Stress is an insidious monster. Sometimes it’s a creeper, sometimes it hits you all at once. Everyone experiences it at one time or another. Feeling on edge, worrying, anticipating the worst, fearing something bad will happen, trying to control things that may be beyond our control.
When the mind experiences stress, the body reacts by releasing cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, into the bloodstream. Cortisol increases blood sugar, speeds the heart rate, and raises the amount of oxygen available to muscle tissue. All these things are very beneficial in situations where we may need to defend ourselves or flee, but prolonged exposure to low to moderate levels of stress can be damaging over time, to the heart, artery walls and immune system. It also increases inflammation. Neuroscientists have found that stress inhibits the function of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory.
So we know that stress is something to avoid, however, in the modern world, the reality is that some stressors will occur, even to the most vigilant. Harvard Medical School published a statement about the effects of stress on eating habits. Although acute, short-term stress can block the appetite, chronic or long-term stress can make those affected crave high fat, sugary foods. The authors claim that these foods actually have a biochemical effect that decreases the intensity of the cortisol impact. Hence the terms, “stress eating” and “comfort food.”
Yesterday, I had a mildly stressful evening, thinking about some work I had to do, that I knew I would not enjoy, would be very time-consuming, and would lead to undesirable consequences if not completed. For a time, I avoided doing the work (only prolonging the stress) and, instead of doing something I like to do, I actually went to the fridge, more than once, and stood there, looking at food. Fortunately, my conscious mind caught up with my subconscious and I reminded myself of all the things I know about mindless eating, and of everything I want to happen in the near future as a result of my improved physical health. Funny how we forget sometimes, and (almost) revert back to old habits.
So eventually, I got to work and completed my tasks. But in the process of realizing what was going on in my mind, I had to stop and deal with the food cravings I was experiencing, which were a direct offshoot of the anxiety that had crept in. I had to breathe.
Deep cleansing breaths, are a great way to reduce stress. Conscious breathing has a calming effect on the central nervous system. It’s immediate, requires no equipment or preparation, and we can do it anywhere. But if you want to attack the stress you feel from a few different angles, here are ten other ideas to try. Hey, no stress, no stress eating!
- Trust yourself. You’ve been through so much already and you survived. You will continue to survive, and also thrive, as your health continues to improve. If your source of stress is anticipation of a negative occurrence, trust that you’ll know what to do when the time comes.
- Contact someone. Not by phone or text, but face to face. Then give them a hug. Physical touch is wonderful for one’s sense of support and comfort.
- Declutter. It’s amazing to consider the amount of space taken up in our home environment by random ‘stuff’ we’re not using. Portions of our minds are also occupied by these unneeded items. Spread some joy. Give it away. Clearing space and organizing can work wonders for your peace of mind.
- Make something with your hands. Creating is fun and can occupy your hands with something more constructive than eating popcorn. Adult coloring books, modeling clay, sewing, knitting, beading (my personal favorite) and more.
- Guided meditation. Allow yourself to relax as a guide assists you in visualizing a calming place where your mind is free. One excellent smartphone app is Headspace. There are also other free sources on YouTube and Soundcloud that work well.
- Limit the television. We have to consider not only what we take into our mouths as health giving or health depleting, but anything we take into our minds, via the eyes and ears. Dramatic plots can cause emotional imbalance, as can watching the news, full of fear-inducing negativity. Protect your energy by regulating how much of this information you take in.
- Get into nature. Nature’s frequencies can have a powerful balancing effect. Walk barefoot on the ground and access the negatively charged ions that can help balance your entire organism. Breathe the fresh air. Listen to the birds. Gaze at the sky. See that this magnificent universe is so much larger than us and our ‘problems.’
- Listen to music. Few things can elevate one’s state of mind more quickly. Make a playlist of your favorite inspirational songs, or just a list of songs you love, and keep the melodies flowing.
- Let go of perfection. No one is perfect. Perfection is the greatest illusion. We are all striving for something humanly unattainable. Rather than trying to be perfect, focus on expressing yourself with the highest level of authenticity. Know that you’re awesome. Give yourself a break.
- Try a holistic healing technique. Massage, reiki, reflexology, aromatherapy, and acupuncture have all been shown to be effective stress-reducers. When considering the risks and the daily toll that stress can take on the body and mind, it makes sense to use all the tools at our disposal to prevent it.
This is by no means a complete list. Finding ways to reduce the impact of the stress in our lives also takes stress out of the eating equation. Most of the ideas on the list above literally remove you from your food source and occupy your mind and hands with other activities. And they all, if done regularly, will make you calmer and less prone to resort to a snack for comfort’s sake. It’s time to love ourselves, create new ways of living and free ourselves of the stress-eating habit.