There are many people who may say “ but you have nothing to be worried about”, and whilst that might be true to a certain extent when you look at what you have got, it does not always translate into what you mind does for your anxiety levels.
Feeling anxious, worried, or down can all have a strong influence on our physical health and mental well-being. And my blog today comes about from my desire to try and keep stress at bay, to put in place things to help, understand what is going on, and improving the situation. I am currently involved in working on Café Mai, where “restorative fitness” is a key element and one that resonates with me big style.
I have had huge periods of stress in my life, and I am prone to anxiety, so this also has a personal slant to it.
On the flip side, it was back in 2007 when I wrote my first “Stress Management” course for Fitness Wales – to be delivered to Fitness Professionals, such as Personal Trainers, who may want more information for their clients. This led to an increase in the links between health and stress, and I have for many years delivered this type of lecture to Postgraduate students at the University, and to local business and companies. I think that recognising stress is important. I think knowing what to do is even more important.
Once, I had stress so bad, I was not able to eat – this was due to a feeling of “strangulation” that meant I could not swallow food. I lost so much weight, was not able to sleep and all manner of stress ticks. That made me realise the power of anxiety on the body. I have never been so bad since, although lockdown did push me (!) and dealing with chronic pain was probably all stress related too.
I am hoping that my experience gives compassion to anyone who is out there suffering, or being affected by stress. And that my long career in looking at stress will help you too. This blog defines stress and its impacts, and offers simple solutions that might help you.
Understanding the stress response in our bodies is of great benefit – it allows us to be aware of when stress is starting to have an effect on our health, and to introduce some proven interventions to help us manage the strain and recover quickly.
The stress response is there to help us control our fear, influence our mood, and give us motivation to continue – and if you are feeling fearful, anxious, have low mood and no motivation to do anything, then listen up. Your body is quietly telling you to stop, take a deep breath, and find a way to fill your cup with some fighting power.
Stress can be defined as the way that we react to a given situation, and that reaction can affect our physical, emotional, and mental health - it can be defined as the “flight or fight” response as it triggers our endocrine system to release adrenaline and noradrenaline into the blood stream. This has an instant effect and can cause increased heart rate and breathing, increased muscle tension, dilation of pupils and arteries, improved hearing, and a release of free fatty acids into our blood stream. Brilliant if we are in a crisis situation and need to be alert and run fast, but not so useful when we sit at our desk and our heart pounds, we feel fear, noise is too loud, and lights are too bright.
We can find that we have an increasing irritability with the world as our stress rises, mainly due to the effect of increase cortisol in the body – also causing us to feel more anxious, or feeling low, making concentrating on tasks difficult and diminishing our ability to respond to daily life challenges effectively. We may also notice that our immune system gets depressed, and we pick up colds and viruses, or find cuts take longer to heal and an outbreak of spots or greasy skin. Over time, we can find that cortisol can also make us lose our energy levels, with that feeling of great difficulty in “getting going”, feeling constantly tired, and yet sleep not providing any refreshing relief.
Cortisol can also trigger “metabolic syndrome” changes where we increase the stored fat around our internal organs leading to more cardiometabolic health changes such as a larger waist, increased blood pressure, increased blood sugars leading to Type 2 Diabetes and higher cholesterol in the body putting a strain on our heart and fitness.
It seems sensible then to be able to tackle stress effectively to help protect our health, improve our mood and joy of living, sleep better, and support our immune system. We know that we are able to access the body’s biochemicals through activity, our diet and time for wellbeing. These neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin are drivers of mental energy, they are essential for concentration, problem solving and underpin our resilience. Understanding how we can harness these natural anti-depressants so that we can help regulate our mood and increase our enjoyment and anticipation of a great life.
Here are 3 key stabilisers to stress:
The easiest thing you can try is to go for a walk.
Research shows us that the movement of steady stepping can instantly calm you down, and this is further enhanced when we allow our eyes to move side to side (yes, you know, get rid of that stare into space) – so heads up, phones down. 10 mins outside looking around.
Low to moderate activity has a positive effect on depression and anxiety. This means that the simple act of walking extra steps will help us mop us the adrenaline and noradrenaline, alongside using the free fatty acids circulating in our bloodstream and using up the white stored fat around our body.
This type of exercise needs to follow a rhythmic pattern where you walk continuously for at least 10 minutes. It can have and instant impact on your mood, which is further enhanced if we can manage to do this in an outdoor environment. Viewing a broader horizon, being able to have sunlight on our faces, or listening to the wind in the trees or the smell of the sea, all contribute to super boost the positive effect of exercise. Longer walks are of course also brilliant for our health – but sometimes a short walk around the block during the day or night when you are feeling overwhelmed is sufficient. Make time to do this on a regular basis to support your health and wellbeing - first thing in the morning before work, take your flask of tea/coffee with you and go for a stroll.
High intensity exercise as has a positive effect on neuroplasticity – that is to say it makes our brains more resilient to stress. This can be done by following a cardio group workout, going to the gym, going for a run, or adding in some high intensity spurts in your walk like climbing up steps or a steep hill. I also find it feels good to have a more aggressive way to get out the stress with exercise that pushes up your heart rate, makes you sweat and closes out the world for 40 minutes. If you have health issues that preclude you from this, then just try sequences of brisk walking during your daily activity.
Give yourself a “shock”! Releasing adrenaline will have a knock-on effect of a huge dose of dopamine which is designed to make you feel “alive”! Think of things that make you scream! So, a douse in cold water (be careful where you do this, maybe start with a shower) is a quick way – remember the ice bucket challenge. Hmm…but sitting in cold bath for about 30 seconds, or shower, or calm sea might be the shock treatment that kicks your mood. Humans are tribal. It keeps us safe to have others around us.
Or find someone you can relate to talk to get a hug, hold a hand. And if you are single or lonely, think about a massage, hot bath, spending time talking with people, finding time to be with others who are less fortunate than you – all contribute to feelings of wellbeing that will give you an inner glow. All types of daily activity and organise exercise improve our body functions, boost our immune system, and support neuroplasticity which slows down the ageing system. Make sure that you build this into your daily life.
Food also helps neurotransmission function and improves brain transmitter connectivity. Our choice of food can have a positive effect on depression and anxiety. We may not always be aware of how food interacts with our body as we often make our choices on the perception of what is “good” for us. We can sometimes think that food is a treat when we are stressed, and chose items that then further increase the body’s stress when it has an inflammatory response to what it has eaten.
Brain food to improve your mood needs to feed the fantastic gut microbiome. We often say we have a “gut feeling” or feel “sick to my stomach”, and this link to how you feel and what you eat is proven to help reduce anxiety and depression. First, fibre to feed the bacteria so that they are healthy – and then add to them some more to increase your microbiome with some fermented foods, think kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha – choose the one you like, as a daily dose of probiotic is your brains superpower.
We know that certain foods can provide an anti-inflammatory response too, and these are the kinds of things we want to include so that our body is better able to process stress and reduce our health risks.
Before listing and looking at this, it is worthwhile reframing how we “see” food, and make sure that we associate the food below as satisfying, healing, feel-good items and not to feel that we will be hungry, or that “healthy food is disgusting”.
So much of our perceptions of food influence our choices – and as we said in the beginning, you have an influence on your stress and how you behave, so you too also have an influence on your food and how you perceive it impacts on our health. Start by seeing food as a positive healthy friend to support you when you are feeling low, stressed, anxious and depressed – but also that you know which food is the true friend, and which food causes you to feel worse.
Food supports brain development (at any age, so even when you are older), bone health, your cardiovascular system, mental health, and aids restful sleep. We know that certain types of diets will consistently provide weight loss and improved health – especially those that moderate dairy, meat intake – that is not to exclude, but to be aware of how much of these we eat on a daily basis, and try to balance out with an increase in “plant based” food which would include beans, legumes as well as fruit and vegetables. Changing to use olive oil, avocados and nuts instead of saturated fats helps to protect our heart and immune system. Moderating alcohol and trying to consume during mealtimes is also of great benefit.
A “westernised” diet is associated with increased depression, mild cognitive impairment, and ADHD, and that those who followed the guidelines above have nearly a 50% less chance of having depression. Try to make small changes to your diet in the first instance, by adding more fruit and veg and reducing the amount of process sugar, and food that have undergone an external additional chemical process before it gets to your plate.
Like rotating a field to be fallow, so that it can grow again, your body and mind also require time to reset and adjust at the end of each day.
Taking the time to support your body to do this will reward you with better sleep, improve mood and clarity, boost your immune system, and many other health benefits.
Time is the key to this – both as in time of the day, and the time you give to yourself.
One of the few simple indicators that our health is being affected is our sleep patterns changing. Lack of sleep, or disturbed sleep are often a red flag that show that you need to step in and make some small changes to protect your health. Minor changes in our daily life can help us feel bright, cheerful, looking forward to the day and not be held back by an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, aching muscles, headaches, brain fog, lack of enthusiasm, feeling of hopelessness and even depression.
When we first wake up, we tend to have a higher level of drive to action, so get done the chores that you find most taxing like the cold-water dip or the exercise session you need an extra bit of motivation for. And as the day progresses, you will find by mid-afternoon, this energy starts to wane and so start to do the things that you find easier to complete, or that you enjoy more – it might be like me that this is the time I love to walk the dogs, or that you practice the piano, sing, dance, exercise – whatever makes you feel good.
The end of the day is where we start to take steps to help our body unwind and reset. Light is key to this, and dimming the lights, reducing the blue light glare, reducing the food intake, or even stopping to eat from 8pm if you can, will all be of benefit.
Melatonin is a hormone, sometimes known as the “biological night”, and it plays an important role in our circadian cycle. Melatonin increases in the evening as the light diminishes and this then helps us relax and feel sleepy. One of the easiest ways to help us activate our melatonin is to reduce light - including the blue light rays that we experience when we look at our phones, tablets or the tv. The optic nerve in your eye needs to detect that the natural light is diminishing, this is then a trigger to the hypothalamus to release melatonin. So, dial down the lights in your room as you approach bedtime.
Light can also be used to help restore your circadian rhythms by altering the level of light that you expose your body to in the day. It is therefore recommended that you try to exercise outdoors in brighter light, exposing your body to around 10 times lighter than inside. Exercising outdoors also helps with the regulation of depression and levels of cortisol as well as making your body see and feel the difference between “night & day”. Anything between 20mins to an hour of moderate is recommended to help adjust your body clock. It doesn’t matter if it is a cloudy day as the sunlight will often be brighter than the lights in your office or home – but you may want to walk/run/cycle for longer on a dull day. You may find that heavy weight training can affect sleep as your body recovers from the workout, with resulting temporary muscle ache – but it is a small price to pay for a one night as weight training is good for you!
Deep breathing is shown to reducing anxiety and practicing slow out breaths alongside both quick inbreaths and slow inbreaths can calm you down and make you feel more positive. Diary writing is also helpful as long as it does not feel like a chore – this is not the time of day to force yourself to do things you find challenging – willpower is low at this time of the day. Listen to music, read a book, have a hot bath, slow things down. Let your body heal.
Tryptophan boosts both serotonin and melatonin to help us sleep better and it is a good idea to include foods that are high in tryptophan to boost your healthy sleep habit. Tryptophan is an amino acid, which is a building block for protein. It is best to combine your intake with some complex carbohydrates. You can source your tryptophan through vegan, vegetarian or animal products and the following are especially rich in this: Turkey, chicken, eggs, milk, fish, seafood, Sweet potatoes, potato with skin on, avocado, banana, cherries, a
lmonds, peanuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, tofu, soy, dark 80% chocolate, Camomile tea
Hydration – every chemical reaction in your body requires water. Therefore, drink water, or tea or even coffee (but not pop). The water will help your body deal with stress, repair, remove bad things and even help your circulation. From years of coaching, I know that you know this fact – but making it happen is often a hard habit to do. Think about having a large jug of water in your fridge, so each time you open it, it reminds you to drink – and cold water is so much nicer than tepid. A glass by your bedside, desk, armchair are all good – you will sip these unconsciously, even if you don’t finish them.
Take Time – Much like rebooting your PC, there is great value in taking time each day to reflect on what happens. You can do this in different ways - and if you see me talking to myself, you can probably guess mine! However, science shows us that this “defragging” of our brain is of great value. Try
1. Writing it down in a daily journal, thoughts, feeling, jobs, life – but aim to have a positive spin by appreciating the good things that happened that day.
2. Sit still and think - or keep your mind empty. But time to sit and stare is priceless
3. Be kind – not only to yourself, but to another person. The consideration of others has an indisputable effect on our own mental health and well-being. This does not have to cost money. Sit and talk with someone who lives alone, offer to babysit, or dog walk, tidy someone’s garden, pick litter, volunteer to a charity.
4. Breathing - yes, I know we all need to breathe….but there is also so much science out there looking at how we use the diaphragm (muscle that moves the chest cavity) and how that influences our wellbeing that it is worth taking seriously.
a. Energise your tired brain with 5 x repeats of 2 in breaths, breathing in through your nose, and one slow out breath.
b. A “physiological sigh” is a resetting technique that can provide relief for both humans and animals. It relieves anxiety, and reduces tension. Takes a deep breath in, hold it and then breath out or sigh, heavily. Learning to do this consciously is better that letting nature do it for you.
c. Boost your serotonin (feel good hormone) by breathing in for 5 seconds, holding breath for 5 seconds (if possible), breathing us for 5 seconds, no breathing for 5 seconds. Repeat 3 times
d. Deep breathing is free and offers a range of calming and positive health benefits. Take the time eat sit still and fill the breathing patterns. You might feel foolish to begin with, but you will soon feel the benefits and forget about the doubters