As my regular readers know, last week was kinda icky around here. My son was sick and super cranky (but without losing any of his trademark energy of course), there was a backlog of laundry, a sick kid crawling into bed every night meant sleep was a rare luxury, and nearly every surface of the house had to be deep cleaned at one point or another.
Luckily, things have calmed down. In fact, as I type this, the sun is shining, the laundry is basically caught up and hung outside to dry, my kids are playing nicely together (legos for the win!), and I just stored away a huge batch of pressure-canned chili to help make busy nights easier. The house isn’t clean but no one would condemn it as a health hazard either. So life is back to really freaking good, and I can look back on my literally shitty week and…well…not laugh, but certainly not scream either.
But for a while there, I could have screamed. I hate the feeling of being thwarted – it’s the biggest thing I struggle with as a parent. Bodily fluid triage instead of gardening; losing my mind to crappy kids shows on Netflix instead of writing; neglecting business opportunities so I don’t neglect my kids. Sometimes the littles can really cramp your plans. I mean, they’re worth it, but sometimes what they need and what I want just don’t line up. And since needs trump wants, guess who wins?
It’s moments (or days or weeks or months) like these when I try to stick to some basics that help me deal with stress naturally, even when I’m ready to scream.
Stick To Your Way Of Eating
If you have a particular way of eating – gluten free, whole foods, vegan, sugar-free, alcohol-free, vegetarian, paleo, whatever – that makes you feel better, stick to it. This can be very hard because when we are under stress for more than a brief “fight or flight” period, the cascade of hormonal changes that we feel as “stress” make many of us far more inclined to self-medicate with food, booze, sugar, etc.
Cutting out sugar always helps me feel better, but when I’m under stress it’s like I can hear sweets singing my name from the pantry. “Oh Errrrrricaaaa, this is the bag of chocolate chiiiiiips. You should come eeeeeat me.” Turns out, there’s a reason for that.
The endocrine system responds to the stress hormone cortisol by directing the liver to pump out glucose. Unless you actually need that glucose (to help you run away from a tiger, say), the resulting crash can send you straight to the bag-o-chocolate-chips. Taking in glucose also does some complex stuff in the brain itself that tends to feed the stress-eat-stress-eat feedback loop for many folks.
I have had my hand in the chocolate chip bag many, many times, so I know that stress eating is a short-term gain, long-term loss kind of thing. (Or maybe long-term gain if we’re talking about pants size.) So when you are under stress and the doughnut in the break-room start calling your name, try to maintain whatever your healthy way of eating is. I find it helpful to get a glass of water and mutter, “don’t feed the cortisol!” until the urge to stress-eat crap passes.
Pass On The Booze
As you guys know, I do love a good cocktail or glass of wine. But I prefer my drinking to be celebratory, so if I find myself drinking regularly because of stress, I try to nip that in the bud. While a glass of wine or whiskey with your partner or friends is a great way to toast the end of week, consistently managing stress through drinking is counter-productive.
According to Drink Aware, “Over time, heavy drinking interferes with the neurotransmitters in the brain that are needed for good mental health. So while alcohol may help deal with stress in the short term, in the long run it can contribute to feeling of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with.”
And while you feel relaxed for enjoying a tipple, alcohol actually raises cortisol. So your body is physically more stressed, even if you think you are unwinding! Hormones are sneaky.
A good rule of thumb for alcohol when it comes to stress: “The more you need a drink, the more you really don’t.”
To avoid habitual boozing for all the wrong reasons, Homebrew Husband and I will make tea or decaf coffee in the evenings. We find having something soothing to drink that’s not liquor helps us keep the bourbon in the liquor cabinet until we are ready to really enjoy a drink.
Do Short Bursts of Exercise
When you are under stress you are also typically short on time. Taking a day to yourself to re-center with a trip to the gym, a Swedish massage, a seaweed wrap, a spa lunch and a languid waterfront stroll sounds good on paper, but if you had time for that shit you probably wouldn’t be stressed in the first place, amirite? But self-care really can help beat down stress, and exercise is king when it comes to affordable, scalable self-care.
All kinds of official studies will tell you that exercise helps people manage stress, live longer, feel better, blah blah blah:
“Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.” [Source: Anxiety and Depression Association of America]
“Exercise increases brain concentrations of norepinephrine in brain regions involved in the body’s stress response…The chemical is thought to play a major role in modulating the action of other, more prevalent neurotransmitters that play a direct role in the stress response. “ [Source: American Psychological Association]
So we all know moderate, consistent exercise is good for us, but the good news is you don’t have to devote a lot of time to exercise to get the stress-busting benefits. A short, brief workout – I’m talking 2 to 10 minutes long – can make dealing with stressors easier for the rest of the day.
What’s the best workout to beat stress? The one you’ll do. If you can’t get out of the house, air-squats, push-ups and planks are easy to bust out at home with no equipment at all. If you need more intensity, try doing body-weight exercises in Tabata form but be careful because going too hard, too fast will spike cortisol further. Yoga or good old fashioned full-body stretching can really help bring the calm in and is easy to do at home.
If you can sneak out for a few minutes, just power walk up and down the block. Five minutes of brisk walking will help your lymph and circulatory system get moving and help your body deal naturally with cortisol. If you are in condition to jog up and down the block, that’s even better. Or hop on your bike, head out a mile or two then come on home. Throw in a hill if you’re feeling it.
At work, stepping away from the desk and walking up and down a few flights of stairs or around the building is a good, discreet tension buster.
Are these short micro-workouts the same as a tempo run or heavy deadlift and squat day or a 60 mile ride? Nope, but they might keep you from snapping and screaming at your sick kid or your stupid boss. My personal favorite exercise for de-stressing is kettle bell swings. I can do 100 of them in about two minutes in my garage and feel calmer for hours.
Soak Up The Sunshine and Take Your Vitamin D
When my son was ill, I didn’t leave the house except to hang up laundry on the outside clothesline. Those clothes-drying moments may have saved my sanity. I got a few minutes of sun, a few minutes of breeze and always returned to my mom duties feeling a bit refreshed.
There’s a reason sunshine makes us feel better: when UBV radiation from sunlight hits the skin it stimulates the production of Vitamin D. The liver and kidneys then get in on the act, and convert that Vitamin D into something more useful and active in the body.
Vitamin D is the only vitamin that is also a hormone in the body, and it plays an important role in regulating things like calcium levels in the body, muscle strength, and mood. According to Medscape, “Vitamin D receptors are located in bone, skeletal muscle, immune cells, and several body tissues, including the brain, prostate, breast, and colon” demonstrating how important this hormone is throughout the body.
There’s growing evidence linking Vitamin D deficiencies to mood disorders like depression, and suggesting that adequate Vitamin D promotes the relaxing, feel-good hormones like serotonin. When you are under a lot of stress, serotonin tends to get smacked down by adrenaline and cortisol. Ensuring you have an adequate supply of Vitamin D may help the serotonin “fight back” and help you manage your stress in a healty way.
Regular, moderate sun exposure (I recommend gardening!) is a great start to keep your Vitamin D levels in the healthy range, and diets rich in fatty seafood provide Vitamin D, but you may find supplementing with Vitamin D makes sense for you, too. I’m not a huge supplement user, but I do take a few fish oil capsules and a vitamin D capsule daily.
Other Supplements You Might Consider
I can’t personally speak to using these supplements to battle stress, but they are worth researching to see if they might be right for you.
Magnesium – There is a lot of evidence that widespread magnesium deficiency (the Standard American Diet strikes again!) is at least partly to blame for a rise in mood disorders. Dr. Mark Hymen says of magnesium, “It is an antidote to stress, the most powerful relaxation mineral available, and it can help improve your sleep.”
If you aren’t interested in supplementing with magnesium pills, an Epsom Salt bath is rarely wrong. The magnesium in Epsom Salts is absorbed through the skin. Read more about Magnesium and the Brain.
Melatonin – Occasional trouble sleeping due to stress? This might be the answer. Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally by the body as the sun goes down. It’s basically your internal “ramp down and sleep” hormone. I put liquid melatonin in my Relaxing Bed Time Bath Salts. Read more about melatonin here.
GABA – An inhibitory (calming) neurotransmitter amino acid, my husband takes this occasionally and calls it “Get A Better Attitude” which is faster to say than “gamma-Aminobutyric acid”
Two Japanese studies concluded, “GABA could work effectively as a natural relaxant and its effects could be seen within 1 hour of its administration to induce relaxation and diminish anxiety. Moreover, GABA administration could enhance immunity under stress conditions.”
The Emergency Five Minute Stress Buster
Lets say that all the above healthy-living stuff is great, but let’s say you need emergency stress relief now! Okay, here’s what you do:
- Stand up, roll your shoulders back and assume the super-woman pose, with your hands on your hips. Yes, you may look kinda stupid. Deal with it.
- Breathe deeply and slowly, in through your nose, out through your mouth, ten times. Counting each breath out loud. Yes, you might sound kinda stupid. Deal with it.
- Now, reach your left hand up and behind your neck. Let your head tip towards your left shoulder as much as is comfortable. Press your fingertips firmly against the line of muscle in your neck, just to your right of your spinal column. Run your fingers up your neck along that line of muscle, from your shoulder to the base of your skull, pressing firmly but comfortably. Repeat several times as you like. Let your left hand drop to the side.
- Repeat on the other side: reach your right hand up behind your neck and let your head tip towards your right shoulder as much as is comfortable. Press your fingertips firmly against the line of muscle in your neck, just to your left of your spinal column. Run your fingers up your neck along that line of muscle, from your shoulder to the base of your skull, pressing firmly but comfortably. Repeat several times as you like. Let your right hand drop to the side.
- Let your chin drop to your chest, and gently rock your head in a gentle, relaxed circle.
- Stand up nice and straight, and circle your shoulders a few times gently.
- Go drink a big glass of water.
Stress-Free For Life?
All-in-all, beating stress naturally is pretty basic, right: eat right, don’t drink too much, get some exercise and get enough Vitamin D and sunshine time. Let’s face it – these are the same things we should all be doing anyway.
So why does all this take-care-of-ourselves stuff tend to go out the window precisely when we need it most? Why do so many of us turn to unhealthy food, booze, exhaustive work patterns and other behaviors that actually make stress worse?
I don’t know that there is an answer but I do know stress is a meant to be a very short-term hormonal condition that a healthy body acts on then recovers from. (“Run away from the tiger!!!” to “Phew, that was close. What’s for dinner?”) Stress is not meant to be chronic.
“Chronic stress leads to excess cortisol, which eventually damages the hippocampus of the brain, leading to impaired negative feedback and thus ongoing stress and depression and neurotoxicity badness.” [Source: Psychology Today]
Chronic stress bathes the brain in a cocktail of hormones that flat out make it harder for us to make good, reasoned decisions, like taking care of ourselves. Our aggression goes up, our mental flexibility goes down, we tend to make decisions based on habit and the stress leads to more stress. It can be a vicious circle, which is why I think in times of heightened stress it’s important that we do make that effort to take care of ourselves.
How do you manage stress?