’t help us save on calories. Sugar substitutes tell your body to expect energy-rich food but when none comes, your body goes into energy preservation mode: It stores fat.

What about having the real thing, but in smaller amounts? Some nutrition experts suggest a mini can of Coca-cola to be a good snack (more about that here). But beware the 90 calories in that teeny weeny can of sugar.

Here are the figures (http://cspinet.org). Know the facts (http://hsph.harvard.edu) and make up your own mind.

Coffee
Coffee drinking has a number of known health benefits, but can we have too much of a good thing?

2014 prospective study which followed health professionals found that increasing coffee intake by 1 cup a day over a period of 4 years reduced the risk of diabetes, while other studies show that coffee consumption helps our cardiovascular health. Moderate coffee intake — 2 to 4 cups a day — reduced the risk of heart disease by 20%, while drinking at least 1 cup of coffee (or 3 cups of green tea) a day reduced the risk of stroke by 20%.

Coffee increases our stress hormones and raises our blood pressure, but the current consensus is that drinking up to 6 cups of coffee a day doesn’t spell bad news for our heart (read this article). Research finds that coffee increases the risk of fatal heart attacks, but this is because more smokers drink a lot of coffee. A 2014 prospective study which followed 131,401 Paris residents for 3.5 years found more smokers among heavy coffee drinkers (e.g., 4 cups a day) than moderate and non-drinkers. When the researchers took into account the effect of smoking, they found that coffee was not a risk for heart attacks.

So, have your cup of java. But don’t be fooled into thinking that it’ll give you immunity.

Black tea
Surprisingly, black tea may be better than green tea for slowing the glucose absorption, thereby being of benefit to people with diabetes.

But the cool thing is that our stress response recovery improves with black tea consumption. In a 2006 study where the smell and taste of tea were masked, elevated stress hormones induced by a stressful event returned to baseline levels more quickly in those who drank tea four times a day for 6 weeks than those given a placebo. That sounds like a lot of tea, but it’s not an unusual amount for those who live in the land of scones and clotted cream, fish and chips, and overcast skies.

Cuppa for me, please.

Green tea
A 2014 study found that green tea improved cognitive functioning through improved neural connectivity, while a 2013 study found that green tea enhanced frontal brain activity.

A recent study indicates that an active ingredient in green tea may be responsible for suppressing the growth of pancreatic cancer cells. In addition to the potential use of green tea for lowering the risk of pancreatic cancer, flavanols known as catechins consumed from a daily dose of green (or black) tea have been shown to reliably lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

Unlike black tea which is usually brewed at temperatures near boiling point, green tea is best brewed at about 80° Celcius. And it’s not just about taste. A 2011 study that finds the best way to extract catechins is to brew green tea at 80° Celcius for half an hour. So it pays to wait for your water to cool (or you can pour it into cups and back again, especially if you’re the kind that stands around and impatiently paces or taps the kitchen floor).

So now you can’t say that you don’t know how to get a nice cup of longjing (龙井).

Herbal tea
You might already know about the sleep inducing benefits of drinking chamomile tea. But you might not realise that the same properties which induce sleep also relieve muscle spasms, suggesting that chamomile tea can be helpful for getting us to relax.

Two other teas also have calming properties. Peppermint tea and ginger tea are known to help with digestion. Peppermint tea soothes inflammatory pain in the gut, providing relief from irritable bowel syndrome which can be related to stress, while daily intake of ginger reduces muscle pain.

Fresh juices
Along with red wine and tea, citrus juices which are high in flavanones have been found to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer. But watch out for that delicious thing known as fructose – it’s easy to consume more than the recommended serving size when you’re drinking juice out of a bottle.

So, the moral of the story is you can have more coffee and tea. But beware of the sugar-laden condensed milk that you’re adding to your kopi-kosong or teh-siu-dai!