Stress levels that are both too low and too high can cause problems at different times of the day and in different situations.
It is important to first figure out if your stress level is too low, too high or just right for the situation that you are in.
The best way to figure out your stress level is to think of a scale from 0-10, where 0 is as relaxed and calm as you could possibly be, and 10 is as overwhelmed as you can be:
- If your stress level is between 0 and 2, you will probably not want to do much except for sit or lie there because you are so relaxed. It is great to have low arousal levels if you are in bed at night, as you are likely to feel sleepy and fall asleep quickly. You may also feel really calm and peaceful if you are lying around by the pool on holiday and don’t have anything that you have to do. However, it is less ideal if you are at work or home and need to get things done. You might feel apathetic, unmotivated, bored, flat or even a little sad or depressed if you want to achieve a goal during the day but your arousal level is too low.
- If your stress level is between 4 and 6, you are at the optimal level for feeling alert and focused and functioning well during the day. However, if they remain at a 6 once you go to bed, your brain may want to keep ticking over and thinking about things, and your body may not be as relaxed as it needs to be to feel comfortable, fall asleep quickly and remain asleep throughout the night.
- If your stress level is between 8 and a 10, you are in the danger zone, and it can be difficult to calm yourself down quickly or to think about anything except for the perceived threat or threats to your safety in your environment. At 10 you are probably having a panic attack and thinking that you are going crazy or that you are going to die. It is very hard to fall asleep if your brain thinks that you are in imminent danger, as we are at our most vulnerable to attack when we are asleep.
You then need to rate your stress level at the moment, between 0 and 10, based on the above scale.
If you are unable to put a number on your stress level immediately, ask yourself further questions, such as:
- How active is my brain right now?
- Are my thoughts calm (low stress), appearing at a comfortable pace (moderate), or racing (high stress)?
- Am I on the lookout for danger and focused on potential threats in my environment (high stress), able to concentrate on what I am doing (moderate) or daydreaming about nothing specific (low)?
- How tense is my body right now?
- Do I feel relaxed physically (low stress), comfortable (moderate) or tense (high stress)?
- Do I notice any other strong physical sensations right now?
- Is my chest pounding, heart racing, am I feeling hot or sweaty, feeling restless or irritable or needing to move around a lot, experiencing shortness of breath or rapid breathing (all signs of high stress)?
- Do I feel physically tired, flat, and have no energy or no motivation (all signs of low stress)?
- What do I feel emotionally?
- Do I feel calm, peaceful, bored, apathethic, sad or depressed (all signs of low stress)?
- Do I feel content, satisfied, or happy (moderate)?
- Do I feel excited, anxious, stressed, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed or panicky (all signs of high stress)?
Once you know your current stress level, you then need to determine what the optimal level of stress is for the current situation that you are in:
- If you are in a war zone, 7 or 8 is probably optimal,
- if you are at work, 5 or 6 is probably optimal,
- if you are wanting to chill and relax, either by yourself or with friends, 3 or 4 is probably optimal, and
- if you are in bed and wanting to sleep, 1 or 2 is probably optimal.
Now that you have your current stress level and your optimal level for the situation that you are in, you will know if you need to do something to increase or decrease it.
As you will see in the following section, there are many different lifestyles, personality factors and strategies that can increase or decrease our stress levels during the day and at night and when we are in bed.
What to do if your stress levels are too high and you want to reduce them
1. Do less during the day
Always being on the go and trying to be productive all the time increases our stress levels over time, which increases our cortisol levels, which increases our stress further.
Try to see if you can do less, by delegating more tasks to others, hiring others to do things you don’t like, asking for more help from your partner or children, or putting less important tasks off until later.
2. Lower your standards
The Pareto principle states that we can obtain 80% of the results we want with only 20% of the effort. This means that the last 20% takes 80% of the effort.
What would happen if you became okay with things being ‘good enough’ (80%) rather than ‘perfect’ (100%)? You could take the 80% effort that you normally put into trying to be perfect, and apply 20% to four other areas of your life. The result would be you achieve 80% of the results you want in five areas of your life in comparison to 100% of the results in one area of your life and 0% in the other four.
By choosing to drop your standards a little bit, you can get more done with less effort, which could also mean less stress, lower cortisol, and better sleep at night.
3. Take more breaks during the day
The Pomodoro technique has been found to be one of the most productive ways to study. It involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, then taking a five-minute break, and then repeating the process.
Humans are not designed to concentrate on the one thing for hour after hour, yet work schedules are often set up where people work for 3.5 hours straight, eat lunch at their desk while they continue to work for an hour, then work for another 3.5 hours straight. People do this because they think they are too busy and cannot afford the time to stop, take a break, rest or relax. But what happens if these rest periods actually made us more productive?
When I worked night shift at the supermarket, we got two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute break in an 8-hour shift, and we got paid to take all of these breaks. Maybe they were just being nice, but I think Woolworths realised that staff morale and productivity remained much higher with breaks happening at least every 2 hours.
Try it and see for yourself if you feel better after a week of taking more regular breaks and actually getting away from the desk or out of your office during this time.
4. Problem solve if something is worrying you or causing you stress
If you are feeling stressed about something, it helps to write down what is bothering you and a plan to address it if there is something that you can do.
People often fall into the trap of procrastinating or putting off doing something that would help them to feel a lot less stressed once it was done. If you are worried about your late tax return, playing video games might help distract you from thinking about the issue, but actually getting it done is going to feel much better. Fortunately, writing down a plan can provide us nearly the same amount of relief as actually doing the task, as long as we write down what we need to do, what the first action is that we need to take, and exactly when we are going to take it.
People also fall into the trap of worrying about or trying to change things that are out of their control. You cannot change other people or what has been done in the past, but you can accept these things, learn from what has happened, and choose what you want to do about it going forward. By writing this plan down, you will feel less stressed and have a much quieter mind than if you kept trying to change something that you have no control over.
5. Learn how to meditate
Mindfulness meditation is probably the most popular form of meditation at the moment. It involves paying attention to whatever is going on in the moment in an open, non-judgmental, non-striving, patient and accepting manner.
Apps like Smiling Mind, Calm and Headspace are great for teaching mindfulness mediation and giving you some techniques to observe what is happening in your body, in your mind, and in the environment around you without trying to change anything. There are other meditation apps that I have been told are good but I haven’t tried yet, including 10% Happier, Waking Up, Buddhify and Insight Timer.
There are others forms of meditation out there too, including transcendental meditation, Vippassana meditation and Metta meditation. Try a few different ones, see which one is the best fit for you and your lifestyle, and then try to incorporate it on a daily basis if you want to see what the long-term benefits may be for you.
Even 10 minutes of meditation a day, done either in the morning or at night, can make a big difference to people’s stress, anxiety, sleep, mood, concentration and pain, and help people to better regulate their emotional lives in general and not get caught up in as many unhelpful thoughts.
6. Learn relaxation strategies
This might be grounding, deep abdominal breathing, square breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or imagery.
Find a relaxation strategy that helps you to regularly lower your stress levels, and then practice it regularly throughout the day whenever you realise your stress is higher than you would like it to be for the situation that you are in and the task that you want to do.
7. Learn cognitive restructuring skills
If you notice yourself worrying about something or feeling too stressed, try to identify what you are thinking, then ask yourself if these thoughts are realistic or helpful for you to be thinking about in that moment. If they are not realistic or helpful, ask yourself what is a more realistic or helpful way to think about the situation, and try to remind yourself of this if your initial thoughts occur again.
If the more helpful way of thinking doesn’t change how stressed you feel, ask yourself what is most important to you in the moment, and try to change your focus to this.
8. Engage in other tasks that you find relaxing and enjoyable during the day
This might be a massage, doing something creative, being out in nature, playing a game, engaging in sport, exercise or a hobby, doing some yoga or pilates, listening to music, having a spa, sauna, steam or hot bath, reading, listening to music, watching a movie or favourite TV show.
Doing things that give us a sense of meaning, pleasure, engagement, connection or achievement can improve our overall sense of well-being, which can increase our happiness and reduce our stress levels.
9. Spend time with friends, family or people that you feel calm around and accepted for who you are
Help someone out, volunteer, do a random act of kindness, or express gratitude to someone that is important to you.
Try not to take the important people in your life for granted, and really try to remain present and connect with whoever it is that you are talking to or spending time with.
Relationship warmth is the number one predictor of long-term health and happiness, and people do tend to feel less stressed when they have shared a concern with someone who actively listens and tries to understand what they are going through.
If you have no one in your life currently who can provide this for you, seeing a qualified therapist or psychologist can also help. It definitely did for me personally, as well as for many others.
10. Dedicate time for winding down before sleep each night
The last few hours before bed should not be for excessively demanding physical or cognitive tasks. If you have to finish off work, try to stop it at least an hour before bed, and focus on winding down and preparing your mind and body for sleep instead.
This winding down time is ideal for practicing the relaxation or meditation exercises that you have already learnt. You might also want to journal during this time, and reflect on 3 things that went well for you during the day or that you appreciated.
You can also listen to relaxing music, dim the lights, light some nice smelling and non-toxic candles, talk with friends or loved ones that you feel calm around, read a book or listen to a podcast or audiobook.
Anything that helps to lower your stress levels and doesn’t result in you using bright screens or being too physically active. Sex is one exception to this rule, and often helps people to feel more relaxed and sleepy afterwards, so don’t try to cut this out of your pre-sleep routine if it typically helps you.
11. Minimize your use of caffeine, alcohol or sleeping pills
Although these substances can sometimes help in the short-term, in the long-run they increase our stress levels and make it harder to function well during the day (caffeine) or sleep well at night (alcohol). They can also make us dependent on them (sleeping pills), where we feel that we can no longer sleep without them or need to keep taking bigger and bigger doses to get the same effect.
It is much better to learn other strategies to wind down apart from sleeping pills or alcohol, and other strategies to energize us apart from caffeine.
What to do if your stress levels are too low and you want to be more productive and function better:
1. Clarify your top five signature strengths and put these into action more
You can find out your strengths by going to www.viacharacter.org and taking the free survey.
Once you have your top five signature strengths, set some goals to apply them more on a daily or a weekly basis, and see if it improves your energy and mood.
2. Make a to-do-list for the day and prioritise which tasks you need to do first
Making plans and ticking things off our to-do-list can reduce our stress levels if they are too high, but making to-do lists and focusing on our priorities can also increase our energy and focus if we are feeling unmotivated, bored or apathetic.
By achieving the first priority on our to-do-list, we then get a rush of dopamine, which encourages us to move onto the next task and achieve something else too.
3. Set some sub-goals or targets with whatever task you are trying to do
If you want to do something that seems like too much hard effort, make it a smaller goal, or just focus on the first step.
The five minute walk that you do is better than the 5km run that you don’t do, so break whatever goal you have down into a small and realistic task, especially if you are feeling flat or depressed.
Often getting started is the hardest part, and once we get started it is then easier to keep the momentum going towards achieving your overall goal.
You can also give yourself a target, such as I will write 200 words over the next hour. This will give you something to aim for or challenge yourself with, and can make it a bit more fun.
4. Try activity bundling, pairing a less enjoyable task with a more enjoyable task
If there is something that you don’t like to do, pair it with something that you really enjoy to make it more bearable. This might be listening to energetic music while you are exercising or doing housework, or catching up with your extended family at your favourite restaurant.
I don’t like ironing, but I do enjoy binge-watching a good series on Netflix sometimes. If I spend a Sunday afternoon once a month ironing all my clothes that need ironing while binge watching a show that I want to catch up on, I can look forward to it instead of detest doing it. My ironing also gets done whenever I need to do it now, instead of being something that I continually put off.
5. Determine a reward for yourself if you complete what you need to do by a certain time, or create a negative consequence if you do not complete your task
You’ve already set yourself some goals or targets in the earlier steps. Now make yourself more likely to implement them or stick to them by increasing the stakes.
Let’s say you really want to see the new Marvel movie, and you know it is playing at 6pm. Tell yourself that as soon as you complete your to-do-list you can relax for the rest of the day and go to the movie that night (reward). If the to-do-list isn’t finished by 5:30pm, then you have to stay at work until it is done, and you can’t go to the movie that night (deterrent, or negative consequence).
Upping the stakes will increase your motivation and focus, especially as you get closer to the deadline. You just have to make sure that you follow through on the rewards and consequences for them to remain effective for you in similar situations going forward.
6. Drink coffee or eat simple carbohydrates with a high glycaemic index for a short-term energy boost
Need an instant hit of energy? Our brain runs on glucose, so anything that increases our blood sugar quickly will give you a quick boost if that is what you need to get started on something.
An energy drink or chocolate usually does the trick for me, but beware of the subsequent crash that will inevitably happen. It’s also not good for our long-term stress levels or overall health to rely too much on sugary products or caffeine for energy.
7. Eat protein, healthy fats or complex carbs with lots of fibre and a low glycaemic index for more sustained energy throughout the day
Tea is considered by a lot of people to be a healthier alternative to coffee, as it gives you less of a high and more sustained energy. Green tea is especially good, as long as you don’t have it with sugar.
Eggs, avocados, nuts, other fruits, and especially vegetables are great for sustained energy throughout the day, so eating these for your main meals or snacks will help.
If you are concerned that what you are eating is contributing to your low mood, low energy and reduced motivation during the day, make an appointment to see a nutritionist, and ask them to give you a meal plan to improve and sustain your energy throughout the day.
8. Drink enough water
Telling people to drink 8 cups of water a day is potentially more useless than telling people to get 8 hours of sleep every night. Your ideal water intake will differ massively depending on how hot it is where you live, how humid it is, how active you are, and how much you sweat. If it is hot and humid and you have been sweating a lot, you will need to drink a lot more water than if it is cold and you have been sedentary all day.
If your pee is clear, you are hydrated enough. If it is yellow or dark yellow, you are likely to be dehydrated. If your mouth is also dry or you are getting headaches or feeling tired or finding it difficult to concentrate, you are probably too dehydrated and should drink more water than you usually do over the next 24 hours. If these symptoms go away by tomorrow after you do this, your know that dehydration was the cause.
9. Take regular breaks
Taking a break can lower our stress levels further, so don’t do this if you have just begun a task or started doing something. It is only likely to increase your energy and motivation if you have already been working on the one task for too long.
Don’t keep working on the same task for anymore than two hours unless you are completely immersed in it and fully engaged still. As long as it has been at least 25 minutes, stop once you start to feel bored or tired or you are losing focus, and change your task or take a 10-15 minute break.
You will know if time on task is the reason for your low energy as soon as you begin the new task or get back to what you were doing after the break.
10. Get out into nature (or at least look at it)
Too much time indoors or in unnatural environments such as a town or a city is not good for us. It can lead to you feeling both too stressed and uninspired.
If you have a park, nature reserve, lake or beach close by, go there if you’re feeling flat, and see if how you feel changes after 20-30 minutes. For most people they can feel a lot calmer, happier, more present and more creative after a short nature break.
Patients in hospital with a nice scenic view have even been found to recover quicker than patients without a natural environment to look at, so even looking out a window if you have a nice view of greenery during your lunchtime or break from work is better than staring at your computer screen the whole time.
11. Remain physically active or do some exercise
In ‘Brain Rules’, the author John Medina said hunter-gatherers regularly walked 10-12 miles (16-20km) a day, and this is what is optimal for our brains and bodies.
If you are feeling apathetic or depressed, get out there and go for a walk or a swim, go dancing, go to the gym, take an aerobics class or play a sport.
Exercising for only 30 minutes five times a week has been found to be just as effective or more effective than antidepressants at improving mood, so start moving more, and see if this makes a difference for you.
I hope you find some of these strategies helpful. They are from an upcoming book that I am writing on sleep. I look forward to sharing it with you all once it is finished!
Dr Damon Ashworth