What is stress?
According to researcher Dr. Richard Lazarus and his colleagues, stress is the response to demands that tax or exceed one's mental, emotional, and/or physical resources. Most of us think of stress as being negative, but it can also be positive: happy events tax or exceed our resources, too! Also, recalling past stress or anticipating a stressor can create stress. The body does not distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' stress. It views all stressors as demands--usually only temporary--for more energy output. The body's long-term response to chronic stress is serious.
Food and stress
Here's what happens within a split second when your body responds to a stressor (be it a sharp word or a life-threatening emergency): blood pressure rises and pulse rate increases in order to speed nutrients where they are needed; blood sugar increases to provide instant energy; vitamin C is mobilized to fight infection; B vitamins, calcium, and other minerals are drawn from the bones to stimulate muscles; irrelevant body functions slow down (i.e., digestion); sodium content (and water retention) increase to prevent dehydration. Afterwards, protein which was broken down to form blood sugar in the stressful moment cannot be reused as protein. Vitamin C and B vitamins are excreted and no longer available. Minerals cannot be reinstated into the bones. Therefore, people under chronic stress can become deficient in B vitamins, vitamin C, protein and minerals. This is why it is so important to attend to your diet when under, or following, prolonged periods of stress. Make sure to eat in a calm, relaxed environment, since if you are under stress when you eat, you will not completely digest your food.
When the body is forced to draw on reserves of protein for blood sugar for instant energy, protein is taken first from the adrenal glands, then from the thymus and lymph glands, and then from the muscles. People under chronic stress who are not eating enough protein are actually digesting their own muscles in order to physically cope with the effects of stress! Because of the demands stress makes on the body, repeated or prolonged stress can cause a host of physical difficulties, including adrenal exhaustion, heart problems, central nervous system difficulties, and digestive problems. It is also a leading cause of depression.
Coping with stress
Reframing the stressor really does work! Research shows that finding something positive in the stress you are experiencing ("I am learning to cope with difficulties in a new way," "I am testing myself to break this negative pattern of behavior," and so on) actually reduces the physical response to stress and the length of time it takes to heal from its effects. Research also shows that seeking social support (for women) and making a plan to solve the problem (for men) decreases stress. Because there are so many physical effects, it is crucial to do some type of exercise when under stress. As little as a 10-minute, brisk walk three times a day, four days a week (or 50 minutes of exercise at your own fitness level three times a week--be it running, jogging, or simply walking) can help ease the stress response. Exercise which also teaches you to calm the mind and control the breath, such as a martial art or yoga, can be particularly helpful for anxiety. Meditation training and spiritual or religious study have also been shown by research to reduce the duration, severity, and negative physical effects of stress in adults.
Focus on Nurturing Your Body
In times of great stress, we can forget the importance of paying special, grateful attention to our bodies. Activities which target our physical selves can be soothing, release muscle tension, and quiet the mind. Here are a few ideas for each of the five senses:
Vision: Buy or pick one beautiful flower; go out in nature and find a small object you like and bring it home; make a space in your room for your spirit; light a candle and watch the flame; set yourself a nice place at the table using your best things; go to a museum; sit in the lobby of a beautiful hotel; take walks in nature and notice tiny things growing; go out late at night and watch the stars; look at a photography book in a bookstore; go to a dance performance or watch one on TV; be mindful of each sight that passes before you.
Hearing: Listen to soothing music; pay attention to the sounds of nature around you; sing you favorite songs; hum a soothing tune; learn to play an instrument; call 800 or other free information numbers listed in the beginning of your phone book or listen to talk radio to hear a human voice; go near a playground or park and listen to the children.
Smell: Use your favorite lotion or cologne; spray fragrance in the air; light a scented candle; burn scented essential oils; put lemon oil on your furniture; boil cinnamon; bake cookies, cake, or bread; smell roses; walk in a wooded area and breathe in the fresh smells.
Taste: Have a good meal; have a favorite soothing drink such as herbal tea or hot cocoa; treat yourself to dessert; put whipped cream on your coffee; sample flavors in an ice cream or yogurt store; suck on peppermint candy; chew gum; get a little bit of something special you don't usually splurge on, like fresh-squeezed orange juice; eat slowly, really tasting the food you eat.
Touch: Put clean sheets on the bed; take a warm bath; pet a dog or cat; have a massage; soak your feet; put lotions on; put a cold towel on your forehead; sink into a comfortable chair; put on a silky piece of clothing; try on fur-lined gloves in a department store; brush your hair for a long time; hug someone; hug yourself tightly; rub the area over your heart in slow, circular motions.
Avoid anything that stimulates your nervous system, including caffeine (found in chocolate, tea, coffee, colas, and many over-the-counter preparations). Use tips for a good night's sleep. Treat yourself gently, and ask others to understand you are under a lot of stress at the moment. Turn down obligations that you can do without. Rest.