April is stress awareness month in the US. So we thought that it was a good time to talk about the effects and management of stress over here, especially as it is exam season and even if you are not doing exams yourself, you may be supporting other people through them.
Although we are the most evolved creatures on the planet, we still react to stress as if we were cave-people.
When something happens that we see as a threat, changes are triggered in our bodies on many different levels: hormonal, neurochemical and electrochemical. This enables your body to respond by either fighting or fleeing the perceived threat.
These changes cascade into other physiological effects – increased heart rate and blood pressure, increases in breathing and muscle tension; digestive, immune and reproductive functions are slowed down since digesting food, fighting infection and sex are not a priority for your imminent survival. Now this is fine for a short time, if the threat is real and imminent, but periods of sustained stress are bad for us, causing a multitude of physical and mental health problems, along with unhelpful behaviours, relationship problems and reduction in focus and productivity decline.
So what can you do to help manage stress? Well you may not be able to get rid of your mortgage or easily change your boss, so it is more about equipping your body to be more resilient to stress and not adding to the stress that your body is under. Although we tend to take less care of ourselves when we are stressed it is precisely the time when we need to take more care. The better nourished you are, the more balanced your energy, mood and hormones are, the more robust you will feel in the face of stress. Our top tips are:
- Balance your blood sugar (protein with each meal and wholegrain carbs instead of white/processed carbs, more veg than fruit)
- Reduce stimulants (coffee, energy drinks, chocolate) – in the short term these may make you feel better but in the long run they tend to have a more negative effect
- Eat foods rich in magnesium and calcium. Magnesium is nature’s relaxer and is found in green leafy vegetables and whole grains. Calcium is found in sardines/seafood, sesame seeds, figs, leafy veg and eggs
- Eat vitamin C rich foods (berries, citrus fruit, broccoli)
- Eat vitamin B rich foods (whole grains, eggs, fish, leafy vegetables, nuts and pulses)
In those moments when you are feeling less stressed you can make batches of meals that are healthier and put them in the fridge or freezer for when you need a quick ready-made meal (that is also healthy). Make a list of any healthy convenience food you discover so that you are less likely to resort to junk food for snacks.
Take regular, but not too strenuous, exercise as this helps control cortisol – relax as much as you can so that less cortisol is produced.