Are you wondering why you are constantly feeling stressed? With the holiday season approaching and a million things on your to-do list, there is no better time to talk about what stress is, how it influences our relationship with food, and what we can do to manage it!
What is Stress?
The Canadian Mental Health Association defines stress as the body’s response to a “real or perceived threat”. In general, it’s what you feel like when you have to handle more than what you are used to. Your body responds to this stress by producing hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, that speed up your heart rate, make you breathe heavier and give you a burst of energy. This response is known as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction.
There are two kinds of stress: acute and chronic.
- Acute stress, or short-term stress, can help us focus, take action or resolve a problem. In a healthy, acute stress response, adrenaline and cortisol levels will rise quickly to deal with stress, but will lower once the situation is handled.
- Chronic stress, or long-term stress occurs when stressful events happen too often or last too long. This is when we run into problems as stress hormones remain elevated and can negatively impact our health long term. Common responses to chronic stress that you may be able to relate to include stomach issues, headaches or trouble sleeping.
What’s the Connection Between Your Gut and Brain?
Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach or gotten an upset stomach due to an upcoming event? You may not have ever thought of it before, but our brain and stomach are intimately connected!
This relationship works in both directions—an upset stomach can send signals to your brain, or upsetting thoughts can send messages to your gut. No matter the direction of the signal, stress can impact our diet and gut health in a variety of ways:
- In acute, high stress situations, our appetite may be suppressed and we may eat less as a result.
- If stress becomes chronic, cortisol levels may stay elevated, increasing our appetite and cravings for high sugar, high fat foods.
You may identify as someone who doesn’t eat when stressed, or maybe you coin yourself as a stress eater. Regardless of which category you fall into, it’s clear that stress impacts all areas of our lives. So, what can we do about it?
Tips for Managing Stress
1. Identify the Sources
The very first step in managing your stress is identifying which areas of your life are causing stress. It’s easy to identify sources of stress in a major life event, like moving, losing someone you love, or starting a new path in life. However, figuring out the everyday stressors—work, relationships or finances—can be difficult. You may know that you are stressed, but it’s easy to overlook the habits and attitudes that may be contributing to your stress.
2. Reflect Daily
This is where daily reflections come in! Whether you are a pen-and-paper kind of person or you prefer online reflection tools like My Viva Plan, the actual act of reflecting can help you to identify what your everyday stressors are and guide you to find logical solutions. A good way to look at it is that reflections enable you to see your world more objectively, in the way that you might be able to see a friend’s source of stress and help them work through it with a caring and compassionate demeanor. Reflections can truly help channel self-compassion, which is an amazing thing!
If you are new to the idea of reflections, start small. Find a time in the day, whether it’s while sipping on your morning coffee or winding down in the evening, and take some time to reflect. This looks different for everyone, and that’s okay. Some simple questions you can reflect on include:
- What is one thing I did well today and what is one thing I struggled with?
- What are three things I am grateful for today?
- Did I eat my meals and snacks today?
- How much water did I drink today?
- What is my stress level on a scale of 1-5?
- I am feeling…
3. Find What Works for You
Once you have learned more about what your stressors are, you can start to develop coping strategies that work for you, whether that includes focusing on a regular sleep routine, daily exercise or journaling.
A very common coping mechanism is turning to food for comfort. This may happen in a certain environment or at a certain time of day. If this is something that you struggle with, you may notice the pattern: reaching for salty or sweet food to feel better, ending up feeling guilty from overeating, bringing us back to wanting to eat more food to feel better. You may also notice that you are not usually physically hungry when this happens.
The first step you can take to break this cycle is to offer self-compassion. If you find you end up eating to cope with stress, offer yourself kinds words that you would offer to a friend instead of beating yourself up. You will be surprised at how much of a difference this can make!
The second step you can take is finding out what activities make you feel good. Remember how much you used to love curling up with a good book or taking your dog for a walk? Come up with a stress relief toolkit of activities you love. When you are feeling stressed, you can use one of these ideas to help you feel better. This idea ties into self-care: whether it’s 10 minutes or 2 hours, try incorporating activities that you love into your daily routine.