Creating a Stress-Relieving Lifestyle, Part I: Diet

Stress can be difficult to pin down because it is a very individual thing. Biologically, the stress response was vital for our evolutionary survival: when we were on the hunt or being chased by a predator, is was ESSENTIAL that our heart quicken, our adrenaline spiked, and that our blood rushed away from nonessential survival functions, like digestion, to muscles to aid in our success. It was, after all, a matter of life and death.

The interesting thing about stress is that the mind, and therefore body, has the same response to real, life-threatening situations as it does to situations that are perceived as stressful (like being yelled at by your boss). The response is the same. For many of us, this fight-or-flight response has become chronic, which has significant consequences for our health – decreased immunity, impaired digestion, lowered libido…we are living a life that feels constantly threatened.

So how can we begin to lessen these ill-effects of our stressful lives? The key is in our lifestyle choices. To begin, let’s explore the foundation of a positive, low-stress lifestyle. This foundation is made up of three building blocks: diet, sleep, and exercise. No stress reduction program will be successful in the long term unless you have this solid foundation. Today, we’ll focus on the first foundation: proper eating.

There are no quick fixes. With this in mind, set small, achievable goals for yourself.

For many people, meals have become an afterthought, made up of fast food and frozen items in boxes. Most adults know what they should eat – they just don’t eat it. In 2010, the Center for Disease Control in the United States estimated that less than a quarter of adults get their recommended serving of fruits and vegetables each day.

Sticking to a healthy diet is a key part of managing stress. Giving your body the proper fuel will give you the energy you need to battle the harmful effects of stress. The old adage, “You are what you eat!” is a cliché for a reason.  

Any changes in diet, sleep, and exercise must be life-style oriented. There are no quick fixes. With this in mind, set small, achievable goals for yourself. Perhaps this week your goal will be to eat a piece of fruit every day. Or, perhaps you’ll swap out that lunchtime burger for a salad.

Remember that any progress is very individual. Don’t expect yourself to start eating like an Olympic athlete as soon as you make the decision to improve your lifestyle. Celebrate each healthy choice, such as every time you say no to that bag of chips, every time you choose vegetables, or every time you eat a smaller portion. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you make an unhealthy choice, just focus on doing better the next time. Remember, two steps forward and one step back is still progress.

Stay tuned next week for Part II: Sleep!