Self-care habits for a stress-free life
Modern living and stress seem to go hand-in-hand sometimes. It probably isn’t a surprise to you that the stress can have a significant impact on mental wellbeing.
But that stress – and the impacts it has on your mental wellbeing – can also impact you physiologically, potentially hindering the achievement of health goals such as losing weight or improving digestive function. Luckily, you can cultivate some beneficial self-care habits for a stress-free life – or at least, a stress-managed life!
So what is stress, exactly?
The stress response is an evolutionary strategy to cope with immediate dangers, like an approaching tiger or a Monday-morning inbox full of unread emails. In response to an external threat, your adrenal glands release cortisol and noradrenaline. These chemical messengers enable you to either stand and fight or flee as fast as you can.
Even though you’re probably not facing down any angry tigers in your day-to-day life, your body doesn’t know that.
Stresses from work, relationships or financial pressures are interpreted by your body in the same way as a hungry carnivore would be, and that can lead you into a permanent state of emergency. This is significant, as stress can be the underlying reason for a seemingly unrelated bodily imbalance, such as an inability to digest well when you’re under the gun at work.
Chronic stress can have widespread negative effects, such as:
- Irregular blood sugar control – cortisol signals the release of sugars into the bloodstream in anticipation that muscles will need the fuel to help you run from danger. These sugar spikes can lead to irritability in the short-term and weight gain in the long-term if the sugars are not utilized as muscle fuel and instead converted to fat. A lack of sleep can also lead to poor dietary choices and an increase in coffee consumption.
- Poor digestion – reduced digestive secretions can lead to poor absorption of nutrients, bloating, abdominal pain and reflux.
- Hormonal imbalances – lack of libido, menstrual irregularity and fertility issues can all arise when your body switches to making stress hormones in preference to sex hormones.
Often when we are under pressure, the most important things go by the wayside: sleep, exercise, quality time with the family, time to yourself, and healthy eating.
Here are some tips to look after yourself to ensure you can maximize productivity with your business as well as your health.
1. Nourish yourself
This will help maintain energy levels, balance blood sugar levels and provide fuel for your brain so you can work more productively. I always suggest setting aside an hour on a Sunday afternoon to prepare some good food for the week. Such things might include:
- Toast several trays of mixed veggies use as a base for a salad for lunches as well as adding to curries and quiches. Include a combination of veggies like cauliflower, capsicum (bell peppers for our non-Kiwi and non-Aussies), zucchini, onion, garlic, kumara (try sweet potato or yam if you’re not in New Zealand), and eggplant to ensure you are getting a wide range of nutrients along with fibre to keep bowels healthy. Store in the fridge for up to four days.
- Vegetable quiche. This provides protein to keep blood sugar levels stable (which helps beat the sweet cravings). Protein is also crucial for a healthy immune system. Plus, quiche is one of those miracle foods that works for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in winter or summer!
- Veggie sticks: carrot, capsicum and celery sticks are a great snack to keep on hand. If you cut these up in advance, add a small amount of water to the bottom of the container and then seal it – they should stay crunchy for around 10 days. A delicious and nutritious snack is celery sticks with a nut butter spread down the centre.
- Hummus: this is cheap and easy to make and stores well in the fridge for 5-6 days. The main ingredients are chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and water (almighty Google will provide heaps of recipe options). Hummus provides protein and is great with veggie sticks or rice crackers for a healthy snack, or as a spread in a sandwich or wrap.
- Nuts and seeds: put around 2 tablespoons of mixed nuts and seeds into small containers for a portion-controlled snack. Each nut and seed has a different nutrient profile so choose a variety! Almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds are all great (and tasty) options. Preparing a week’s worth means you can leave them in your desk drawer or handbag.
- Soup: add shank bones, soup mix water and lots of veggies to a big pot for a nourishing, easy meal. Soup also freezes well, so you could store some smaller servings for future meals.
2. Prioritize quality sleep
Studies show that adults need around 7-9 hours of sleep each night. After the sun sets, the body naturally starts to reduce production of cortisol (a stress hormone) and starts to manufacture melatonin. If you’re consistently working late at night, this sleep-wake hormonal cycle becomes imbalanced. You’ll work less efficiently and be more prone to illnesses. Try to adopt good ‘sleep hygiene’ techniques:
- No screen time half an hour before bedtime
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon
- Use natural fibers for your bedding (cotton, wool, feather) as they breathe more, meaning you’re less likely to wake due to body temperature changes
- Take magnesium after dinner; magnesium is a wonderful mineral that our nervous system depletes when under stress, so replenishing it can help ensure quality sleep
- Try a cup of Red Seal relaxing tea, which has a great blend of herbs to promote relaxation
3. Move your body
Often when we are pushed for time, exercise gets neglected, but it helps with circulation, healthy blood pressure and stress management — and that’s just some of it! Find something you enjoy doing, whether it be a regular gym class, dance lessons or a walk in your lunch break. You’ll benefit from getting out of the office environment for some fresh air and a break.
Try to leave your phone behind and focus on your surroundings and your feelings of gratitude.
Notice the colours of autumn and feel grateful you have fresh air you can breathe and that you live in a safe place.
4. Make a schedule to keep your balance
Some people find drawing a pie chart and checking it regularly helps to keep balance. On the pie chart include a portion devoted to work, play, time for yourself, exercise, family time and sleep. Setting aside time for a regular massage, yoga or reading a book is not selfish.
Think of recharging your batteries as making yourself the healthiest you can possibly be.
Stress is an inevitable part of modern life, but it needn’t get the better of you nor keep you from reaching your health goals. There will always be times when there is more pressure on at work and some of these suggestions may not be possible but health and wellbeing is about what you do most of the time, not some of the time.
Guest author: Dee is a modern naturopath based in Dunedin who focuses on keeping health and wellbeing simple. She does regular guest speaking and health segments on several radio stations, and writes a health column for the Otago Daily Times newspaper. Check out Deanna’s site.