The summer challenge - no dieting involved

Have you noticed how there seems to be a lot going on for everyone at the moment? Tensions are high, everyone is stressed. Usually at this time of year everyone is worried about what they'll look like in that bikini. I have decided to throw you a challlenge but this isn't a weightloss challenge. This is about reducing your stress level almost instantly.

You may have noticed I’ve been rather quiet recently. That’s because I have been travelling quite a lot over the past few weeks. Upon returning to my everyday routine I had a major realisation, which confirmed something I have known for a while. In fact, if you take a moment to think it through, you’ll probably realise the same is true for you. The fact is we are all increasingly tired, lacking energy and stressed, and that is on a good day. But how many people actually link these symptoms to one of the major contributing factors?

The American Institute of Stress (AIS)

It is interesting to note that the American Institute of Stress (AIS) rates media overload as the 6th place on their list of top causes of stress in the US. This figure is for 2014. Since then the amount of media we are bombarded with every day has increased.  Not only that, technology as a whole has invaded every part of our lives. Nowadays it seems impossible to go to the supermarket, use banking services, or communicate without some form of technology being involved. Think about this: how many (un)necessary apps do you have in your smartphone now? How about in 2014? Exactly.

Those who know me well know I have resisted apps as far as possible but new regulations for banking security across the world now mean even old bastions of resistance still good old fashioned systems like websites, sms and encrypted key cards, have had to give in or die. However, with this comes a host of new or enhanced problems.

Physical and Psychological symptoms of stress

Going back to AIS, they provide two lists of symptoms of stress: physical and psychological. It is worth noting that not everyone who is stressed reports having or being aware of any symptoms. Take a moment to consider this last statement.

 So what does the physical list of symptoms include? At the top place you have fatigue with a whopping 51%! This is followed by headaches, upset stomach, muscle tension, changes in appetite, teeth grinding, changes in sex drive and finally feeling dizzy.  But that’s not all. The list of psychological symptoms makes for even more interesting reading. Irritability and Anger are right at the top (50%), closely followed with a tied second place by feeling nervous and lack of energy. Last, but not least, “feeling as though you could cry” comes in at 35%.

Do you really want to spend your life like this? I will assume the answer is a unanimous “no”. In that case, we should start by exploring the causes of stress. Here is where the AIS website provides an interesting insight. The question that immediately came to my mind while reading their website was when and why was this special institution created? Any guesses for the year? Let me give you a clue, it was round about the time that emails and the internet were “invented”.  Coincidence? Food for thought.

When and why the AIS was founded (really?!)

The reason they give for founding such a body is eye opening in itself.  It reads like this on their website:

“….to function as ombudsman to this rapidly expanding field where a plethora of extravagant claims for worthless devices, nutritional products and approaches threatened to drown out legitimate research efforts and advances.” 

That rather sounds a bit like a mix between information overload, too much technology and fake news!  Back in 1978, when the AIS was founded, we did not have social media, websites and smartphones, let alone apps, and in many homes there were no TV sets yet. Fast forward to 2019 and how much worse would such things be? How much more pervasive? Do you ever go more than a couple of waking hours without being in front of a screen of some sort?

Dr Gini Harrison and Dr Mathijs Lucassen have researched the connection between technology and stress. They asked the question: “What is it about new technology that is making many of us anxious and stressed?” Their results can be found on the mental health page of the Open Edu website.   According to their findings there are 5 main stressors.

1.       Perpetual distraction – in the UK people spend up to 5 hours a day on their phone per day, and most of that time is not to make calls.  Think about perpetual beeping, flashing and vibrating. Can you focus on anything when your phone is constantly distracting you?

2.       Sleep dysregulation – how many of you are guilty of looking at your phone “just for a second” before going to sleep? Does that ever just take a couple of minutes? How much is that eating into your hours of sleep? And, be honest, is it actually helping you to relax just before sleep?

3.       Work/life balance – in the era of mobile (smart)phones, can you irrefutably agree on where the boundary between work life and family/private life is? Hands up all those people who take their phones into the bathroom, bedroom, on the plane (yeah new free wifi available on many flights now, yupee! L) and on your beach or poolside holiday? How many of those emails or calls are really emergencies?  I cannot count the amount of times I have had this conversation with my other half.

4.       F.O.M.O. – new term? Yes, indeed. We never had Fear of Missing Out while I was growing up. At the most this would appear whilst friends or relatives forced you to sit through their endless holiday slideshows (yes slides, remember those?). Now it’s in your face 24/7, on your phone. You even know how many times people check into their bathrooms every day!

5.       Social comparison – trying to keep up with the Joneses? How much harder is it to show off the perfect holiday, home, car, social life etc when you are competing not just with the neighbours but with every single Instagram, facebook and twitter contact or user!?

Add to this the fact that the electromagnetic waves and wifi have been proven to cause nervousness. Many people spend their day sitting in front of a screen (laptop, mac, tablet etc etc), go home looking at screens with ads and information about traffic or the next train or digital news, whilst checking their social media on their phones in case they missed something, and at the same time chatting over whatsapp and checking personal emails. Then get home and if they have not yet installed the IoT (Internet of Things ie a fridge, coffee machine, oven remotely controlled through their smartphone – I’m not even going to go there!), they have to set their various electronic gadgets in motion through a touch screen to get dinner ready, or use the latest app to get food delivered. They will then pay with their smartphone and settle in front of another (larger) screen to watch their favourite programme or read the latest bestseller on their kindle. All this time their smartphone will be beeping, flashing different colours, vibrating, ringing, pinging….. How can you not be exhausted??

Some statistics about smartphones

In 2017 over 97% of adults in the UK owned a mobile phone, and more than 75% of those were smartphones. Even though smartphones were originally developed to facilitate phone calls on the go, according to a 2016 consumer survey by Deloitte one third of users don’t actually make traditional voice calls at all!

Do we really need to spend most of our waking hours hooked to technology as if it was our life support system? Aren’t the multiple medical studies findings enough warning of the health and lifestyle risks we are facing by simply being exposed to all this technology? You don’t need to live in a vacuum but neither should you be behaving like a junkie.

There is a simple solution to reduce stress immediately

But there is a solution. There is a simple way to reduce stress. All you need is a little will power.

Let me share my secret with you. It does not involve dieting (although some foods help to stay calm and others create more anxiety), it does not involve drinking litres of herbal tea every day, it does not involve meditation or yoga. It’s all much simpler than that. Much, much easier. In fact it involves you actually doing nothing. Yeah, nothing. I don’t mean lying on your sofa nothing, I mean not actually needing to be proactive or taking any steps.

Think about this. I am an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) all the overstimulation that a non HSP experiences is multiplied tenfold for me thanks to my genetic makeup, so if I do not find a way around media overload, technological stressors and the like, well, let’s just say it’s not pretty.

What can you do every day?

Let’s start with little steps.

1.       Disable all noises for notifications, vibrations and flashing LEDs (except essential ones) from your phone and other devices.

2.       Give yourself a cut off time each day after which unless an earthquake, medical emergency or major disaster takes place you DO NOT pick up work calls and messages, and you do not look at your social media page. Focus on relaxing and preparing for bed and rest.

3.       Ditch the kindle. Read from a paper book. It is better for your health and more relaxing.

4.       Set up the counter on your devices to tell you how much screen time per day you are spending, and try to give yourself a maximum target of x hours per day. Set realistic targets and reduce them a little every week.

However, this is just the starting point.

What I discovered during my trips

You know what I discovered during my last trip? I don’t need to keep looking at my phone (which is just as well since the telephone company decided to throttle my data whilst roaming). I don’t need to be logged in to facebook all the time. I don’t even need google maps. I can walk around with an old fashioned map or the different maps provided at bus stops etc to navigate my way around a new area. I also don’t need whatsapp except to make arrangements on a place and time to meet (just like we used to do over fixed landlines), and to communicate any delays. Other than that, my phone didn’t come out of my handbag. I met with people face to face over a cup of tea, walked around town using my intuition (having looked at the map once before setting off) and using landmarks.

The result? Even though I was on the go non stop for 12 to 14 hours a day, getting around on foot, suffering from jet lag and not getting more than 6 hours of sleep a night, and my diet was not as healthy as when I am at home, I did not suffer from fatigue or stress, or any of the other multiple symptoms of stress. In fact, I felt as good as a day of pampering at the spa. At the end of each long day I went one step more and rewarded my tired body with some quality me time, winding down before bed every night. I felt great. No stress.

The 2-Step Summer Challenge

During these quiet moments of rest and relaxation I came up with the following idea. I want to throw you a challenge during the summer months. Give it a try for the next 2 months, July and August .

The challenge is in two parts:

During the first month put into practise the steps outlined above. Once you have mastered that (it takes 21 days to turn a new habit into a normal routine) move on to step two.

During the second month, spend one full day a week without looking at your phone. At all. If you really cannot survive without it, then just give yourself three windows of 5 minutes or less during the day, in the morning, lunchtime and evening to check for REAL emergencies (the life and death ones). I tend to do this one day at the weekend when most people won’t be working, will sleep late and when I do not have to keep looking at my watch but can just go with the natural flow of things. Believe me, in my experience even only just one day will do wonders to reduce your stress levels.

Regardless of whether or not you take a holiday, your stress, fatigue and lack of energy should significantly reduce. It isn’t as difficult as it seems. You’ll thank me later. What do you have to lose?

Enjoy the summer!

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