Keep Stress From Getting to You Now
Chronic stress, the kind so many of us wrestle with day in and day out, can cause serious health consequences. With that in mind — and with all the extra stress we're all facing these days — we asked experts to craft strategies to help with the five biggest health casualties of stress: your weight, heart, gut, immune system, and mind.
Stress Target 1: Your Weight
Finding fewer and fewer things in your closet that fit? Stress might be to blame for your weight gain. Many women struggle with emotional eating and turn to their fridge for comfort. But it doesn’t stop there.
When stressed, “you’re also more apt to give up on other healthy routines like exercise or meditation that help you maintain your weight,” says Melanie Greenberg, psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity.
To make matters worse, cortisol, the primary hormone released during stress, makes your body retain belly fat, which can lead to problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, Greenberg says.
What to Do: Plan
“Stock your kitchen with healthy foods that you actually want to reach for,” Greenberg says.
And make sure you’re getting enough rest. “Lack of sleep weakens your natural willpower; it’s always harder to watch your weight when you’re sleep-deprived,” she adds. That might mean prioritizing sleep over an early morning workout.
If you’re struggling with emotional eating and feel out of control, see a professional therapist or join OA for help.
Stress Target 2: Your Heart
You know how you can feel your heart beating faster in stressful situations? Think of it as your heart saying, “Hey, this isn’t good for me!”
An occasional racing heart is usually no big deal, but chronic stress can result in high blood pressure and damaged arteries that can put you at greater risk of a heart attack.
What to Do: Avoid What You Can and Distract Yourself
Whenever possible, take a break from a stressful situation. That might mean stepping away from the news and getting outside, says Dr. Mithu Storoni, author of Stress-Proof: The Scientific Solution to Protect Your Brain and Body — and Be More Resilient Every Day.
“Go for a walk, let out your emotions, then return when you’re more in control of yourself,” she says.
If you’re not willing to do it for yourself, think about the people you're around.
And while intense sweat sessions work for some people trying to de-stress, Storoni is a fan of walking and other gentle activity to reduce cortisol levels. Giving your brain a workout works too, she says, as long as you’re spending your energy on something other than the stressor. “Immerse yourself in an activity that engages your executive brain and attention immediately after an emotionally stressful experience, like a memory game or Words With Friends on your phone, so your mind can’t dwell on what just happened,” she advises.
Stress Target 3: Your Gut
When something’s wrong, you can often feel it in your gut (literally). And chronic stress can leave you with a host of gastrointestinal problems, from ulcers and acid reflux to irritable bowel syndrome. It can even increase your risk of diabetes.
When you’re under stress, your liver produces blood sugar to give you energy to get through it. But if you’re chronically stressed, your body may not be able to keep pace with the continual surge.
What to Do: Put Good Things In
The advice is simple: Eat nutritious foods, and don’t overeat.
A healthy diet will help you avoid stomach upset and blood sugar spikes. Keep a food diary to see what you eat and how you feel afterward — including any emotional changes.
Greenberg also recommends ensuring you’re getting healthy probiotics in your diet, including fermented foods like yogurt to promote healthy gut bacteria.
The more stressful your life, the more important it is to have things planned for the future that bring you pleasure.
Dr. Mithu Storoni
Stress Target 4: Your Immune System
Ever get a cold or a stomach bug when you’re stressed? Then you’ve experienced the connection between stress and your immune system firsthand.
Unchecked stress hinders the body’s ability to fight off illness or manage one you already have.
What to Do: Rest, Exercise and Call Your Friends
Feeling stressed? Go to sleep. Or take one of those brisk walks we mentioned earlier.
Adequate rest and exercise can give your immune system a significant boost, Greenberg says. She also recommends foods rich in omega-3s, such as salmon; as well as garlic, black tea, turmeric and chicken soup, the old standby.
Or feed your immune system in more fun ways, like meeting your friend for a virtual glass of wine.
“Don’t discount the importance of social support and connecting with others,” Greenberg says. “But ensure you’re talking to the right person — someone you trust — because some people can make your stress worse.”
Stress Target 5: Your Mental State
Stress is bad for your mental and emotional health. But chronic stress can result in depression, anxiety, panic attacks, memory loss and impaired concentration.
What to Do: Get Help
Chronic stress and anxiety can be treated with therapy and medications, if necessary.
“If you’re experiencing stress or unhappiness that’s interfering with your life or with accomplishing daily tasks, it’s time to seek help,” Greenberg says.
Of course, try as you might, you can’t prevent or avoid all the stress that life throws at you. Some of it is just out of your hands. But that’s all the more reason to treat yourself to healthy pick-me-ups whenever and wherever possible.
“The more stressful your life, the more important it is to have things planned for the future that bring you pleasure,” Storoni says.