The Secret Weapon Guaranteed to Improve Your Mood and Stress Levels

This is the single most effective intervention for people plagued with a host of negative stress outcomes. It is also the simplest and most accessible.

The downside is that it is one of those annoying things that we know is good for us but we don’t do it. Or we do it a bit sometimes.

So really the thing itself is no secret at all. What is secret is how damned effective it is. Those who have it as part of their wellbeing arsenal know it well. They rely on it. They are devoted to it. No matter if their day is good or bad, it makes it better.

No drumroll required…yes, it is daily walking or equivalent exercise. But wait! Here’s where I try to let you in on the secret part.

This has little to do with improving your fitness or keeping your weight in check – although they are certainly benefits. It has more to do with the medical research finding that daily walking is as effective as antidepressants, in some respects more so.

Do it and you will be less prone to the negative impacts of stress. Your mood will benefit. You will feel better than you would have felt without it.

It will not solve all your problems but feeling better is guaranteed. In all my years of recommending it, whenever someone does it, it works.

And here’s a taste of why…

Top 10 reasons daily walking helps you master stress

1. The chemical lift

Walking will have a positive effect on your brain chemistry. It is a natural mood lifter.

2. Direct stress reduction

Exercise reduces your levels of stress hormones and counters other stress reactions in your body, for example it eases tension.

3. Better sleep, more energy

Regular physical exertion that gets your heart and lungs going will improve your sleep and energy levels.

4. A body that works better

You will improve mobility, metabolism and digestion. You can’t not feel better. Walking helps stabilise blood sugar levels…and your mood.

5. Less feeling stuck and negative

Staying active and walking daily whether you feel like it or not helps keep a stress-induced overactive right brain in check. High stress levels compromise left brain functions like problem solving and planning, leaving you more exposed to right brain negative emotions and feeling stuck.

In terms of negative thoughts and emotions (including hopelessness) a daily habit of exercise is helpful in prevention and recovery.

6. Awakened senses

Stress relegates you to worrying, rumination or numbness — when you are stressed your limbic system (the part of the brain associated with basic emotions like fear and anger) dominates and it’s difficult to get your pre-frontal cortex (aka the brain’s brain) online. Bring it back online by engaging your senses. [Tweet “Exercise…turn up the volume on your senses, drown out the stress vortex in your head.”]

7. Being reminded of nature — life, the universe and everything

A daily habit of walking is a powerful reminder that there is more to life. There is more to life than what is troubling you right now. And just as important, there is more than just the way you are feeling (or not feeling if numbness is your reaction).

Exercising outside is best because it exposes you to nature, even if it is just some trees or the weather. If you’re in the city the reminder might be more about humanity than nature but that works too. “Stress promotes self-absorption, getting out for a walk diminishes it.” The effect is one of decentering or detaching a little from the stressful world of our own head, relationships, workplace or online spaces. Get out for a walk and get out of it all.

8. A boost in self-esteem

You will not only feel better for walking daily, you will feel better about yourself. Research has shown a link between increased fitness and self-esteem but I’ve found there’s more to it.

Making regular exercise happen is a significant achievement for most us, with our over-stuffed, rapid-paced lives. It’s almost an act of defiance to drop everything no matter how stressful it may seem, and to take time out to walk. (If you’re suffering from a depressed mood, going for your walk will be even harder to make happen but equally, more beneficial.)

Doing something so positive for yourself, you can’t help but feel good about yourself. And so you should.

9. Retaining control and staying connected

When stress escalates it saps you of a sense of control. You feel like you’re losing your grip on life. Daily exercise provides the traction you need.

No matter what the day throws at you, sticking to your exercise schedule helps you dodge the blow. Or it at least blunts its force.

I’m sure you will be familiar with the fact that stress, and even more so depression, invites you to withdraw — from much of what you love most about life. A habit of exercise thwarts this effect and helps you stay connected. Yes, it’s good for your relationships too.

10. An almost magic catalyst for positive life change

Here’s the final secret about adding daily exercise to your wellbeing armoury.

It takes time and effort to establish the ritual, and probably several false starts. But once you’ve cracked it the rewards will follow, including some that are unexpected.

I’m not overstating it when I say that when people do this they start to do all sorts of other great stuff too. It’s like flicking a switch that has them think, ‘well if I can exercise regularly, I can do this too’.

Anything from quitting bad habits and cleaning up their diets, to skyrocketing their productivity, or rediscovering an old passion like writing, music, painting…their sex life!

Are you in?

Trouble Relaxing? Here’s the Answer…Even if You’re Plagued with Stress and Tension

You can’t rid your life of stress.

You can perhaps reduce it and learn to better manage it. But in varying degrees, stress is here to stay.

Part of dealing with it is looking after your body. It cannot withstand being under pressure for prolonged periods. You know your own body’s telltale signs of too much stress. Is it headaches? Heartburn? Constipation or irritable bowel? Bung neck or back?

I’m a big advocate of meditation and mindfulness as powerful tools to respond to stress and feel better in life. But as some of you have reminded me, at times and for some people meditative practices are a bridge too far.

It’s true. When you’re overwhelmed to the point that thinking clearly and sitting still are a challenge, meditation is not the immediate answer. Even if you’re not that stressed, it may be too damn hard to sit still and tune in when doing so is utterly foreign to you.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Here is the answer. You may be familiar with it. Certainly it’s been around since well before our time but don’t dismiss it too quickly. It is progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). It is simple and effective. You can learn or relearn to relax, or access your capacity to relax when stress has disabled it.

It takes little time and the gains can be immediate if you allow them. All that is required is your willingness.

Do it and you can ease the tension in your body and provide it with the relief it requires to go on functioning okay. Keep doing it and you become accustomed to the contrast between tension and relaxation throughout your body. You begin to notice tension spontaneously and can ease it.

And as an added bonus practicing PMR is an excellent interim step to meditation….should you decide at some point to take that now easier next step.

For now have a listen and give it a go – it works!

Intro PMR (2 minutes):

PMR Exercise (17 minutes):

How to Tame Your Anger

You might be surprised at how common it is to have a problem with anger.

Can you relate to any of these?

  • You snap with spite. Fiery emotion seems to come out of nowhere like an alien from within. You are fine one moment, possessed the next. And you hate this aspect of yourself.
  • You don’t show your anger often…but it’s there. The odd raging outburst when you get drunk, or an aggressive attack on an inanimate object. It’s scary to be a non-violent person transformed into one who kicks or throws something out of anger.
  • You wouldn’t say your problem is anger exactly. What pains you is more like a constant simmering frustration or boredom – this is a close relative of anger.
  • Your anger bypasses most other people and is directed inward, as a form of depression or self-loathing.

If you can relate to any of the above, you probably wish it could be different. You wonder what better anger management might look like, but you find it hard to believe that you can change. You’ve probably tried to change it, stop it, control it because of the consequences it has on others and yourself…but so far you’ve been unsuccessful. You may not think you can change it. But, regardless of your doubts…

Yes, you can become calmer!

The truth is things can change. You can change how you experience your anger and feel better.

And I am not talking just about “anger management” – techniques to better contain anger when it strikes. Nor am I referring to tricks to help you stay more calm.

I am talking about a deeper change where your relationship to anger actually shifts. Where it ceases to have dark and mysterious powers over you – instead it becomes a more straightforward and manageable emotion.

No matter how tight a grip anger has on you, you can loosen it.

It is possible to live without feeling hostage to wayward fury.

To not feel out of control when rage gets you in its grip.

To stop hating the angry side of yourself.

No there is no magic wand that you can wave to transform your anger. It takes time and concerted effort. But it is achievable.

As a therapist I have witnessed the process many times. Over time I have seen people’s anger demystified and diffused. The process is unique to the individual but the stages of change are common.

My own personal process of calming my angry edge also matches with what I’ve seen in others. As with most people, reinventing my anger is a work in progress but I’m much better off for the gains I’ve already made.

How anger is tamed

Here is a rough account of the stages people tend to experience as they progress to a calmer life – from a place where anger has too much power.

Stage 1: You begin to observe your angry reactions

You start to see patterns in what triggers your anger – and notice the early-warning signs.

For example:

You drag yourself out of bed, tired but glad it is Friday. You get the news that plans with someone for the coming evening are cancelled. You feel annoyed but say nothing.

As you rush to work you are preoccupied and agitated. Someone gets in your way and you feel yourself explode on the inside. You want to scream and lash out – and maybe you do.

You later reflect that being cut off on the way to work wasn’t the entire cause of your explosion. The earlier cancellation had lit the fuse.

Stage 2: You gain insight into your reactivity

You develop a better understanding of your sensitivities – beyond identifying triggers for your anger, you see how earlier incidents or moods prime you to react. You come to know yourself more fully.

For example:

You read an email request to reschedule a meeting. You send a reply then worry about how it will be received. You wonder if it was a bit abrupt, a bit passive aggressive.

You reflect on the incident. Had you paused before replying, you reckon you would have felt your jaw and fists clenching. Words would have come to mind like, ‘Typical! If I can make the effort to keep meetings why can’t they?’

You’re aware of your long history of feeling let down and you recognise this particular incident as fitting this theme.

Stage 3: Moment to moment you are more aware

You catch yourself and your reactions sooner, sometimes even in the moment. But you cannot yet stop them.

For example:

You’re out one night. You thought of going home earlier in the evening, but somehow you knew you were up for a bit of bender, needed to let off some steam. Anyway, stuff it. It’s been building all week – you feel peeved, let down…again, you want to scream but of course you don’t.

You kind of know you ought to go home…instead you have another drink.

This is a difficult stage. You know how your anger works and you can often see it coming but can’t do much about it.

Stage 4: When you do have an angry reaction it is less intense and your recovery is quicker than before

At times now, anger has less of a grip on you. The capacity to observe yourself, your feelings, states and moods, is creating a buffer between you and your reactions.

For example:

You are waiting for some friends and they are now 10 minutes late. You are annoyed and can feel yourself tensing up. This is such a familiar scenario, so infuriating. You expect a text any moment saying they’re on their way.

You imagine yourself biting your tongue when they turn up and biding your time until your annoyance dissipates. However, when they arrive you take a deep breath and comment on their predictable lateness, with a half smile. You feel okay quite soon after.

You were able to predict the situation and your reaction – seeing the moment for what it was took the heat out of it. It didn’t overwhelm you and you were able to behave differently. You expressed annoyance instead of swallowing it, and it passed quickly.

Stage 5: You have far more control in relation to your anger

You can respond rather than react.

For example:

There is a discussion you must have with your mother but don’t want to. You are ready for it though. You know what she will say and you don’t want to hear it but if you don’t call her she will call you.

It goes better than you thought. She says all the wrong things and it’s unpleasant but you don’t buy into it, you don’t react. You are angry and you tell her so.

You feel more in control – the call is upsetting but then it’s over and you’re okay.

Stage 6: Anger rarely gets the better of you

You no longer see anger as an ugly side of you. It arises in some situations understandably – but less than it used to, and most often you can deal with it. For example:

You find yourself in a meeting that is a waste of your time. Just as you expected, it is a lot of hot air from a bunch of grandstanders. You feel yourself raise your eyebrows at your manager, hoping she will step in and say something useful.

She doesn’t, but then you are not surprised. You ease back in your chair, thinking you only have to endure another 15 minutes. This thought calms you and you take a deep breath and decide you can sit it out.

What makes taming your anger possible?

There are a number of ways to explain the fact that you can tame your anger. Psychotherapy, mindfulness and neuroscience each spell out the theory in a slightly different way but with plenty of overlap.

Underpinning each, is a version of the idea that you can change from having automatic angry reactions to being able to act or respond with awareness.

You overcome automatic reactions by switching from auto-pilot to manual. You can do this by learning to:

  • control how and what you pay attention to
  • observe and think about what’s going on for you
  • describe your experiences without judging yourself
  • understand yourself in relation to your personal history and circumstances
  • gain perspective in relation to general human nature and experience.

You can develop these skills in therapy or via other methods like Mindfulness. You will gain perspective, awareness, self-kindness, emotional and attention regulation. And with these capabilities you can tame your anger.

Tips to get started

As with making any significant change, motivation and persistence go a long way. People are most often able to make change when they have hit a crisis point. But it doesn’t have to be the case.

You can choose to get started at any time. The sooner you do, the better you will feel.

  1. Get really clear on why you want things to be different. Is it to save your relationship? To stop hating yourself? For the sake of your children? Keep reminding yourself of the answer.
  2. The first breakthrough will come when you make your anger a research project. Try to notice every detail about it. When does it strike and how? What does it feel, look and sound like? If you want to get ahead, keep a journal or assign a few minutes each day to a mental review of anger – however it featured in your day.
  3. The second breakthrough will come when you stop beating up on yourself. Try to think about an angry reaction you had, without judging yourself. Imagine a friend having the same reaction you did and how you would try to be understanding and tell them to ease up on them-self. ‘You’re only human’, you might say. Try to extend this wisdom to yourself.

    You’ll have plenty of slip ups where your anger will get the better of you. But each time it does is another opportunity to observe! And observing is a new and different reaction that will dilute your anger, so stick with the program.

3 Quick Response Tools to Help Manage Stress, Anxiety & Strong Emotions

We all experience moments of overwhelming emotion or panic. Some of us, more often than we’d like. And possibly without having any tools ready to help manage such situations. Your heart is racing, you have an urge to yell and swing at someone, to run and hide, or perhaps you feel completely frozen.

It is not uncommon in this predicament to flee the scene. That might mean getting off the bus as soon as possible or excusing yourself from a meeting – maybe you try some self-talk, distraction or an urgent call to a friend. In the case of a first-timer experiencing a panic attack, it may well involve a trip to the hospital for fear of a heart attack.

Most likely the reality of your situation doesn’t warrant the panic or rage you’re experiencing. Your brain and body are primed for survival unnecessarily! But it feels like an unstoppable chain reaction.

If you are more experienced with these occurrences, you may know your early warning signs. You recognise it when you are on edge and at risk of ‘losing it’. But sometimes it’s only once you’ve been fully triggered into fight, flight or freeze mode, that it strikes you that you must do something to help yourself.

In any case, what can you do?

Manage anxiety and emotions

In the six-minute video I run through three exercises you can learn to use to help manage anxiety and overwhelming emotions. They can be used in a moment of high emotional arousal or when you feel on edge and want to prevent a further build up of stress.

Sensory engagement exercise

This exercise helps you turn your attention to your senses, for example noticing the heat of the sun on your back or the weight the bag in your hand, and so on.

Diaphragmatic breathing exercise

This requires you to place a hand on your belly ensuring that you feel your hand rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Breathe in for a count of three, hold for three, breathe out for three, and wait/do nothing for three.

Scanning for tension

Tune in to your body and find which muscles are tensing, commonly for example in the shoulders and jaw. Scan the whole body, notice tension and release it.

I go on to explain that while there is a component of relaxation in the exercises, the primary goal in each is to counter the fight, flight, freeze reaction that has been triggered in your brain and body. By tuning in as the exercises require, you are activating the brain and nervous system in ways that help you switch out of survival mode and back towards a calm state.

I suggest you try each and find which suits you best (A Mindfulness exercise is another alternative, see my previous article “The False Promise of Positive Thinking”, the 3 exercises towards the end to try). Use them also as a preventative measure. Practicing them throughout the day will reduce the build up of stress symptoms, and the likelihood of an anxiety attack, a fit of rage or flood of tears.

Make it a habit like brushing your teeth, morning and night. Or tie your chosen exercise to another daily incidental activity – do it in transit, while you’re in the lift or waiting to be served (The Beauty of Routine is relevant here). With regular practice, you’ll manage stress better and have ready tools when you need a quick response to panic or strong emotion.