how to deal with the stress

In my first blog on female stress symptoms, I outlined the unique ways that stress affects women’s health. Our cognitive, immune, cardiovascular, and hormonal functions are all impacted by the cascade of stressors we encounter day to day. But this blog is about solutions! Read on to learn how to deal with the stress of daily life, from research-backed foods and nutrients to movement and lifestyle changes that will take some of the pressure off.

How to deal with the stress: Foods and nutrients

Learning about stress-reducing foods and nutrients is helpful.

But getting them into your daily diet shouldn’t create even more stress! This section will review how to deal with the stress we’re all experiencing while not making more of it from complicated meal plans or supplement schedules.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C gets zapped during times of stress. This depletion can lead to fatigue and oxidative overload, eventually contributing to the imbalances we covered in the first blog.

So what can we do?

Some of the most delicious fruits and veggies are high in vitamin C, including kiwis (great paired with cottage cheese or as a side to scrambled eggs for breakfast), papaya (also wonderfully high in digestive enzymes), canteloupe, watermelon, tomatoes, strawberries, cruciferous vegetables, and all the citrus fruits.

These foods can be quickly prepped and eaten raw or incorporated into fruit salad, tomato sauce, or broccoli and beef stir-fry.

Amazingly, boring and somewhat demonized white potatoes are also wildly high in vitamin C. Ever crave a baked potato? Let yourself enjoy this hidden antioxidant root veggie with some grass-fed butter or coconut oil and lots of salt and pepper. Your stress-hormone-producing adrenals will thank you.

Certain herbs are also extremely high in vitamin C. The traditional Ayurvedic blend of three berries, called triphala, is a vitamin C powerhouse. On its own, triphala is an acquired taste. But mixed with some honey and lemon in a triphala lemonade, it’s delicious.

B vitamins

Almost every B vitamin falls victim to stress.

Why do these major classes of vitamins become depleted?

Vitamin C and B vitamins play critical roles in the production of stress hormones and macronutrient metabolism. Stress creates a large demand for energy, and these vitamins are needed in larger quantities to satisfy that demand.

Yes, you can take B vitamins in many supplements. But quality matters. And the best way to up your B vitamin intake is with one often-overlooked superfood: liver.

Yes, liver. And any type of responsibly-raised liver will do. Chicken liver is generally the most palatable, but beef or lamb liver can be slowly baked with butter, salt, pepper, mushrooms, onions, garlic, and a bit of red wine and sherry and quickly blended in a food processor to make an excellent paté. Eat it on crispy crackers or with apple slices.

Per ounce, animal foods are higher in B vitamins than plant foods. But non-fortified nutritional yeast, legumes, and dark leafy greens are also fantastic sources of B vitamins.

Blackstrap molasses is also high in some Bs and has a sweet, rich taste.

Comfort foods

Pleasure is not a reward: it’s a right. And when figuring out how to deal with the stress of your day-to-day grind, comfort foods should top the list.

To be clear, we can’t indulge in calorie-empty foods at every meal, especially during times of stress. But, comfort foods can often be cooked in a nutrient-dense way that supports the stress response versus adding to it.

Maybe you love fried chicken. Make some fried in stable coconut oil or ghee! Perhaps lasagna is your go-to comfort dish. Use well-sourced dairy and meat and make a pan. Biscuits? There are lovely gluten-free mixes available (we tested this one, and trust us, it’s top-notch).

Use your imagination and create your beloved dish with as many nutrients as you can. And if that’s not possible? Indulge responsibly.

Protein

Contrary to some nutrition information, the general public rarely meets daily dietary protein requirements. This is especially true for females. Consider the foods you’ve eaten today. How many are protein-dominant, i.e., how many have more protein than any other macronutrient?

In the rare case that you are eating plenty of protein-dominant foods, great work. You are more easily able to respond to your body’s stress response.

Why?

Protein is the backbone of enzymes, antibodies, hormones,  and tissues like skeletal muscles. It plays significant roles in hormone synthesis, even in the case of steroid hormones that begin life as cholesterol. How does cholesterol eventually end up as cortisol? Protein-based cytochrome P450 enzyme reactions. And what begins wasting as soon as our stress response gets triggered? Precious muscle tissue.

Women need protein for physiology and structure. Bodybuilding aside, our long-term health depends on healthy muscle maintenance as we age (1, 2). And stress, especially chronic stress, degrades muscle.

Try to incorporate at least one of these protein-rich foods into each meal:

  • fish and shellfish, including canned fish like sardines, herring, and anchovies
  • cottage cheese, yogurt, and Parmesan cheese
  • all forms of red meat: beef, lamb, venison, goat, etc.
  • poultry, pork, and eggs
  • non-GMO soy

Calories

Some people tend to emotionally eat or “stress eat.” Yes, it’s essential to maintain a healthy eating pattern during stressful times, but berating yourself for a few extra pounds might be asking your body to betray its biochemistry.

Stress actually increases our caloric needs. Chronic stress, especially, increases caloric and nutrient requirements due to neuronal, endocrine, and immunological demands.

If you tend to be a stress eater, work to break the pattern of turning to food. Instead, open a breathing app on your phone and go through one round of intentional breaths. Have a pack of chewing gum on hand so you can easily pop a piece. Or make a list of friends you can message to talk through what’s happening.

Once the moment has passed, however, let yourself eat. You may notice that you require more calories and more nutrient-rich foods. It’s easy to turn to quick and artificially tasty products like cookies, cakes, and candy. But eating more-than-usual amounts of purple cabbage, pastured turkey, fresh tomatoes, and easy-to-eat fruits like bananas, mandarin oranges, or pears will satiate and nourish your stressed-out body.

How to deal with the stress: Movement

Exercise is a form of stress. It’s generally thought to be good stress, sometimes called eustress. However, many scientists are now debating the terms “eustress” and “distress,” eustress’s negative counterpart (3). Our perception of an event (versus the event itself) is actually what leads to us having a negative or positive response.

Whew! Ok, so what does this mean?

It means that we all experience life in unique ways. It’s nearly impossible to generally know if something is stressful to a person or not.

While I might view a super speedy cab ride as incredibly stressful due to my history of car wrecks, you might have the time of your life because you remember driving at top speed with your beloved dad when you were a kid. And the most amazing part is that the chemicals released by our bodies reflect our psychological take on the situation (4)!

However, physical stress, often indicated by pain and inflammation, can almost always be classified as a negative form of stress. Similarly, intense exercise can overload an already tapped-out stress response and make things much worse.

Consider the difference between slow, steady, breath-centered movements like gentle yoga, Pilates, walking, gardening, dancing, and Tai Chi, or even recovery-focused resistance training, versus a 5 AM high-intensity interval training class where you force yourself to do 500 burpees in 45 minutes.

Again, based on bio-individuality, it may be that your crack-of-dawn HIIT class is exactly what the doctor ordered. But pay attention to how you respond to high-intensity or endurance forms of fitness when you’re in a stressful time of life. It may be that life stress plus intense or prolonged exercise stress is just too much.

How to deal with the stress: Lifestyle

The hidden healing of baths

Baths are the everyday application of hydrotherapy, one of the oldest natural remedies known to humans. Hydrotherapy can occur with cold water, hot water, mud, minerals, or salts…virtually any healing application of the universal solvent falls under the heading of hydrotherapy.

But there are some stress-relieving properties of baths that are often overlooked, such as buoyancy and hydrostatic pressure. Buoyancy, or the feeling of weightlessness that water provides, has documented health benefits, and, for many women, it just feels good.

Hydrostatic pressure, or the slight pressure of water against our bodies while submerged in a bath, also touts multiple positive benefits, including increased blood flow to almost every major organ (5).

Do what you love vs. what you’re “supposed” to do

Every article on how to deal with the stress of everyday life will tell you to meditate, repeat positive affirmations, and do your best to Zen out.

These are fantastic, life-affirming activities that can absolutely help relieve stress.

But not if they don’t work for you. 

Some situations leave you craving your favorite grunge band from the 90s blasting on your car stereo.

And if that’s what you need, then that’s what you should do!

Please don’t fulfill the popular prescription for stress if what you really need is your own personal way of dealing with it. Screaming into a pillow, crocheting alone while enjoying your favorite coffee drink, or having someone watch the kids so you can delve into an afternoon of deep cleaning your office might be your perfect solution.

Body Scan

If you are on the hunt for a mindfulness exercise, I highly recommend the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction exercise called the Body Scan. This guided meditative-like activity is simple in action but powerful in effect: you’re asked to follow your guide’s voice as it leads you through each part of your body. During this time, you notice what is.

Nothing needs to change. Nothing needs to be labeled. You just observe.

Research reveals the psychological benefits of the Body Scan and also that the practice can reduce the stress hormone cortisol and the cortisol/DHEA ratio (6).

If you’d like to try it out, Laura Martin of River Rock Mindfulness offers multiple-length Body Scans on her site.

Say no

It’s awfully hard to say no sometimes. I understand.

But we must if we want to reduce stress.

No, I can’t clean that right now. No, I can’t bring cupcakes to school for the last-minute bake sale. No, I can’t stay up late to work concessions.

The “no” may need to be directed inward, too.

No, I’m not eating the muffin—I’m choosing eggs, veggies, and toast, instead.

Thankfully, cultural awareness is growing around the heavy weight of women’s invisible labor, i.e., the million points you organize in your head so you and your family’s schedules stay in sync. This recognition can make it easier to say no to what will add to your stress and say yes to what you need.

So start by saying no in small moments and see if your stress levels decrease.

Unplug

Put your phone on airplane mode and get in the bathtub with your favorite book or magazine.

Shut your laptop and go for a 15-minute walk.

Turn off the TV and pull out the cards or board games for your family.

Unplugging is an incredible stress reliever. Consider that even positive information can still be an overwhelming amount of input for a maxed-out nervous system.

Additionally, too much screen time (and the overworking that often comes with it) can interrupt the subtle workings of our brains. If you’re having trouble sleeping or can’t seem to shake the “tired but wired” feeling, it might be due to the many devices that are now a regular part of our lives (7).

Masturbate

Unfortunately, masturbation doesn’t make it into many stress-relief blogs. The topic is still culturally taboo.

But masturbation works as a beautiful way to relax and release stress. It fills our bodies with tension-melting endorphins and neurotransmitters, the anti-anxiety hormone oxytocin and anti-inflammatory testosterone. Amazingly, it also influences our endocannabinoid system (8) and may even offer pain relief (9).

As with any intense, pleasure-based activity (think: super-tasty comfort foods), we must make sure masturbation doesn’t become compulsory or addictive. The overuse of pornography or erotica can add to this risk. So, be aware of your habits. Self-pleasure should be pleasurable, not a dependency.

 

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6382937/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4864252/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32302008/
  4. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00127/full
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6479732/
  6. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-019-01222-7
  7. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0747563217306908
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29110806/
  9. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/10.1080/10532528.1995.10559904