‘In times of great stress or adversity, it’s always best to keep busy, to plough your anger and your energy into something positive’.
Lee Iacocca - American Businessman
It is impossible to avoid stress in our lives, but how do we know when we are tipping the cart from normal, safe levels to the danger zone of serious health problems and imminent collapse?
Here are some signs that mean you are in enough stress for it to have negative impacts on your body:
Constant jaw clenching
Trembling hands and lips
Neck and back pain
Dizziness and faintness
Ringing and popping sounds
Icy cold feet and hands
Sweaty feet and hands
Rashes and hives
Frequent allergy attacks
Diarrhea or constipation
Diminished sexual interest
Cravings for certain foods
Increased or decreased appetite
Stammering, unable to come up with words
Feelings of nervousness
Anger at the least little thing
Feelings of hostility
Frustration at your life and things around you
Wild mood swings
Difficulty learning new things
General feeling of being overwhelmed
Thoughts of suicide
Feelings of failure or being unworthy
Overreaction to petty little things
Being overly defensive to criticism
Being overly suspicious of others
Other warning signs
You catch frequent colds and infections
Loss of interest in appearance
Chronic lateness without caring
More minor accidents
Obsessive or compulsive behavior
Reduced productivity at work
Difficulty focusing on the job at hand
Lying to cover up work that is not completed
Withdrawing from society
Increased excessive behavior as in gambling, drinking, taking drugs.
How we self-medicate stress with comfort food
If you recognized yourself on the list of symptoms above, the next question is how do you fix it? While we know it is unrealistic to expect that we could eliminate all major stress from our lives, how do we wrestle the stress demon down to manageable size?
If you are like most people, you reach for your comfort foods and drinks, most of them high in sugar and fat.
You know you have too many plates spinning above your head. There’s not one that you can allow to crash just now and nobody to take over keeping some of them spinning for you.
So you go to your neighborhood pub and order the biggest slab of shepherd’s pie you can find, wash it down with a decidedly non-low carb beer, and you feel better already.
Or maybe you stop at the local fast-food outlet on the way home and order a double burger loaded, a large fries and a half a dozen cookies. And don’t forget the hot fudge sundae for good measure!
In fact, a 2011 study at the University of California San Francisco concluded that people facing chronic stress tend to eat more comfort foods that are high in sugar and fat.
Dr. Elissa Epel, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry there, discovered that this tendency, in the long term, dampens down the body’s stress response which is governed by cortisol, a hormone. So we really do feel better, but this is a bad fix.
That’s because the increased amount of cortisol is also linked to increased abdominal fat, and that is very bad for you in the long term.
Epel concluded that food is our cheap drug of choice because it makes us feel better for a little while.
The researchers discovered that in their study, the women who were the most stressed were most likely to acknowledge they ate to ease their stress. These women had higher levels of abdominal fat, making them at risk in the long term of suffering from cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and gallbladder surgery.
What are the preferred comfort foods?
It turns out that regardless of the country, there is a similar theme. People under stress reach for sweet foods such as chocolate or candy bars, desserts, cookies and muffins and fruit. They also reach for what researchers call “mixed dishes” such as burgers and chips, pizza, casseroles such as Shepherd’s Pie or lasagna, tacos, and fried foods.
1. Reduce stress by addressing its sources and looking for solutions.
2. Practice mindfulness: live in the moment – start with 10 minutes a day.
3. Increase your physical activity – exercise is a stress reliever.
4. Embrace relaxation techniques. Take up Yoga or Tai Chi or other mind/body exercise.
5. Eat a balanced diet, get sufficient sleep, and avoid tobacco and excessive caffeine and alcohol.
6. You time - take 15 minutes each day to do something specifically for your spirit / soul i.e. reading, gardening, cooking, helping others, walking etc.