There is a very famous TED talk that suggests that stress is only bad for you if you believe it to be so. Now that is a very empowering idea.
And when my kids are nervous about a swim meet or an upcoming spelling test; or when I'm getting ready to speak in front of an audience, I think about this talk and I tell my kids and myself that the butterflies in our stomach, and our heart beating faster -- this is our amazing body getting ready to perform. And that we have to trust that it will perform brilliantly because we've prepared for that moment.
So yes! This TED talk offers a lot of really practical insights to deal with stressful situations and I have to say, I have found that seeing stress this way has really helped both my kids and I get past the paralysing fear of stress much more quickly so that we can focus on executing our task.
But how about the emotional stress that just eats away at you?
Today was the first day of school here in Hong Kong. Alexandra (my 5yr old) has been nervous about starting school since last week. And today, she burst into tears as we entered the classroom and held on tight, begging for me not to leave.
She ended up being fine. She stopped crying. But my heart has been in a vice all day. I've been thinking of her a lot, wondering how she's getting on. My mouth has been dry. I haven't been terribly hungry. Breakfast didn't exactly go down well. I've felt just slightly more on edge today than normal.
How do you cope with that kind of emotional stress? And frankly, that's an example of a pretty simple emotional stress because it has the promise of an easy resolution.
But how about the stress of having a sick parent or child to care for every day, a partner you don't love anymore, a job that you know you have to leave but can't, an estranged sibling that you miss. How about the stress of losing a parent too early in life or watching their inevitable decline in old age and not being able to do anything to help?
Or how about the stress of feeling like you're not good enough, not attractive enough, not wealthy enough; or the stress of not having enough time for anything: for yourself, for your partner, for your kids, your parents and your friends. How about the stress of loneliness & anxiety.
I find that it's these emotional stressors that slowly and silently eat away at us and have us reaching for that bit of sugar-love to soothe our sentimental aches.
The problem with these "stressors of the heart & soul" is that they are quite difficult to convert into positives. And to listen to anyone try to convince you that they could be, doesn't exactly help.
So, I'm not going to try. Leaving Alexandra this morning was shitty. And that shitty feeling has been my silent stress companion the whole day. And just like everyone else in this world, I carry with me a number of other little, silent stressors that form part of who I am and of the reality I live with every day.
One might argue that these silent stressors aren't major and that they largely fall under the realm of "first world problems". But they are my first world problems and on a day when a number of other things go wrong - suddenly all perspective goes down the drain!
As a holistic nutritionist, I know that there is a very real mind-body connection. There is an amazing book by Dr. Lisa Rankin entitled "Mind over Medicine", which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand how feelings like fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, resentment and other negative emotions trigger a physical response in your body.
"The stressors of daily life -- things like loneliness, unhappy relationships, work stress, financial stress, anxiety, depression -- result in forebrain thoughts and feelings that repetitively trigger the hypothalamus to elicit stress responses. The mind knows it's just a feeling, but the lizard brain thinks you're under attack."
Dr. Lisa Rankin, "Mind over Medicine".
What ends up happening?
On top of the many blood sugar and hormonal ups and downs, which I've described in past posts, this stress response also shuts down digestion by decreasing digestive enzymatic activity, often leading to indigestion, malabsorption, diarrhea (for some) or constipation (for others). Creativity and reproduction also get shut down - because as Dr Rankin states, "sex is a luxury" when the body is under attack.
And the problem is that unlike a stress event (e.g. a big presentation) which has a beginning and an end to which your body can respond to -- this kind of emotional stress is constant and continuously triggers a stress response in our body. Over time, this is like Chinese water torture on our body and leads to wear and tear and illness.
So what does one do? It's not like we can magically make our emotional stressors disappear overnight.
- MINDFULNESS & GRATITUDE JOURNAL
Dr. Rankin and other leading psychologists have conducted a mountain of research on this topic. Their findings reveal that in order to have any impact on what our conscious brain is thinking, we also need to change our subconscious thoughts. One of the most powerful ways of doing this is by keeping what I call a "Mindfulness & Gratitude Journal".
I do this with my girls after dinner because doing it with them helps me commit to it. And I basically follow the advice of renowned psychologist Shawn Achor (see his TED talk here). We journal the following:
- 3 new things we are grateful for every day
- 1 positive experience that we had today
- 1 random act of kindness we did today
Apart from being a really lovely thing to do with the girls, I find that I have become much more conscious of finding goodness in my life. I've also become much more aware of reaching out and making real connection with someone. Otherwise, I'd have nothing to put down in my journal and that would be A FAIL (not good for my A-type personality).
None of this makes my emotional stressors go away exactly, but this exercise - which takes less than 10 minutes a day - does give me perspective and helps me shift my focus from the negative to the positive.
2. TRADE UP
Those of you who've been reading my posts for a while know that my philosophy on nutrition is that it's not about giving up all of life's guilty pleasures, it's about trading up.
Here's a recipe for all you out there who want to trade up from your usual go-to sugar fix. I've tried a fair few different recipes, but I like this combo the best. You can take away the butter if you're trying to go dairy free. I also like to add in cinnamon and peppermint sometimes. I've yet to try adding a bit of cayenne but that's next on my list!
- 3/4 cup melted coconut oil
- 250g almond butter (or organic peanut butter if you want them to taste like a peanut btuter cup)
- 50g raw cacao powder
- 1/2 tspn cinnamon powder
You can also add a bit of stevia or maple syrup to sweeten. I don't because I like them like this. But you might have to train your taste buds into it.
Stir the ingredients well in a bowl. Then pour into silicon muffin holders and freeze for about 30min. I leave them in the freezer and pop one out when the urge takes hold. BUT JUST ONE PEOPLE. Just because you're trading up, doesn't mean you can have as many as you like!
From a nutritional standpoint, these are a great for stressful times because:
- Stress taxes our nervous system and we need healthy fats to coat our nerves and enhance our brain power. Our brain is fat-based & changes in fat composition can affect transmission of nervous system impulses;
- Fat helps stabilise blood sugar & hormone production -- two functions which are crucial to coping with stress;
- Stress is also taxing on our immune system and adequate fat intake can also boost immunity by aiding in the absorption of many nutrients, such as Vitamins A and D;
- Coconut oil is high in caprylic acid which is a yeast killer and sugar craving buster;
- Raw cacao is high in magnesium which is nature's relaxant.
And guess what? They taste great and feel like a treat.
And at the end of the day, why can't we have our cake and eat it too sometimes?
Stress is always going to be a part of our life, whether we like it or not. And there are times we are going to be able to deal with it and times, when we feel too overwhelmed and want to bury our head in the sand.
During these times:
- take a few minutes and look for the goodness in your life;
- reach out and be kind to someone; and
- trade up your nutrition because that's a simple act of self-love that can have an amazingly positive impact on how your mind and body work together to get you through the hump.
With love. Cristina