We tend to ‘treat’ ourselves when stressed by gorging on junk food, sugary snacks, caffeine, and nicotine. But why? Well, quite simply, because we are stressed. Our body craves this, but it doesn’t help our stress. We feel better for a bit (a sugar rush, a chemical rush, etc.), but then we crash hard, feel horrible and combat that with more junk food, more caffeine, and more sitting down. The longer this goes on, the more damage we do to our bodies.
Read on for six reminders to keep you feeling better when stressed:
1. Drink more water
Water is the best treat you can give your body because it is so very essential. How much water you need in a day is still a disputed topic, and it really does depend on your individual circumstances: your weight, gender, how much activity you do, if it’s a hot day, etc. A good rule of thumb is little and often, with an aim for 2 liters (men) or 1.6 liters (women) per day (The European Food Safety Authority 2010).
2. Don’t skip breakfast
Guess what? Breakfast makes your metabolism up to 10% better, not worse. Breakfast is important even if you don’t want to believe cereal companies’ marketing ploys. So important. But what you eat in the morning is even more essential. So many cereals are packed full of sugars, cereals bars too, and those, coupled with a coffee, and/or fruit juice (full of fruit sugar, but with no fiber to mitigate it) is a terrible way to start your day.
Ideas: instead of sugary cereal that means you crash before lunch, opt for a low-sugar, high-protein, and fiber option, with a big glass of water, and some whole fruit.
3. Watch your sugar intake
If you’ve seen Fed Up, or That Sugar Film (both on Netflix), you’ll know what we’re about to say. Sugar is hidden in more foods than you can probably imagine, and its effects are detrimental to our health and obesity. Essentially, sugar, and/or “bad” carbs that convert to sugar really quickly (white bread, white pasta, etc.) give you a short burst of energy. But due to the sheer amount of sugar pumped into our bodies, our organs can’t deal and convert the sugar into fat stores. Then, once the energy has gone, we “crash” and crave more sugary food to perk us up again. Vicious cycle, right?
Ideas: Try honey instead if you can’t cut out the sweetness from your hot drinks. For alternative sweet snacks, opt for fruit (whole, because you need the fibrous skin to counteract the fructose) or high-cocoa dark chocolate. Regarding all the sugar hidden in processed foods, try and cut back on what you buy, always check labels, and cook more. Cooking from scratch will ensure no hidden chemicals or sugars in your food you don’t know about.
4. Monitor your caffeine intake
As much as we want caffeine to be a healthy addition to our lifestyle, it often isn’t. If anything, drinking coffee to combat stress causes more stress. “If you combine the effects of real stress with the artificial boost in stress hormones that comes from caffeine, then you have compounded the effects considerably,” says Professor Lane, who took part in a study into regular caffeine consumption.
Caffeine affects the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which links three systems, the former two in the brain, the latter above the kidneys. This axis is the body’s way of dealing with stress, during both rest and activity. The adrenal glands, part of this axis, secrete two essential hormones, namely cortisol and epinephrine (aka adrenaline). Adrenaline increases breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, while cortisol opens access to stored glucose, which our body needs more during perceived stress.
But the thing is, we’re not being chased by bears anymore. Drinking caffeine readies us for action by releasing these “stress” hormones as if we were deeply stressed. But we don’t need to hit our internal panic button 4 times a day, so why are we drinking that much coffee? You can find out more here.
Alternatives: You can buy caffeine-free Green Tea, and it’s warm, hydrating, and full of antioxidants.
You know you need to exercise; the most challenging part is motivating yourself. Yet, the more you exercise, the happier your body will be and the less stress you will likely retain. But it’s not just about making it to the gym; you could also find enjoyable ways to incorporate exercise into your daily life, which is especially important if you spend most of your day sitting down. Aim for a mixture of moderate (fast walking, cycling, hiking, etc.) and vigorous exercise (running, rapid cycling, martial arts), totaling 75 – 150 minutes per week, depending on your exercise type. If you constantly dread exercising, try something new – it could just be the type of workout you don’t like.
6. Unwind and sleep
Our addiction to screens is reducing our ability to unwind fully and making us more stressed and anxious. But why? It’s the blue light that our screens omit which are causing us to be more alert, through the release of cortisol, and less relaxed because it inhibits Melatonin (the sleep regulation hormone). If you need to use your phone or laptop late at night, make sure you have an app like f.lux installed or utilize Apple’s new Night Shift functionality to try and mitigate the damage.
Alternatives: finding a hobby that doesn’t involve a screen, even if you only do it a few times a week, could help you to unwind and hopefully sleep a little better. For instance: gardening, yoga, reading, coloring/painting, crafts, and meditation.