Hacking happiness - tools to help you manage stress

Lili Free - 16 May 2022

May brings Mental Health Awareness Week – a good time to review your overall state of mind and look at ways to improve your stress levels. We look at how you can fast track a bit of joy and calm into your life!

When many us think of being happy, we possibly think of the good life; financial stability, a good job, nice home, our loved ones around us. But stress can come from anywhere – work, money, family issues, burnout, crises and emergencies…

Dealing with stress and stressful situations affects our health. But smaller things in life can bring happiness in unexpected places, and help to reduce stress.

It’s a bit like taking care of the pennies and the pounds taking care of themselves. If you can give yourself some stress-busting hacks on a small scale, you’ll be able to handle the big things better.

Exercise

Regular exercise is hugely beneficial to our mental health, and not just our physical health. It can help to reduce stress, anxiety, symptoms of depression, and help to boost self-esteem.

It’s not just the increased fitness and muscle and bone strength that gives you a boost, it’s lots of things. Better blood flow, improved breathing and cardiovascular function. The feelgood chemicals released by exercise – endorphins – give you a natural high, whilst exercise helps burn through some of the hormonal baddies that create stress, such as cortisol and adrenaline.

And let’s not forget the deservedly smug feeling that comes from actually doing it! Don’t underestimate how good that can make you feel.

It doesn’t have to be a full-on workout. Try small amounts of exercise:

• Start your day with stretches
• Try gentle exercise like yoga or tai chi
• Take a walk every morning or evening
• Ride a bike

Exercise also helps symptoms of depression and is a great way to boost your mood. Just try and make sure it’s something you enjoy. Maybe find a sport that interests you and start doing it regularly. Or look into the Meetup app, where there are always lots of group rambles and walks being organised. Some socialising won’t do your stress levels any harm either.

Good sleep health

Many of us dream of a decent night’s sleep (pun intended), and there are plenty of reasons why people struggle to get that. But it’s clear that good sleep habits can really help our mental health.

Lack of sleep can cause a great number of issues, including:

• Increased likelihood of experiencing anxiety, depression, or being suicidal
• Feeling lonely
• Feeling irritable and angry
• Struggle concentrating

Insomnia can be the devil, and is often more common as we get older. And sometimes you need a doctor’s help. But there are a number of things you can do to try and help yourself get the sleep you need.

• Try and go to bed and get up the same time every night, even when you’re not working
• Take an hour before bed to take time to wind down, ditch the screens and read a book
• Keep your bedroom cool, quiet, and dark
• If you have to nap in the day, try and limit it to 20 minutes
• Try meditation – not just to help sleep, but this can help all round with stress levels anyway

Eating to reduce stress

Of course, most of us know that a good diet keeps our bodies ticking over happily. But there are some specific foods that contain tryptophan, which is an amino acid that serotonin is synthesized from. Happy foods, quite literally.

Some foods that naturally have tryptophan in include:

• All nuts and seeds
• Turkey
• Tofu
• Pineapples
• Salmon
• Eggs
• Cheese

Find ways to include some of these in your diet, and try to eat a healthily. It can be hard, when you feel overwhelmed, or perhaps not even much like eating at all. But put some good fuel in your engine.

Spending time with friends and family

When we feel low, a lot of us feel like hiding away. But time spent catching up with friends and hanging out with people we care about can help overcome feelings of isolation, and help to reduce stress levels.

A study conducted suggests that social support from friends, family, or a spouse helps to lower stress, improve mood, and encourage positive health behaviours.

While some of us may and substitute face-to-face social interactions with social media, studies suggest that social media actually makes us lonelier.

The older we get, the harder it is to make friends but here’s a few ideas to expand your social circle:

• Join local voluntary groups
• Join local classes (and a good way to get some exercise)
• Reach out to old friends you’ve lost touch with
• Join a book club
• Join your local community garden
• Investigate the U3A – learn something new

And finally... furry friends

Even if you’re not keen on animals, you can’t argue with the benefits from them. Having a pet can help with:

• Increasing physical activity; dog owners are more likely to take their dogs out every day
• Companionship, as well as feeling needed and wanted, which helps those who live alone
• Can help to reduce anxiety
• Pets are great listeners, they offer unconditional love and can help boost your self-confidence
• Help with meeting new people, a great way to meet other pet owners

If you’re considering a dog or cat to have to reduce stress, it’s best not to get a puppy or kitten, and there are thousands of older animals in rescue centres that need forever homes. So perhaps that’s a good fit for both parties?! But if you don’t have a pet and you can’t get one, there are ways you can spend time with furry friends:

• Volunteer for your local animal shelter
• Put a shout out on social media asking if anyone needs pets walked/looked after
• Sign up to Borrow My Doggy


Finally – talking and meditating are two really important tools to have in your toolbox. Don’t keep things buried, talk to friends and loved ones. And take time out to quiet the busy mind.

There is also no shame in asking for help. Here are a few useful links if it’s all feeling a bit much right now…

MIND mental health charity – stress section
Anxiety UK – lots of groups and online resources
NHS – check your stress symptoms and get help
Stress Management Society – free workshops, understanding stress etc