Date posted: 27/05/2024 5 min read

Self-care tips to manage stress

Feeling under pressure at work? Acuity spoke to wellness experts for 10 practical tips to help you avoid burnout and thrive during this busy time.

By Sonakshi Babbar


  • 1. Recognise the symptoms

    When working as a financial advisor, Amanda Balcombe, a certified health and mental health coach at Still Wellness, experienced symptoms of burnout. It was a wake-up call for her to prioritise self care.

    “I loved my job but I went from being a top performer to dreading going to work,” Balcombe says. “I started feeling exhausted and waking up fatigued after a good night’s sleep; I was bursting into tears before work and that just wasn’t me.”

    Sometimes you may not realise the toll extended, high levels of stress have on your performance. Simple tasks start taking longer, you become cynical and irritable and may find yourself grappling with planning and decision making.

    “Recognising these signs of chronic stress and burnout at an individual level is the first step towards self-care and prevention,” she says.

  • 2. Work in 90-minute cycles

    Sleep scientist Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that our bodies follow a consistent pattern when we are awake. Typically, these daily ultradian cycles consist of alternating phases of heightened brain activity lasting approximately 90 minutes, followed by periods of lower-frequency brain function lasting around 20 minutes.

    According to Balcombe, the most efficient approach to work is embracing the 90:20 rule that enhances performance and protects against burnout. “When you build in regular breaks after a focus session, it replenishes your mental resources, and enhances your energy and focus,” Balcombe says.

    “Activities like taking a walk around the block, enjoying a healthy snack or simply pausing for a drink break all contribute to rest and recovery throughout the day,” she says.

  • 3. Practice mindfulness and meditation

    Cheryl Bowie, founding director of executive and leadership coaching consultancy Mind Coach, says mindfulness techniques and breath work play an important role in alleviating burnout.

    “I began practising meditation at 18 to manage my Crohn’s disease,” Bowie says. “Back then, research was scarce, but today, the benefits of meditation are well documented with studies showing that just 10 minutes a day can give full benefits.”

    Breath work (see below) is a great way to reset and regulate the nervous system, shifting us away from the grip of stress, Bowie says. You can start with brief sessions and gradually build up to 10 minutes daily.

    “I once had a client who worried over ‘doing it right’ and battling wandering thoughts during meditation,” she says. “The key is to refrain from judgement and rules.”

  • 4. Watch what you eat and drink

    To stay at their high-performance level, Bowie says, people often drink six or seven cups of coffee a day, which is just adding more fuel to the fire for a nervous system that’s already experiencing stress.

    “When it comes to prioritising your body’s wellbeing, addressing your relationships with coffee and alcohol is probably where I would start in terms of actually helping you to look after your body. Even though alcohol feels like a relaxant, it’s a stimulant,” Bowie says.

    Adding supplements can also help, she says. “Magnesium is an effective support for the nervous system, while vitamin B plays a crucial role in stress reduction.”

  • 5. Choose recovery exercises

    High-intensity exercise or marathons work well when you are experiencing positive stress. But if you are feeling chronic, negative stress, then gentle recovery exercises are more helpful.

    “If you are feeling fatigued and moving into negative stress, high-intensity workout is not what you need because it stresses your body and exhausts you more,” Bowie says.

    “A high-intensity workout in the evening can also negatively impact your quality of sleep and your recovery,” Balcombe adds.

    For stress the best exercises are slower physical activities like yoga, tai chi, Pilates, walking in nature and swimming because they help to regulate the nervous system.

  • 6. Set boundaries at work

    One of the main factors fuelling burnout is our inability to switch off. We are accessible 24/7 and don’t distinguish between work and personal life.

    Setting a dividing line is a great buffer against burnout, Balcombe says. “You can set boundaries when you get clarity on what truly matters.”

    Clearly communicating your boundaries to colleagues and supervisors makes sure they understand and respect your limits. If you work flexible hours, adding your work days and hours to your email signature will help manage expectations, as will a message explaining not to expect a response outside of your working hours.

  • 7. Take breaks and time off

    Stress is a normal part of being human. “Throughout the day, we experience stress activation, but what often goes unnoticed is the absence of adequate recovery,” Balcombe says. “We don’t give ourselves permission or the space to rest and recover because we’re so conditioned to just keep going.”

    Building micro-breaks (from five seconds to five minutes) into our day becomes super important because they compensate for the stress and help you recover, Balcombe says. You could listen to your favourite song, do stretches, a Wordle or a short puzzle.

    Equally important is taking longer holiday leave from work to fully unwind and recover from the pressures of daily life.

  • 8. Schedule time for fun

    Too often, Balcombe says, we get caught up in our busy lives and don’t make time for friends and family. It can feel easy to crash out on the sofa every evening and spend the weekend at home recovering from a busy week. However, social interactions and doing things you enjoy can reduce stress and build your resilience.

    In the same way you diarise meetings and deadlines, schedule time to meet friends, have a family day out or do a hobby.

    You may find you benefit from activities like puzzles, that occupy your mind and take your thoughts away from work. Activities that involve repetitive motion like knitting, woodworking, adult colouring-in books, or playing an instrument can act almost like meditation.

  • 9. Reconnect with nature

    Spending time in nature has proven benefits for mental health and helps to ground us.

    Being surrounded by nature helps to restore balance and harmony within yourself, Bowie says. Engaging in activities like hiking, camping or gardening can serve as mindfulness exercises, allowing us to be fully present and free from the stresses of daily life.

    “Gardening is a form of mindfulness exercise,” says Bowie. “I don’t tend to think about work or other things when I’m gardening and it can also offer the added reward of nutritious food that is not only beneficial for our bodies but also deeply fulfilling.”

    So, step outside, feel the earth beneath your feet, the wind in your hair and let nature rejuvenate your mind.

  • 10. Seek support at work

    If you start feeling emotional or irritable in a way that’s normally not your personality, or you seem to be getting sick a lot, you should try to seek support within your workplace, Balcombe says.

    “Initiating a conversation with a trusted colleague, manager or HR representative can help you feel better,” she says. “Additionally, you could consider taking professional help from a therapist or a coach to give you practical strategies to manage stress.”

    Remember, seeking support is not a sign of weakness but a proactive step towards prioritising your wellbeing.

Three simple breath-work exercises to lower stress

Stress can trigger your sympathetic nervous system, leading to shallow breathing, tense shoulders and increased blood pressure, among other symptoms. Try these three breath-work exercises to break the cycle.

Exercise 1: Diaphragm breathing

  • If you are using your diaphragm to breathe, your chest should stay relatively still and your lower stomach should move out, then in. You can place a hand on your chest and on your stomach to monitor that movement.
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, allowing your stomach to expand. Then, tighten your stomach muscles as you breathe out slowly through your mouth. Repeat five to 10 times.

Exercise 2: Box breathing

  • Inhale through your nose for a slow count of four, hold your breath for a slow count of seven, and exhale through your mouth for a slow count of eight.
  • Repeat three to seven times.
  • If the counts feel too long, adjust them to what feels comfortable for you on any given day.

Exercise 3: Alternate-nostril breathing

  • Use your finger or thumb to push your left nostril closed. Inhale through your right nostril. Hold your breath for a few seconds. Now, press your right nostril closed and exhale through your left nostril.
  • Repeat five to 10 times.

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