You wake up exhausted, promise yourself you’ll go to the gym, start yoga, meditation, go easy on the coffee, drink more water, stop eating junk. Then your brain goes into overdrive thinking about everything that needs to be accomplished — deadlines, to-do lists, appointments…
Your heart races, you feel panicked. So, you work late into the evening, respond to emails, convincing yourself that it will save time in the morning. Even downtime spent with family and friends is marred with distraction as you continually check your smartphone. Finally, you’re in bed, tossing and turning. Once again, you wake up exhausted. Whew! No wonder you’re stressed.
Stress is like a drug, proposes Dr. Heidi Hanna, a fellow with the American Institute of Stress and author of the book, Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship with Stress. Both stress and drug addiction have similar symptoms: increased heart rate and blood pressure, high blood sugar, migraines, skin problems, and premature aging, to name but a few.
Our stress response is designed to motivate us to get what we need. Yet, when enough never seems to be enough in our endless search for perfection, it’s no wonder many of us experience chronic stress — exhausting days followed by sleepless nights, all the while binging on junk food and caffeine.
“The perception of never having enough,’ says Hanna, “whether it be time, money, food, energy or love — sends a message to the brain that there is a potential emergency.”
Sick of stress
The relationship between stress and illness is complicated because we all handle stress differently. Our genetics, coping style, personality, and social support all contribute to how vulnerable we are to stress. However, not all stress is bad. Stress can be positive when it’s forcing us to adapt and go that extra mile, or warning us that a lifestyle change is critical to maintaining good health.
Yet, while an acute fight-or-flight response might actually be good for our bodies, it’s the chronic, inflammatory, day-to-day (addictive) stress that contributes to major diseases. Harmful stress, called distress, produces overreaction, confusion, poor concentration, and performance anxiety, resulting in subpar performance, notes Professor Mohd. Razali Salleh, MD, an editorial board member of the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences.
A 2014 survey conducted by NPR and Harvard School of Public Health reported that 49 percent of Americans polled experienced major stress the previous year, and 26 percent experienced significant stress the previous month, citing overall responsibilities and financial problems as key contributors.
Sixty-three percent of people who experienced stress the previous month reported a negative impact on their emotional well-being. In turn, 56 percent said that the stress affected their sleep, while 50 percent said they had difficulty thinking, concentrating, and making decisions.
Sure, life happens, but our stress levels seem to be reaching epidemic proportions with symptoms that clearly affect our daily lives. Furthermore, the way we cope could be adding fuel to the fire.
We all have our favorite comfort foods — our “go-to foods” when we’re feeling anxious and stressed. In the short term, stress shuts down appetite, says Harvard Health. The brain produces stress hormones that suppress appetite, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response, and temporarily putting eating on hold. However, if stress continues, the adrenal glands then release cortisol, which increases the appetite causing us to crave high-fat and sugary foods. Once ingested, these foods seem to counteract stress — hence comfort food.
Of course, overeating isn’t the only stress-addicted behavior that’s cause for alarm. Stressed people sleep less, exercise less, and drink more alcohol, suggests Harvard Health — all of which contribute to excess weight. And, what about the foods we ingest on a day-to-day basis that may actually trigger stress.
While eating organic, fresh fruits and veggies (high in minerals and vitamins), omega-3 fatty acids, and even dark chocolate are known to help ward off stress; other foods may actually aggravate stress. Energy drinks and caffeinated colas are by far some of the worst foods for stress. New research shows that consuming one 16-ounce energy drink can raise your blood pressure and increase your stress hormone responses greatly. This raises the concern that these response changes could increase the risk of heart attack, suggests a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2015).
So the next time you reach for an energy drink, pour yourself a cup of green tea instead. Green tea, and even black tea, have long been associated with relaxation. Yet, while some teas contain caffeine, they still help you relax, thanks to an amino acid called theanine. Studies suggest that theanine acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and decreases blood pressure significantly.
Finally, it’s important to note that while stress will always be there, it doesn’t have to be addictive, and it’s how we manage it that really counts. The good news is, there’s a lot we can do to de-stress, be healthier and happier.
Take control of your life, and don’t let stress control you!
-Dr. Joshua Levitt