Stress is so personal; from the cause to the way we manage it.
Often, rather than tuning into the root cause of our stresses and working to relieve them, we use various lifestyle choices in order to soothe them. Unfortunately, chronic stress can have a negative effect our body, mind, mood and digestion. Rather than allowing stress to drive certain lifestyle choices, consider ways in which you could make a beneficial change, to take control of your stresses before they bubble over.
A good place to start would be to ask yourself:
- What are the main things in your life that bring you stress?
- What do you do when you’re feeling stressed?
- Do you give yourself permission to relax?
A little bit of stress is a good thing, it provides us with the adrenaline we need to complete certain tasks. However, when we have chronic stress in our day to day lives it triggers our stress response and our body goes into fight or flight mode for survival.
Our stress response evolved a long time ago in order to help keep us safe. Think back to what may have caused us stress thousands of years ago.
Consider this scenario.
One of our ancestors is foraging for food and starts getting chased by a wild animal. Their stress response kicks in. Blood sugar pours into their body to help them to run faster. Their emotional brain goes into high alert, helping them to think fast and deal with the situation. Their blood becomes prone to clotting, helpful if the animal goes in for attack.
In this case, the stress response does its job! Once the human escapes, it is no longer needed.
Although it is highly unlikely for us to be in this scenario (!), an active stress response can still be a good thing. For example, triggering when feeling nervous about an important work presentation, it could helps us to get through the presentation performing as the best version of ourselves. As above, when the stress response is short term, it is beneficial!
However if our stress response is constantly activated, our body recognises we are in a state of panic and triggers the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline in the form of emergency fuel.
Our blood sugar and blood pressure then increases and our body remains in high alert. Unable to cope with the continuous high demands, our bodies become exhausted and burnt out. This consistent release of the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ can lower our immunity defences, making us more susceptible to illness.
Stress in the body can make us more prone to weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as well as increasing anxiety, making simple day to day challenges more problematic.
Ideally, we want to prevent getting to this stage, or at least find a way to relieve our stresses when they come to the surface.
Stress is individual
We all have different stress thresholds; different levels of stress that we can deal with.
Every day we face stressful situations, however sometimes when these build they can combine and create a much less manageable level of stress.
- Waking up late on a morning
- Checking your inbox and having new, important emails to reply to
- Burning your breakfast toast
- Running out of petrol on the way to work
- Hitting a road closure
In this instance, before you have even got to work, you have faced multiple stressful situations, meaning you are starting the working day closer to your personal stress threshold.
The build up of these small stresses can impact how you deal with what your day throws at you, for example, how you react to traffic, how you respond to work colleagues, the ability to make a level headed decision etc.
Tune into your personal stress threshold and try to take control. Considering the above scenario, by making a few changes to your morning routine or doing what you can the night before to organise the next day, may help you to avoid the overwhelm.
Stress and our diet
Coping with stress is different for everyone, however many people turn to food as a quick fix / escape method. It is more common to alter our dietary choices from the norm when we are feeling stressed, and we tend lack motivation to make nutritious, home cooked meals.
This isn’t a bad thing, however when we get into the habit of this and are consuming regular highly processed fast food it can become problematic.
Stress can affect our behaviour around food, how much we eat and the types of food we crave. As well as this it creates a perfect scenario for fat storage, being linked to increased weight around the stomach region.
When stressed we seek out more comfort foods - usually high in sugar, fat and salt. This type of food can be addictive and could cause eating behaviours which are more difficult to control.
Our stress levels can play a part in our dietary choices in the same way that our diet and the food we eat can make us feel more stressed.
Stress and our Gut
When we eat we are not only feeding ourselves, but the microbes that live in our gut. These microbes help to look after us in many different ways, including digesting our food and absorbing key nutrients. If we feed our microbes their preferred source of fuel (diverse fibre, mainly found in plant sources) the microbes in our gut send calm signals to the brain through the gut brain connection. However, if we consistently feed our gut microbes highly processed foods, these enable stress signals to be sent to the brain. ‘Good food’ really does equal good mood!
When we are stressed, we are more likely to make poor diet and lifestyle choices, seeking out comfort foods and craving caffeine and alcohol, too. This ongoing cycle leads to further disruption in the gut, making it more likely to become inflamed, and leaving us more likely to feel stressed. When consistent high stress preoccupies our body, our digestive system becomes almost secondary and, at times, unable to function. Think about when you’re feeling stressed, do your toilet habits change?
Managing stress can help us to see more clearly when it comes to diet and lifestyle choices. It can also work to balance the hormones related to appetite and weight gain. It is important to remember that managing stress is a really personal thing – like all things health; what works for one doesn’t always work for another. Experiment and find a tool which works for you.
Consider dietary choices:
Eat a wide variety of foods, prioritising colourful plants
When we eat on the go, or whilst otherwise engaged, we are not fully present. This makes it more likely for us to rush our food and not chew it properly. Rushing food could cause accidental overeating, as when we are busy we are less likely to realise we are full, but also the potential for bloating and digestive issues, causing stress in the gut.
No restriction, just nourishment
Does food cause you stress?
Sometimes, we associate certain foods under the categories of ‘bad’ or ‘good’. If we train our brain to fear certain foods or food groups, this can cause both inward and outward stress. Remember, moderation and balance is key. There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, food should not be associated with guilt or shame, but enjoyed as part of a healthy, varied diet.
Exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle and can help to reduce stress levels, so it’s great to get into a regular routine with this. However, over exercising or forcing yourself to take part in more high intensity workouts when you are feeling really tired will only cause more stress on your body. Consider which exercise feels best for you each day and remember to move mindfully. Sometimes missing a workout is more beneficial.
It is so important, yet more difficult to get into a healthy sleeping pattern when we feel stressed. Sleep is the foundation on which all other lifestyle factors sit. Tiredness causes lack of energy and productivity. When we sleep well, we are more likely to eat well, we feel less stressed and have more motivation to exercise. Prioritising sleep is key when working to manage stress and live a healthy lifestyle.
Living a fast paced life, often we fill our potential relaxation time with busyness, always forward thinking and considering what is next on our to do list rather than enjoying the present moment.
Tune into what makes you feel good; your self care ritual which helps you to relax. Prioritise it.
Whether it is meditation, yoga, a walk or a chat with a friend; book it in and make it happen. Chances are you’ll feel so much better afterwards, and the break from the stresses will help you to recharge, making it easier to tackle what’s next!
Before you start worrying, or feeling overwhelmed, think: is my worry in my control? If not, try your best to let it go. Tune into what you are finding stressful and limit access to this if you can. Organise your day in a way which will help you to feel good.
Try to look after those book ends of the day – morning and night. These regular routines will help you to start the day with a positive mindset and end it feeling relaxed and ready to sleep. Being consistent with routines could help you to feel a sense of security and control if things are becoming overwhelming and hard to manage.
Practice daily gratitude
Each day, consider the things you feel grateful for. You could do this alone, with your partner or as a family. It will help you to end the day on a positive note and remember that even if you’ve had a bad day, there has still been some good in it.
Get it all out!
Too much time on screens can affect our mood as well as make our mind a constantly busy place. Have some tech free time. Consider making your bedroom a no phone zone.
Moments of calm we used to have in our daily lives are being eroded due to fast paced life and a never ending to do list. Prioritise calm in every day and give yourself permission to relax.
Always consider the root cause of your stress – how can this be managed more effectively?