Work pressures, family commitments, traffic and 24/7 connectivity have filled our lives with daily stressors. Here’s how to unwind and regain control, plus the best foods to boost your mood and lose weight.
Being busy and having responsibilities and goals can be stimulating and positive — but when stress accumulates and isn’t managed well, it can affect your mental and physical health. Finding ways to understand and manage your stress proactively and constructively are the keys to you learning how to thrive under pressure.
What is stress?
Stress is our response – physical or emotional – to demands or ‘stressors’ in our environment. These can be challenges we face in our daily lives, such as a new role at work, having to confront a difficult problem, a close call on the motorway, or an argument with a colleague.
We’re designed to cope with a certain amount of stress – in fact, it can help us perform better in situations such as exams or meeting a deadline. But prolonged or intense stress is damaging.
Your body under stress
When you’re stressed, your body responds in a variety of ways. First, your muscles tense up. This reflex is designed to protect you against injury or pain. When stress hormones — adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol — are released, you breathe harder, your heart rate increases, and your blood vessels dilate.
Stress triggers a part of the brain called the hypothalamus to signal the nervous system and pituitary gland to release cortisol and another hormone, epinephrine. The result is that your liver produces more glucose. This glucose is to give you extra energy to get away from a worrying situation quickly. It’s released as part of our instinctual ‘fight or flight’ response to danger.
Stress can also affect your digestion, causing diarrhoea, constipation, and changes in which nutrients are absorbed by your intestine. Some people under stress experience changes of appetite, eating more or less than usual.
If it's not managed, chronic stress can be a drain on your body. It can increase your risk of hypertension, heart disease and stroke, and cause erectile dysfunction and impotence in men, and irregular or absent menstrual cycles in women.
How to cope better with stress
One way of coping with stress is to change your environment to remove stressors. This might mean a change of job or living situation. The second way is to cope differently with stress.
Talk to someone you trust
Whether it’s a family member, close friend or health professional, it’s essential to seek help when stress starts to build up. Set realistic goals. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Try to be a problem solver rather than someone looking for obstacles. Learn to say no to things or people that create extra stress.
Eat well and watch portion sizes
Often when stressed we crave instantly gratifying foods that are not really good for us — for example, chocolate or chips. Reach instead for carbohydrates that will release energy slowly — such as wholegrain breads, cereals and pasta, along with legumes, fruits and yoghurt. For a protein boost that gives you that ‘full’ feeling, choose lean meats, oily fish and eggs.
Exercise at least three times a week
Being active has many direct stress-busting benefits. It helps pump up the production of your feel-good neurotransmitters called endorphins. Exercise can also improve sleep, which is often disrupted by stress and anxiety. Plus, it gives you important ‘me’ time.
Cut back on coffee and alcohol
Too much caffeine can enhance feelings of stress and interfere with sleep. Remember that while an alcoholic drink can feel relaxing, drinking too much or too frequently can exacerbate feelings of stress.
Make friends with your workplace
Get up five or 10 minutes earlier so you're not rushed. Set aside time for dealing with emails. Spend a few minutes at day’s end preparing for the next day.
Try yoga or meditation. Take time out to have a massage, run a hot bath or listen to gentle music. Whatever you choose to do, do it regularly.
Get enough sleep
For a better night’s sleep, go to bed and get up at similar times. Switch all screens off before bed. Exercise in the morning and avoid caffeine post-3pm.
Go on – have a laugh!
Catch up with friends, go to a comedy show, watch a funny movie or just dance badly to great tunes.
Breathe to relieve stress
Sit on the floor with your legs easily crossed
Keep your spine tall but soft
Observe the hiss of your breath as you inhale and exhale
Exhale fully, but softly, using your abdominal muscles to empty your breath
Inhale long and deeply through your nose
Exhale fully, using your abdominal muscles once more to empty the breath
Repeat for 1 to 2 minutes.
The signs of too much stress
chest pains or rapid heartbeat
indigestion or stomach upsets
concentration or memory problems
loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed
muscle tension, neck or back pain or headaches
frequent sickness, such as cold, flu and stomach bugs
doing risky or careless things (excessive drinking, gambling, drug use)
changes in sleeping patterns (sleeping difficulties, sleeping too much)
feeling irritable, impatient or teary for no apparent reason
a persistent sad mood despite good things happening
isolation by avoiding people, places and events
finding it hard to make decisions
loss of appetite or overeating
If you experience any of these persistently, it could be time to see your GP.
Keep healthy when it’s hectic
It’s a catch-22. When life’s hectic, you really need to take care of your health — but you’re just too busy and stressed. Luckily, there is a way forward.
Schedule exercise time
When life’s busy, it’s easy to put exercise on the back burner. But when you exercise, your brain releases hormones that actually help you cope better with stress. So make sure you schedule exercise into your week. Think of it as your big must-keep appointment with wellbeing. And remember — something is better than nothing.
Prepare grab-and-go meals
There’s nothing better than opening the fridge and having something healthy and delicious looking back at you. A little bit of weekend food prep can save time during the week, giving you healthy weekday options when hunger strikes.
Practise deep breathing
It almost seems too good to be true that something as simple as breathing can reduce stress, but it can (see Breathe to relieve stress, above). Deep belly breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us de-stress and relax.
Slow-cook double dinners
Slow-cooker meals are incredibly convenient and easy — plus it’s always nice to walk in the door with dinner almost ready. If your mornings are busy, prepare the recipe at night and refrigerate; then pop it in the slow cooker in the morning. Make double the recipe and freeze half, so there’s always enough for two dinners.
Love your gut!
Evidence is emerging about the close relationship between gut health and mood disorders. Ongoing stress has a negative effect on the balance of the trillions of bacteria in your gut, where much of your body’s immune response occurs.
Animal and human trials have found that certain probiotics potentially help with anxiety. Probiotic foods contain live bacteria that add to your gut’s population of good bacteria, while prebiotic foods feed good bacteria so they can thrive.
cooked and cooled pasta or potatoes
pickled vegetables (naturally fermented)
yoghurt (with live cultures)
Help! I’m a stress eater
Eating and drinking to deal with emotions is incredibly common. While food or alcohol may make you feel better temporarily, too much can lead to weight gain.
Keep a food diary for a week or two. Highlight all the times you think stress makes you eat or drink something you don’t really need. Look for patterns. Identify the triggers.
ASK yourself these questions
Does the eating happen at a certain time of day?
Is it in a certain location (like kitchen, car or office)?
Do certain people or situations trigger you?
Once you’ve identified the triggers, you need to come up with non-eating ways to manage stress at these times.