The Secrets of Stress
For most of us, stress seems unavoidable. There are tools, however, to
help ensure that it doesn’t dominate our lives.
by Eric Schneider
Death and taxes—nothing else, it’s been said, is certain. In the hectic 21st century, however, it’s tempting to add another factor to the list of the utterly unavoidable—stress.
In some cases, stress can be a positive, motivating us to take care of chores that have been left undone or giving us that extra push to help complete a challenging task. More often, however, stress can lead to anxiety, depression and other unpleasant states, becoming a lingering presence that takes its toll on the body and the mind.
Rachael F. Heller, MA, MPh, PhD, a Florida-based researcher and psychologist, has spent years investigating the connections between stress and diet with her husband, Richard Heller, resulting in The Stress-Eating Cure (Rodale). Heller defines stress eating as “a desire for food that is often undeniable and, in many cases, occurs even when you have no need for the food. It comes as a result of hormonal imbalances that come, in themselves, from a reaction to the environment.”
Stress-induced hunger, which often appears as cravings, can be triggered by overwhelming responsibilities, lack of sleep, the need for a reward and the loss of a loved one, as well as environmental factors such as noise, chaos and excessive heat or cold. Many drugs, Heller adds, can lead to the hormonal imbalances that can provoke stress eating.
“The problem with stress eating is it often becomes a cycle, so that the food you’re eating, the way that you are eating it and the way your body reacts to that food creates stress in itself,” says Heller.
“Now you have a cycle where the stress eating makes you feel more stressed, either because you’re unhappy about the weight you’re gaining or because, physically, the kinds of food you’re eating your body can’t handle.” This means that stress is only a trigger. “A fight with your lover may start the process off,” Heller says, “but the ice cream you’ve just downed will keep it going.”
A Call for Balance
Stress eaters can continue to enjoy their comfort foods, that is, the foods they crave, while alleviating stress and pursuing a healthier regimen. The key to making this effective is having those comfort foods—chocolate, ice cream, etc.—only once a day as part of a well-balanced meal. Then by consuming what Heller calls “balancing foods”—natural foods such as fruits and vegetables—for the rest of the day, the stress eater’s hormonal system has a chance to even out, allowing them to break the cycle.
“Fifty years ago, parents were saying, ‘Have your dessert, but first eat your meal.’ They were absolutely right,” Heller says.
While much of the Hellers’ solution focuses on nutrition, the couple recommends a number of other stress-reduction methods. One surprisingly simple suggestion is warm water. Heller says, “Warm water on your wrists has been shown to have incredible changes in your hormone level. Just a brief period of running warm water on the inside of your wrists can bring out an experience of pleasure and, with it, the hormonal balance that helps you break that stress.”
Heller also recommends “morning mattress isometrics,” warm-up stretches that can be done in bed. One example: While lying on your back with your head on a pillow, push the sole of one foot away from you and pull the opposite hip toward you (tips of toes remaining toward the ceiling). Hold for the slow count of ten; repeat ten times for each foot. Another exercise, a “wet and wild shower workout,” involves twisting and stretching while in the shower. “Even if you don’t get the mental change—and this is what’s important—your body will change, and your thoughts will follow,” Heller says.
If the body, and, in turn, the mind can experience stress relief through morning warm-ups, it seems quite natural that more extensive exercise may bring further benefits. Tiffany Reiss, MS, PhD, director of the Exercise Science and Wellness Program at Bastyr University in Washington state, says that exercise has long been touted as a means to help reduce stress. A recent study, conducted by the University of Georgia and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (2/22/10), found that patients with a wide range of medical conditions were 20% less likely to suffer from anxiety if they engaged in regular exercise.
Reiss notes that although some of the specific mechanisms behind this link are not entirely clear, research suggests that exercise can trigger a number of positive psychological and physiological reactions to stress. One of the most immediate is the release of stimulating hormones called endorphins. “Sometimes the release of these endorphins is referred to as a ‘runner’s high,’ but any form of physical activity releases endorphins, thereby potentially enhancing overall mood and state of mind,” Reiss says.
Another considerable stress-reducing benefit of exercise is its effect on the cardiovascular system. “Endurance exercise in particular causes a long-term response in our cardiovascular system,” Reiss says. Part of that response is a decreased resting heart rate due primarily to vasodilation, or expansion of the capillaries, and a stronger heart that can pump more blood. This increased blood flow circulates more oxygen and nutrients, benefiting the entire body, including that all-important stress-mediating message center—the brain.
Like any good thing, though, exercise can be overdone. “When we feel compelled to exercise or begin to tailor our lives around our exercise sessions, or when we literally feel ‘stressed’ because we cannot exercise,” says Reiss, “we might be relying on exercise too much as a mechanism of coping. A good balanced approach to physical activity or exercise is the best way to enhance overall health and well-being.”
Just as bodies in motion are affected by stress, so are bodies at rest. This also holds true for minds at rest—or at least minds trying to rest. Martica Hall, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, has conducted research that confirms what most people know all too well. “If you take stress to bed with you, it’s very likely to interfere with your sleep,” Hall says.
Whether mulling over an immediate stressor such as an argument or a chronic circumstance such as financial strain, the most consistent effect of stress on sleep is waking without feeling rested.
“There’s a qualitative difference in sleep under conditions of stress,” Hall says. The strongest evidence linking psychological stress to sleep in humans is for sleep continuity, difficulty initiating sleep and staying asleep. “Stress has also been shown to decrease what we would describe as the physiologically restorative component of sleep, which is slow-wave sleep,” Hall adds.
While it’s little comfort to anyone tossing and turning in the middle of the night, it appears that stress may be custom-made to disrupt sleep. “From an evolutionary standpoint,” says Hall, “it makes sense for stress to interfere with sleep. If you’re sleeping out on the African savanna—even today, in 2010—there are lions [and other] really violent creatures out there. And the only thing between them and you is a stick wall, really.” Tribesmen in the region’s Masai, for example, “sleep with one eye open” because they always have to be on guard. Unfortunately, stress doesn’t distinguish between location, affecting would-be sleepers safely tucked into bed in more secure homes, too.
Since stress appears to be hard-wired into our systems, it will likely remain on any list of life’s inevitable ailments. By incorporating the lifestyle changes that Heller suggests and Reiss affirms, however, stress doesn’t have to dominate both your waking and sleeping hours.
Be aware of an important distinction when gauging your stress levels. “Relaxation is not the opposite of stress; pleasure appears to be the physical opposite of stress,” Heller says. As we balance our diet and reinforce our health through exercise, making sure that we take notice of life’s little pleasures may help us keep stress at bay.
Nine Quick Stress Busters
Feel like you’re ready to explode? Relax—with these simple stress easers:
Breathe consciously: Most of us breathe shallowly most of the time. So when crunch time comes bring your attention back to your respiration by taking three deep breaths, feeling your abdomen expand, and slowly exhaling.
Give yourself a lavender lift: Keep some lavender aromatherapy oil in your home or office. You can either use it to scent the air with a room diffuser or dab some on your wrists.
Reward yourself with something other than food: Is your boss raging 15 minutes before quitting time while your children bombard you with cell phone messages? Close your eyes for a second and think of a little gift you can give yourself that night, whether it’s a long soak in a bubble bath or some quiet time with a book.
Take a nature break: Make a point of walking on your lunch hour or before the kids get home from school. If you’re in a city most of the day, try to find a nearby park; even feeding the pigeons for a few minutes can help you reconnect with something that isn’t manmade.
Keep something cherished within reach: Do you have a favorite keepsake? Maybe it’s a piece of beach glass from last year’s vacation or a sachet from your grandmother’s dresser. Whatever it is, keep it where you can look at it or touch it several times throughout the day—and let the memories come flooding back.
Reach out to someone you care for: Human beings were made for connection. Find time for a quick call to your spouse or an email to friend.
Pet your pet: Spending time with animals has been shown to reduce blood pressure in humans—and your furry friend will love you all the more for a few gentle strokes.
Laugh often: “Laughter is the best medicine” is more than just an adage—it’s the absolute truth. Whether you like old comedies on TV or lolcats on your computer, enjoy whatever amuses you.
Pray and be thankful: It is important to maintain contact with the divine, whatever your faith or belief system may be. And don’t forget to spend at least part of your prayer time giving thanks for all you have to be grateful for—gratitude helps fight the “poor-me” feeling that stress can engender.