A little bit of stress is good for us. It gives us energy, keeps us safe and makes us aware of what is going on in our lives. While stress is something we experience everyday, it is vitally important that we keep it in check. Just a few decades ago, weight gain and the dreaded belly bulge could be put down to a poor diet and lack of exercise. In today's fast paced, constantly connected world, we remain in a state of stress far longer then we should be. The major concern here is not only the adverse effects on our health, but also the impact on our weight.
What happens to our body when we are stressed?
When experiencing stress our body goes into what is known as ‘fight or flight’ mode. This primitive mechanism served us well in the cave man days. Back then, stress usually came in the form of a saber-toothed tiger, eyeing us up as a tasty meal, resulting in running for dear-life. The body reacts to the cause of the stress and the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in. Two important hormones are then released into the blood stream;
- Adrenaline, which allows the body to tap into our energy stores, giving fuel to the muscles to help us escape danger.
- Cortisol, that tells the body to start replenishing the energy that was just released by the adrenaline boost. This is done with a message being sent to the brain that the body is hungry and it is time to eat.
This hormone communication works to keep us alive and able to respond to danger while also maintaining balance and harmony in our body.
How does stress affect our waistlines?
In today’s world, stress comes in a variety of much less life threatening forms. It can come from the demands of our jobs, social media, money worries, traffic jams and overflowing inboxes. While we no longer need to live in fear of coming face to face with a saber-toothed tiger, these modern day stressors cause our bodies to react exactly the same way! Energy is still released into the bloodstream but it is not used. Since we don’t need to run, we don’t burn any calories but cortisol is still signaling that the energy needs to be replaced, creating feelings of hunger.
Despite the best intentions, few reach for the carrot sticks in stressful situations. We’re drawn to energy-dense, high-carb foods; a.k.a comfort food. Why? These types of foods stimulate our brain to release happiness hormones, relieving anxiety and reducing tension. Unfortunately, the stress in our life still remains. After the hormone storm settles the inbox is still full, work deadlines still exist, and children are still sick. The stress response cycle starts again, meaning more hunger and more poor food choices.
High levels of cortisol also encourage the body to put on the extra calories consumed as visceral, or deep belly, fat. Visceral fat is particularly dangerous because it releases fatty acids into the blood stream raising cholesterol and insulin levels, increasing the risk for heart disease and diabetes.
So what can we do to manage daily stress levels?
Stress is constantly around us, it is part and parcel of the age we live in. The internet, emails, and social media keep us constantly connected. With each new technological advance our lives are getting faster and we are trying to get more and more out of each moment. It’s exhausting and stressful! Since we can’t slow down the pace of society, we can utilize some very simple yet effective techniques to give our bodies a much needed break and begin to reduce the stress we feel on a daily basis.
Here are 5 great ways to find some relief from the stress of your day to day life.
1. Deep breathing
In the cave man days, when we had finally reached safety and the saber-toothed tiger was nowhere to be seen, the very first thing we would instinctually do would be to take a long, deep breath in. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for relaxation and restoration. It tells our bodies to stop producing adrenaline and cortisol and to calm down.
The simplest and most effective technique to be incorporated into our daily life is deep breathing exercises. Set aside several times a day to actively stop what you are doing and consciously take 3 to 4 slow, deep breaths in followed by long, slow exhales. This is a quick and easy, instant stress buster.
2. Cut back on caffeine
Caffeine is a substance that on its own raises our cortisol levels. This is why we feel that coffee is a pick-me-up. This release of cortisol increases our alertness and helps us think quickly, which is great when needing to negotiate a tricky path of escape. When we are already under stress, drinking coffee can actually increase the levels of stress inside our bodies.
Cutting back on your daily lattes can help you reduce the levels of cortisol surging through your body and make it easier for you to actually rest and relax in the natural moments of peace you are able to find in your day. Drinking decaf coffee is a great way to still enjoy the coffee taste and smell, without raising your cortisol levels.
3. Spend time in nature
There is a wealth of research that indicates spending time in nature is one of the most powerful ways to reduce our feelings of stress. It has also been shown to reduce blood pressure and ease muscle tension.
Make time to get out and actively take in the sights, the sounds, and the smells around you. When we make a point of noticing, and sensing, the world around us, we can bring about intense feelings of peace and calm. Walking, or hiking, in nature has the added benefit of being physical activity. Exercise produces endorphins in the brains, acting as natural painkillers.
4. Practice yoga
Yoga is another great way for us to move our bodies and ease tension and stress. Through the practice of yoga we follow a series of poses that are connected to our breath. When we consciously breathe during a yoga class, we are able to get out of our heads, away from our thoughts and move into our bodies. We become more attuned to our own intuition and ourselves. Yoga creates a space to not think and worry about all of the things going on in our life. Instead the focus is only on the breath, the pose, and the present moment.
Yoga is a wonderful tool to ease tension in the mind and body, while reducing stress levels inside the body.
5. Try meditation
Numerous health benefits are associated with meditation; reducing stress is one of the major benefits. Meditation soothes the nervous system and activates the rest response. According to mediation experts, Headspace, “people who practice ‘mindfulness meditation’ regularly, report feeling less stressed and more emotionally balanced.”
There are many ways to meditate. One of the easiest techniques is to set a timer on your phone for 5 - 10 mins, find a comfortable seated position, close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Notice your breath going in and out of your nose. Attempt to keep awareness on your breath for the entire time you have chosen. Don’t worry if you find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner, just bring your awareness back to your breath. With practice this will become much easier but for now when thoughts pop into your mind, simply notice them and let them go.
There are also lots of great apps available with meditation music or simple instructions to guide you through. I have also recorded a short meditation here that you can download and save on your phone. This meditation brings about a great sense of calm and relaxation in the body and you can do it any where, any time.