It is 2 a.m. and I’m at my computer fighting a deadline. Again. I know too much stress is bad for me – who doesn’t? I’ve read how excessive stress sets off fight-or-flight alarms in my brain (the hypothalamus to be exact), which triggers my adrenal glands to release floods of adrenaline and cortisol. I know this hardwired response creates a burst of emergency energy that I really need right now, but it’s always followed by a crash. And I have scanned the research that shows how continuous stress, and the high cortisol levels that go with it, can cause hypertension, digestive problems, high cholesterol levels and a rundown immune system – all of which increases my risk of serious health problems, including obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart problems and possibly cancer.
None of this is news to me, one of the chronically stressed. I also know the answer isn’t more chocolate, yet another cup of coffee, or cutting back on sleep in a desperate bid to create more time to get things done.
So why, oh why – when I am well aware of the health hazards – don’t I stop the stress-inducing behaviour? Why do I keep repeating a pattern of bad choices that don’t work? I know what I should do to safeguard my health. It’s simple: eat well, sleep well and exercise. So why don’t I? I asked three experts for some badly needed advice and helpful tips for getting back on track. If I can do it, so can you.
Master the mind-body connection
Expert No. 1: Deepika Mittra, therapist and certified practitioner of mind-body medicine in Edmonton
INSIGHT: Smart people do stupid things under stress because we literally stop thinking rationally. Most of the time, our cerebral neocortex is in control, Mittra explains, directing us with rational, logical thoughts. But when we’re stressed, the primitive, instinctive amygdala takes over.
Or, in non-brainy terms, Mittra says we revert to the reactions of a screaming three-year-old. When we most need the support of mind over matter to pull us through, our brains desert us. We want to feel safe, we want comfort and pleasure – and we want it now! This answers the big question of why we make bad choice under stress, and fall back into harmful habits. Seeking instant gratification, we look for the quick fix, whether that’s overeating, overdrinking, overindulging or over-doing in general.
ACTION: Regain control of your hormone-driven brain by deliberately switching from mindless reactions to a state of mindfulness. Stop and breathe. Not the usual shallow, upper-chest breaths that we take, but deep and slow breathing from the abdomen. Concentrate on breathing in, slowly and deeply through your nose, hold for several seconds, then slowly exhale through your mouth. You should see your lower stomach rise and flatten as you breathe in and out.
There’s real science behind this, Mittra says. This breathing exercise stimulates the vagus nerve, which will lower your heart rate, your blood pressure, and your stress level. Now that your thinking brain is back in the driver’s seat, you can start thinking like an adult again and make healthy choices. “The beauty of this breathing technique is that you can do it anywhere, anytime, without anyone realizing what you’re doing,” says Mittra. “It can be your secret weapon for slaying the stress monster.”
Mittra also recommends taking mini-mental holidays through visualization by imagining yourself in a favourite place and taking mini-breaks throughout the day to stretch, move and breathe. The tech-minded can download a smartphone app called MyCalmBeat for feedback on personal breathing rates. Also, look for ongoing advice from Mittra. Visit her website, openingspaces.ca, and select Blog.
Understand that food is mood
Expert No. 2: Robin Anderson, registered dietitian at Revive Wellness
INSIGHT: Don’t blame your lack of will power. There’s a reason you crave cheesecake and chips under stress. Like Mittra, Anderson points out that stress affects our brains, increasing our desire for higher-fat and higher-sugar foods. When we’re stressed, the brain’s internal reward pathways tend to shut down, so it desperately looks for a replacement pleasure from foods we perceive as rewards or comfort food. The trick is to know that default is ready to take over when you’re under pressure. “Be pre-emptive and proactive,” says Anderson. “Plan and prepare!”
ACTION: You’re less likely to reach for a chocolate bar if temptation isn’t nearby and you have healthy options at hand, Anderson says. Clean out your environment by removing all junk foods that may trigger your desire to comfort yourself with food. Take the time to shop and restock with better options. But you don’t want to add to your stress by investing a lot of time and effort preparing a healthy meal.
Keep it simple, Anderson advises. Meals don’t have to be elaborate; eggs, toast and fruit are a quick, nutritious supper option in a time crunch, as is flavoured tuna with crackers and veggies. (Buy your veggies pre-prepped to save even more time.) Become a batch cooker. Make Sunday night cooking night and prepare a big batch of soup, stew or a large casserole. Then freeze in individual containers for a quick meal. Make a large salad with a simple vinaigrette dressing that keeps well, and even improves over time. For this, use ingredients such as shredded cabbage, grated carrots, lentils and beans. You can serve it over several days, adding tomatoes, crumbled cheese and fresh greens at the last minute. Tape recipes for your favourite “fall-back meals” that use ingredients you always have on hand, inside your cupboard doors for inspiration when you’re too tired to think. If you have kids, enlist their help in preparation.
“My kids were making salads when they were eight, which made the difference between whether we had a salad or not,” Anderson says. For more of her tips and recipes, see revivewellness.ca.
Move your body now and often
Expert No. 3: Chris Tse, fitness trainer at Blitz Conditioning
INSIGHT: Exercise is fantastic for stress relief, with the bonus of mood-boosting endorphins as a side effect. Yet people say they don’t have time to work out. Tse says doing something is always better than nothing, and if you’re making the switch from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one, start by focusing on small gains. “Ignore the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines that call for 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week,” Tse suggests. Moving from non-active to 150 minutes can seem daunting. “Just start, even if it’s only five minutes a day, or five minutes every couple of hours. You’ll get there, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
ACTION: Choose an activity you enjoy; you’re not going to do daily lanes if you hate swimming. Start where you’re comfortable, and then add progression. Tse finds that the difference between clients who succeed and those who don’t is motivation. He suggests keeping your motivation strong by using the buddy system. Or, put a modern twist on it and build an online support system by making your goals and progress public on Facebook or Twitter. Aim for functional, overall fitness rather than concentrating on an isolated part of your body. And ditch the no-time and bad-weather excuses by learning exercises you can do anywhere. Check out the Blitz Conditioning blog (under Workouts) for examples of no-equipment exercises, at-home step routines and simple strength-training lifts at blitzconditioning.com.