The impact of stress
I'm a really stressy person. I feel like my anger and stress levels can rise very quickly, which in turn affects my judgment on the situation and my mood. People that work with me are often surprised when I say this and always reply with "really, you seem so calm". My family would probably say the complete opposite sometimes! Generally, I'd say that every day there is a point where I feel completely stressed out and even angry. And I hate it. I hate the feeling of not having a clear head, the anxiety it brings, not being able to think straight, nor that feeling of not being able to see the woods through the trees. I don't like who it makes me, as I can be dismissive, shout, and I don't like how it feels. I'm certainly not the kind of person who reacts well to stress and I am hugely in awe of those that can. Luckily, I've never been in an emergency situation and I don't know how I would react, but day-to-day stresses overwhelm me, so I won't be enlisting in the army, signing up to work in the services or to be a surgeon any time soon! Worryingly, stress has a massive impact on our health and I'm certainly not alone in feeling stressed within today's modern society.
Stress has a major impact on our bodies and health, with effects including tense muscles, headaches and migraines, (I've suffered with migraines since I was a child and mine are definitely linked to stress), it lowers our immune system, respiratory risks including hyperventilation and can result in panic attacks, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and it causes inflammation in our arteries. Yeah, it's pretty bad. And there's more..... what's happening in our bodies when we're stressed is a release of cortisol and adrenaline. These are created and released through our adrenal glands due to a signal from our auto nervous system through our pituitary glands. When produced in small doses these hormones are useful as they form our fight or flight reaction to emergencies, but in large doses can lead to major health issues. At the same time as these being created, our livers create glucose, which if not used is absorbed into our blood streams and raises our blood sugar levels. In our stomachs, ulcers are created by a bacteria called 'helicobacter pylori', which can be made when we are stressed. In our gut, stress effects our absorption of nutrients and results in food moving quickly through our bodies. Stress hormones effect our reproductive systems and reduces sex drive. Adrenaline supresses appetite, whilst cortisol increases cravings. Therefore our food choices when we are stressed can be far from nutritious. (Ever wondered why you crave 'comfort foods' when sad or stressed? Well, that's why, it's your cortisol talking.) The cortisol is signally to our brains that our bodies need fat to replenish the energy it's using to be stressed and react to the fight or flight situation. This is fine when we need to run away from danger and we're using lots of energy, but when we're sat on the sofa or in an office and our bodies are releasing fats into our blood streams for us to use (which we don't if we're stationary), whilst telling our brains we need more to survive, it's not good news. The fat that is released from our bodies also release toxins that can lead to further illnesses. To top it off, stress impacts our sleep patterns meaning our bodies don't rest, replenish and get ready to deal with the next day, which in turn can cause higher stress levels. It's a viscous circle.
How can we reduce the effects of stress on our bodies? When we're stressed we should start the day with a fiber and protein rich brekkie to keep fuller for longer in order to reduce the cravings for more food later on. We should keep hydrated and avoid alcohol (hard when we're stressed, right, but make sure to increase your water intake even more so and keep alcohol consumption to a minimum). Increase the amounts of complex carbohydrates that you're eating, such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, whole wheat, quinoa and other whole grains (stay away from white rice, pasta and bread!). These not only give our bodies the energy it needs to deal with the stress, but they balance the adrenaline and cortisol, and they create serotonin, the happy hormone - winner! Finally, eat healthy fatty acids such as nuts and seeds, eggs and avocados. When you have your comfort food cravings (mine is mac & cheese), eat smashed avocado on sourdough toast with a poached egg or whole wheat porridge with pumpkin seeds for brekkie, snack on nuts through the day, and have whole wheat pasta with extra virgin olive oil pesto to keep you going at lunch or dinner.
Just as important as our nutrition to support our bodies, is our mindfulness to support our mental health and resilience to reduce stress in the first place and to be able to deal with it better when it happens. A few years ago, I learned a method that made me think about my resilience like a battery and how the energy in the battery fades overtime. Unlike batteries, we can't plug ourselves in, so we need to think of the ways we can recharge. I started to recognise the things I did to make myself feel grounded and calm, and I made a mental note of them so that I could have them up my sleeve for when I next felt stressed. For you and others it may be different, but for me, it's being outside and moving that calms me, centres me and overall recharges my resilience. Whether it's running, walking, cycling, you name it, if I can get into the fresh air, move and get some perspective I feel better. I can judge the situation and usually by the end of my walk or run I have a clearer approach to it. The ultimate recharge for me is walking in the mountains or swimming in the ocean. It's not just about the beauty of the scenery, being outside or the activity, but the sheer insignificance of me and my problems that it provides. It grounds me and makes me feel humble like nothing else.
There's no surprise to me that getting outside and moving helps me manage my stress levels. The fresh air and increased heart rate provides fresh oxygen to my brain. My body uses the energy from the glucose and fat being released in my liver to move my limbs. I also notice that my mind hasn't got the time to overthink anything as it's focused on the physical activity that I'm doing, and when I do think about the issues that have stressed me out I feel much more rational about the situation and how I should respond. My brain doesn't have time to worry as it's thinking about moving, breathing, not falling down the side of the mountain, putting on foot in front of another, or not being taken out by a wave. On top of this, my body is getting a really beneficial top up of vitamin D, which helps my immune system, and my body is creating serotonin. Then, the icing on the cake, is that my body and mind is suitably tired when I come to go to sleep.
So, if like me you feel stressed and as though your resilience is no where to be seen, take some time to think about your battery and how you recharge it. Make sure that you have healthy fatty snacks in the cupboard and buy complex carbs instead of simple, white carbs on your next shop.
For me, I've just spent the weekend outside. I've walked the Portishead to Clevedon coastal path with a friend, I've run and I've walked the dog. Next week I will cycle to work and ensure I get a swim in the marine lake whilst the sun is setting over it. All of this is helping me feel grounded and calm. It'll help me work through the things stressing me out and provide me with a clarity on how to approach and deal with them. My breakfasts and lunches have been and will be healthy meals to feed my body the right fuel it needs to get through the day and keep my hormones balanced. The only thing can stop me is time, but I'm going to factor it into my plans and when really stressed tie up my laces and get outside, even if it's for a mile long run. How will I feel come the end of it.... restful, clear headed and I'll have the ability to react calmly and approach situations with kindness and empathy.
Go forth and recharge those resilience batteries people!
Photo by Matti Hemmings, taken of me whilst walking in the Brecon Beacons a few weekends ago after a stressful week at work.