As we find ourselves in this surreal lockdown situation, with all the uncertainty in the world, not knowing what’s going to happen from one day to the next, it is going to take a toll on our Mental Health.

Stress is the body’s reaction to a threat, and anxiety is the body’s reaction to the stress. Stress can have many different drivers but a major factor can be the brain’s primary function, that of survival. Part of that survival role is the ability of prediction. The brain is constantly making predictions about both our internal and external environments, every microsecond of every day.

Enter a worldwide virus that affects every aspect of our lives which you have no control over, and that prediction ability is now compromised, leading to uncertainty. The brain doesn’t like uncertainty, and perceives this as a threat and heightens the activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System, our alarm fight or flight system. Our body is regulated by the Autonomic Nervous System, and this system is always on. Like everything in nature, a balance (homeostasis) is required and it’s the Autonomic Nervous System’s job to balance out our physiology between stressful and calm states of being. 

We have two distinct branches of the autonomic nervous system:

Parasympathetic State: Rest and Digest. This is when we are calm and at rest. Where we need to be most of the time.

Sympathetic State: This is our fight or flight response, which is when we are in a state of threat (stress). Now not all stress is bad. The problem arises when we are in heightened states of stress for long periods of time. Stress is crucial for your body’s  normal functions, in controlled amounts it helps with a whole host of functions in the body. It helps with keeping our mind focused, helps us to learn, wakes us up in the morning as part of the Circadian rhythm cycle and drives adaption in the gym with fitness, strength and hypertrophy amongst other functions.

However we do not want to live in a sympathetic state. We want to enter into it when we need to, when we train for example, then immediately get out and return to a parasympathetic state when we are finished.

In today’s world, more so than ever experienced before, we are exposed to constant stress, the issue is that we spend too much time in a sympathetic state. Now, what defines stress? Anything and everything! In reality it all depends on you.

Examples include:

Lack of sleep

Financial worries


Relationship issues

Poor quality food

Smoking, alcohol and drugs

Social media

The News

Constant exposure to blue light devices

Environmental pollutants/toxins




Home schooling

Body image



Mood swings

Long hours indoors

In the world we live in today, our stress is vastly different. It is less physical, and much more emotional. Every day we encounter small stresses from our partners, colleagues, boss, social media, environment and basically anything else. Every time these small stresses occur, the body believes we are in danger.

Get your body into a Parasympathetic State!!

This is where we want to be ‘living’. Below are some tips I use with my clients to help manage their stress levels

1. Sleep

Sleep is the most bang-for-your-buck tool to decrease stress and promote recovery. Most people, a) don’t sleep enough and/ or, b) have poor quality sleep.

One of the reasons people have so much trouble with sleep is the inability to simply “switch off”.

Here we need to create an evening with some structure to help us get into a parasympathetic state.

Step 1 @ 8pm Turn off your smartphone/laptop/electronic tablet.  This is hard for a lot of people, but it is a crucial step to reclaiming your sleep back. Phones and laptops have blue lights on their screens. Blue light signals to your brain that it is day time, which turns down melatonin production. Melatonin is the key hormone that regulates our sleep, and starts secreting into our system around 9pm, so we don’t want to turn it off.

Step 2 According to 2009 study at the University of Sussex, 6 minutes of reading each day can reduce a person’s stress levels by 68%, thereby helping individuals clear their minds and minimise bodily tension. For this reason, I advocate reading a book in bed until your eyes feel heavy.

Step 3 Nose breathe. Finish with a couple of minutes of nose breathing. When you breathe through your nose you produce a molecule called Nitric Oxide. Nitric Oxide is a Vasodilator and helps decreases blood pressure and heightens the parasympathetic nervous system. Rest and digest.

Step 4 Aim to go to bed and get up at the same time. Keep to a routine. As already mentioned, the brain likes predictability.

2. Morning sunlight

Seeing the natural light of the sun helps the brain work better. We’re not talking about staring at the sun, but allowing the eyes to be exposed to natural outdoor light free from contact lenses, sunglasses and windows etc. The free Vitamin D you get from sunlight, has powerful effects throughout the body, notably on the immune system. The sun also unlocks the brain’s natural pharmacy which helps the nervous system, hormonal regulation (happy hormones), muscle function and Circadian Rhythm (sleep).

3. Forest Bathing

Research has shown exposure to the natural environment is highly beneficial to human health, especially Mental Health. When taking a walk through woodland you breathe in the naturally occurring chemicals produced mainly by trees but also plants. These natural chemicals have been shown to have a direct physiological effect on the body which have a calming and mood elevating effect.

4. Take time to Breathe

Our Autonomic Nervous System regulates the rate we breathe. That means it just automatically happens under our unconscious awareness. We don’t think too much about it. When calm and relaxed we generally take 9-15 breaths per minute. However, if we are feeling stressed, anxious or scared, you will become very aware of your breathing and your breathing rate will increase.  Again, this is your threat response activating your Sympathetic Nervous System. By simply taking turns in blocking one nostril and breathing in through the other at roughly a 5 second inhalation and then breathing out through pursed lips at a 10-15 second exhalation you will help to balance out your stress and calm systems. Try this for 5-8 minutes spread out through the day.

5. Fasted morning slow steady state cardio

Not all cardio will have the the same effect on the body. HIIT or interval sessions are fun and a great tool to use for increased levels of fitness, etc. but ultimately causes a stress response in order for the body to adapt and get fitter.

If we are trying to keep our stress levels down, this type of training will just add to an already highly stressed state and should be kept to once or twice a week. I have found morning steady state cardio to be brilliant for the management of stress. Steady state is determined at an intensity level you could maintain a conversation. I usually program 3-5 morning sessions per week, each lasting between 20-30 minutes.

Here’s why:  the brain lives on aerobic respiration, and therefore promotes brain growth (oxygen); it up regulates happy hormones (neurotransmitters) in balance with the stress ones; helps protect against the corrosive effects on the brain from cortisol (stress hormone); it balances neurotransmitters (hormones) in the brain that promote focus; it regulates all the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants, thus waking the brain and improving self-esteem. You feel awake and ready to rock on with your day.

I prefer to do this in the morning on an empty stomach because of the anti-inflammatory effect fasting has. During a fasted state, the central nervous system and immune system activates its regeneration phase, reduces oxidative stress (inflammation) and improves mitochondrial function (energy levels), amongst other benefits.

These are just some of the strategies I use. The biggest take home is to keep to a routine, get outside in the sun and amongst nature, move more, move in novel ways (mobility, yoga, learn to handstand, etc.) make time to spend more time with loved ones, listen to music and watch your favourite funny films. Smile!

Author Daryl Fitches

Holistic Strength Coach/Therapist

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