The Stark Stress Reality
What exactly is the stress response anyway?
Stresses or unexpected, surprising events, can cause cortisol, the stress hormone, to rise. While cortisol is an important hormone involved in our fight/flight response, it needs to fall back to a balanced normal after it’s called into action. Picture a gazelle sprinting away from a predator. They dart off from a standstill with explosive energy. Once out of range, they shake off that stress with a shimmy and return to a relaxed state, grazing with their herd. The gazelle’s response to the stressor is swift, and it returns to normal just as quickly.
That’s the part most of us humans get wrong.
When we’re exposed to stress, we often worry about it. This creates a prolonged stress response. With sustained high levels of the body’s stress hormone, cortisol, we throw our systems out of balance. We remain in high-alert. We sleep less soundly, get more hungry, eat more than we need, gain weight as a result, and experience worsening digestion at the same time. What a recipe for disaster.
The good news is that you can do a lot to control your body’s stress response. Here are some simple habits that can help you reach a state of calm empowerment, quickly.
#1: Step into your power pose. You may have heard about the Superhero Pose, a power pose that has been shown to alter your body’s hormone production, increasing testosterone levels at the same time that cortisol levels drop. Fans of Grey’s Anatomy are likely already familiar with this simple pose.
#2: Get moving. Moving your body impacts your mental outlook in a fundamental, and almost immediate way. It doesn’t have to be a strenuous exercise. You could simply stand tall while taking a walk to realize the cortisol-lowering benefits of movement. If you love your cardio, great – but strength training also reduces cortisol.
#3: Prepare a mindful meal, and include your friends or family when you can. A 2022 American Heart Association survey shared that 59% of those surveyed said they make healthier food choices when dining with others than when dining alone. Shared mealtimes are a great way to unwind the day’s stresses, while making healthier choices in what we consume. Most importantly, do not eat your food “on the go.” Eat mindfully and focus on enjoying the food you’re eating. Try not to multitask at all. Set the phone aside and enjoy the food you have, hopefully with company.
#4: Get more omega-3, and especially DHA in your diet. Did you know that DHA makes up half the fat in your brain, eyes, and nervous system? During times of stress, structural changes to the human brain and nervous system can occur – so ensuring you have enough of this vital nutrient in your diet is absolutely critical. Together, EPA and DHA support your body’s ability to return to homeostasis after an inflammatory event. Cortisol creates inflammation, so when you’re stressed, you have an increased need for these powerful omegas in your body’s system. If you aren’t already eating oily SMASH fish (sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, herring) at least 2 times a week, you likely are not getting enough. Supplement your stores every day with an active omega-3 or DHA in the polar lipid form for best absorption and even better results.
#5: Relax, it’s only magnesium. Magnesium is positively associated with relaxation. During times of high stress, you may benefit from adding a little more magnesium to your regimen. Powdered options that you can mix easily in beverages can be a great way to have a relaxing mocktail or relaxing tea after work. If you’re worried about the potential laxative effect associated with taking some magnesium, look for magnesium glycinate over other forms.
#6: Start meditating or use a breathing method to relax. While some of you likely already enjoy a meditation practice, others find the practice of trying to meditate frustrating. If this is the case for you, consider adopting a simple, calming breathing technique. First, breathe in through the nose (if possible). Then, hold your breath for two seconds. Lastly, you’ll breathe slowly out through your mouth over about 6 seconds. Pause before starting the cycle again. Repeat the exercise 5 to 10 times, or until you feel calm. If you have a smart watch, you’ll notice your resting heart rate will drop considerably.
#7: Do not drink alcohol or use drugs. During times of stress, some will reach for the bottle or another mind-altering crutch. This can create a cascade of negative effects, even though you may temporarily forget your worries. Drinking too much alcohol can negate other healthy choices, derail your diet, and contribute to an overconsumption of calories. Drinking alcohol can cause you to sleep poorly and, since it’s a depressant, can result in you feeling worse than you did when you started. Choose instead another healthier option from the list above.
#8: Get restful sleep. Even if you think you can get by just fine on 5 or 6 hours, research shows that getting a solid 7 or 8 hours each night is best. Some thrive sleeping 4 hours in the afternoon and 4 in the night, while others need to get that solid 8 straight through (ahem, that’s me). If you don’t already have a sleep routine established, this could be the thing that helps your next challenge feel smaller. This could include limiting screen time before bed, reserving the bedroom for the S’s (sex and sleep), and ensuring you’re in bed at a relatively routine time, allowing for that 7 or 8 hours of sleep. Bonus points for not eating or drinking a couple of hours before bed, especially if you have a tendency to wake up in the middle of the night.
With a few simple changes in your daily routine, you’ll be feeling less stressed, sleeping better, and you’ll get more nutrition from the food you are eating because your cortisol levels won’t be spiraling out of control. You’ll find, with time, that you’re more resilient and you’ll even discover other tools that really work for you in times of stress. When you find tools that work for you, do your community a favor and share your successes. When you do, tag me – as I’m always looking for new insightful ways to lower stress and get a little more living out of life.