Some years ago, when I was working in a high-stress job, I realized I had made a mistake that could potentially have serious consequences. I should have caught it earlier, but somehow it slipped under my radar. As I stared at my computer screen, trying to figure out where I went wrong, I felt all the muscles in my face, neck, jaw, and shoulders tense. My breathing became very shallow and my eyes focused into tunnel vision. I started sweating. I was completely overwhelmed.
I stood up from my desk and walked into the ladies’ restroom. I started Square Breathing to get my body under control. I looked myself in the mirror and said, “Cath, you can either have a meltdown right here in the bathroom, or you can deal with this one step at a time.” I took a long time to continue Square Breathing until I was calm enough to go back to my desk.
Eventually everything worked itself out – of course it wasn’t as bad as I imagined it to be. But I will never forget that day or the terrifying sensations I felt.
When we are overwhelmed by stress, our bodies can go into “fight or flight mode.” Often, it doesn’t take much: bad news at work, grief, or even long-term low-level anxiety about something. When a threat is perceived (or built up over time), the autonomic nervous system automatically triggers the body into action: the adrenal glands start releasing stress hormones, breathing becomes more rapid to get more oxygen to the brain, the heart beats more rapidly to send more oxygenated blood to the muscles, and the thyroid gland automatically stimulates the metabolism. This is all to ensure that you can run away or fight back if needed.
But as you can imagine, if we are under constant stress, then this reaction may be happening on a low level for a long time, and wearing our bodies down. Not good.
Aside from making big, systemic changes to the stress factors in our lives (i.e., switching jobs or ending negative relationships), there are small things we can do to manage stress.
I mentioned Square Breathing. This is a practice where you inhale for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and pause for four seconds. Don’t think of anything else but your breathing. This practice helps to ground you in the present moment and bring a balanced amount of oxygen to your organs.
The University of Texas at Austin’s Counseling and Mental Health Center has a cool project called Stress Recess which gives helpful and practical steps for dealing with stress. I especially like their tips on what to eat and what to avoid to curb unhelpful “fight or flight” reactions. It turns out that the biggest culprits of aggravating stress are:
- beef, veal
- lard, cooking fats
- processed cereals
- high salt, high saturated fats
- white flour
We often turn to these “comfort foods” (ok maybe not veal) when we’re stressed. But they actually aggravate stress because they can increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and cholesterol. A few better options to munch on as you’re racing through that deadline, running from appointment to appointment, or trying to figure out your taxes (!) are:
- Whole Grains – Whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat flour are rich in magnesium, and magnesium deficiency has been shown to lead to anxiety. They also contain tryptophan, which converts into serotonin, a “feel good” neurotransmitter in the brain.
- Almonds – Almonds are high in zinc and iron. Zinc is key for healthy moods and iron boosts our mental and physical energy, to sustain us through stress.
- Chocolate – Yes that’s right! Pure dark chocolate without added sugars or milk reduces cortisol – the stress hormone that causes anxiety symptoms. Chocolate also has compounds that improve mood. All right!!
- Water – Studies have found that persistent dehydration correlates to persistent stress in as many as 25% of those who suffer from anxiety. Think of water as a soothing balm for your insides.
So next time you feel your stress levels rising, take a (square) breather…maybe with a square of chocolate too.