How to develop healthier responses to stress

What do you do after a stressful week?

We all know what we probably should do. Do some exercise, eat some nourishing food, drink water, have a bath, rest. All the things that will allow our bodies to recover from the impacts of stress.

However, if you’re anything like us, you probably do the exact opposite.

Pour yourself a hug glass of wine (or several), give yourself the night off the gym, order a takeaway, maybe you smoke more than normal, or have a wild night out with friends.

Letting loose and treating yourself to exactly what you want after a period of stress or hard work is normal – and can be healthy. Blowing off our responsibilities and giving into our basic needs can feel really good.

However, if you’re getting to a point where your response to stress is always something unhealthy – and you’re doing it every week – you might want to consider breaking the cycle.

Why do we crave unhealthy things when we’re stressed?

I know when I am really stressed because I only have an appetite for beige, processed food.

My normally varied, healthy and balanced diet goes out the window and the thought of eating a piece of broccoli makes me feel sick. But why does this happen? Why does my stress response include an overwhelming desire to eat chicken nuggets or frozen pizza for every meal?

If you also find yourself bingeing on processed foods and sugar when you’ve had a hard week, there’s a chemical process that could be at fault here.

‘Stress activates a chemical in the brain called neuropeptide Y that can stimulate the craving for fat and sugar,’ says Abbas Kanani, lead pharmacist and health advisor for Chemist Click.

‘Eating processed foods can often make you feel temporarily happy and release good chemicals in the brain which help to counteract the feelings of stress, but these are only temporary and are doing more harm than good to your body.’ 

In fact, pretty much all of our stress responses can be linked back to chemicals in our body.

‘Stress is related to cortisol,’ says Georgia St John-Smith, yoga teacher and founder of Sancti Wellness.

‘When this hormone is released into our body, we can find ourselves feeling really overwhelmed and looking for something that will bring us comfort quickly, this is where we can find ourselves reaching for vices like comfort eating and drinking alcohol as they are usually easy and quick to find.’

There’s definitely an element of needing things to be easy involved in my questionable diet decisions when I’m stressed. The thought of cooking for more than 15 minutes feels overwhelming. This isn’t uncommon.

Abbas explains that there is a physiological reason for these responses to stress.

‘Physically, many things tend to happen when we are stressed – such as an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, tightened or stiff muscles, quick breathing and your senses may become sharper,’ he says.

‘All of this experienced over a long period of time because of chronic stress, can have a negative impact on the body and cause a multitude of long-term health problems.’

Abbas says stress can trigger unhealthy responses and make us choose unhealthy lifestyle choices, he says this is often to help take our mind off of the physical and mental symptoms.

‘So, if you find stress is causing your brain to work at 100 miles per hour, drinking or smoking may alleviate this by numbing or relaxing these sensations,’ he adds.

Kayleigh Frost, head of clinical support at Health Assured, says stress can cause us to have these knee-jerk responses, and inhibit our ability to think beyond the current moment.

‘When under stress, the rationale or decisive part of your brain tends to shut down, which can lead to defaulting to “quick wins” to alleviate such feelings in the present moment,’ Kayleigh tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Due to these unhealthy habits essentially being coping strategies, in the short term they may actually work, but longer-term they are not conducive to managing stress. All of these types of responses have a domino effect which lead to longer-term physical and emotional issues.’

Can you change your response to stress?

So, how do you break the cycle? Can you become the kind of person who goes for a long run to clear their head, or decides to do yoga and drink water instead of chugging a whole bottle of wine?

‘A certain level of stress can help individuals to perform and have drive, but there needs to be a point of self-awareness of when you may hit a level of “strain” when it comes to stress levels,’ says Kayleigh.

‘It is really important to understand what makes you feel good (in a healthy way), but look to incorporate new habits or routines, such as trying out mindfulness, a new form of exercise, creating an evening routine.’

Kayleigh also suggests that you should review your morning routine.

‘This sets the scene for the day ahead and allows you to start with some structure and routine, feeling more in control,’ she says. ‘Stick to this routine for a couple of weeks at least, and over time this will be part of your daily life.’

For Georgia, the key to retraining your stress response is consistency.

‘At first, you may need to push yourself to choose a healthy option – like exercising, going for a walk, meditating, yoga, whatever it is – all of those things make you feel good and produce serotonin which reduces stress,’ says Gerogia.

‘Being consistent with making these choices will program your brain to remember how you felt when you chose a walk over wine.

‘I think it also helps to have things out that support healthier choices. So, leave your yoga mat out before you leave to work if you think it may be a particularly stressful day, so it’s the first thing you see when you get back. Or set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to go for a walk and don’t push your expectations too much, usually even a 10 minute workout can help to clear your mind.’

How to stick to healthier routines

No matter how good our intentions are, when our stress levels are really spiking, even the best-laid plans can go to pot.

But, it is possible to make healthier decisions in response to stress – and stick with them long-term.

Kayleigh says it’s important to have realistic goals: ‘Don’t expect to be zen and stress-free by doing five minutes of mindfulness on a one-off, this needs to be done over time and incorporated into your life.

‘With exercise, don’t expect to be able to run a half marathon after a couple of weeks in the gym, you need to set smaller milestones.’

Georgia adds that routine and making an effort to make healthy choices over and over again will help them to become habitual.

‘Routine helps a lot with minimising the stress that you have,’ she says. ‘For example, if you have a lot of anxiety around the tasks you have to get done, creating to-do lists and planning your day will help you to not feel as overwhelmed.

‘Incorporating healthier habits even on days when you’re not feeling stressed will help to form a habit.’

It’s also important to remember that sometimes you just have to listen to your body – even if it’s telling you that you need something ‘unhealthy’.

Life is hard and stress feels horrible – so don’t beat yourself up if you need to spend the day eating junk food and watching Netflix. Self-care isn’t always pretty or holistic.

‘Being able to reward yourself is key, and is a great way to ensure you keep a good balance,’ says Kayleigh. ‘Don’t be hard on yourself if you do slip, this can be counter-productive and can fuel anxieties and potential destructive behaviours.’

Georgia agrees: ‘If your body is telling you to rest and binge watch a Netflix show instead of working out – that’s okay! Allowing yourself the balance and to rest will actually motivate you to push yourself the next day.’

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