Feeling stressed out? We can tell. Charlotte Watts lists the 11 things only super stressed out people would say
There are some real clues when I see clients as to the level of stress that people have been living under and the point where they may be at breaking, close to burnout or on the edge of running out of resources – even to the point of adrenal fatigue or exhaustion. Many of these red flags are in the language they use to describe how they view themselves or their habits.
So many of the stress burdens people carry are about how much they expect themselves to do, how much they expect themselves to achieve and ideas that relaxing or being restful or in recovery are somehow bad. Unraveling these limiting beliefs and finding new ways to approach how we fill our time and how we nourish ourselves enough to keep going without crashing, can take changes in attitude and lifestyle that have far reaching consequences. Here is a simple guide to help you help yourself.
I’m so overwhelmed, I can’t cope
The feeling of being overwhelmed is a reaction to too much impetus, not enough space, too much stimulation and the feeling that we want to run away from a constant barrage of input and overload. Being overwhelmed is sometimes described as flooding where the nervous system is receiving too much and even though anxiety is often common, we can actually also respond by a rush of beta-endorphins (feel good brain chemicals) that can help us get through these difficult times by giving us a bit of a high. It’s an ungrounded, heady and even spacy feeling that can feel quite nice as it’s basically an escape, but coming back to being grounded in the present moment is a better coping strategy as it allows you to recognise when you’ve had enough steer yourself away from agitation and panic.
Being overwhelmed is sometimes described as flooding where the nervous system is just receiving too much
Staying with this ‘flooding’ as our usual response means that getting loads done or even doing any activity to excess can actually have quite an addictive quality, so we keep going. For instance some people might feel this endorphin flooding when they go running. Rather than this being mindful activity where they can respond to changes in needs of their body, they might feel more injury because they’re simply running on those highs of endorphins rather than being able to connect to their body – so they push on through.
Being overwhelmed in everyday life is very much the same. We just keep going without listening to the signs that our body has had enough and this separation between mind and body means a loss of communication about when to up the energy and when to come down again.
We just keep going without listening to the signs that our body has had enough
Expecting ourselves to simply keep going continually, to keep taking on information in newspapers, on social media, our Facebook feeds, the news; expecting ourselves to keep up with all of the current events and even social trends and…. take a breath….. what’s going on at the cinema or new books – all of that extra input and expectation gives no room to allow ourselves space.
Our brains need lots of lovely space to come down to reset, to recover, to renew, to rejuvenate and also to simply drop away from doing mode to a more reflective tone, where we often find inspiration, creativity and much more joy in life.
What to do instead: Look out for signs when you may be overwhelmed so you can pre-empt this agitation and overload starting. These might include prickly skin, tight jaw, prickly inside the back of the skull, tightness on the skin of the head, clenched hands, tired eyes, brain racing or feeling irritable. Recognising your cues gives you the opportunity to create space. So, that might mean to walk away from your emails when the constant barrage suddenly gets too much. You’re actually much more likely to finish them productively in a tone and content that reflects your best side and without making mistakes you have to pick up after.
If the overwhelm comes from being locked at a desk, then getting up moving around really helps as it means your whole body finds space and thus prevents the feeling like it’s all too much for you to handle. Moving your shoulders, moving through the hips (where many people hold their stress), moving around in your belly, taking some deep breaths and sighing out, moving your arms up and over your head all unlock stress held as body tension. Anything that gets circulation back and lets your body know that it doesn’t need to be constricted and ‘locked in’ helps lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Anything that gets circulation back and lets your body know that it doesn’t need to be constricted and locked in also helps lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol
Learning to say no and creating good boundaries based not just on what other people want from you, but what you need to present your best work, self or company, benefits everyone. You probably appreciate it when people let you know how they feel with kind language and it helps others to feel safe and that they’re not taking the Michael when you say yes to everything.
Learning to say no based on what you need to present your best work, self or company, benefits everyone
I should be able to handle going out but I just can’t face it
Going out in the evening takes energy and means leaving the warmth, comfort and safety of the cave. If we’ve been overwhelmed, overstressed or overburdened, we can be very depleted in energy. One of the ways that we conserve energy is by avoiding people, avoiding noisy situations and not feeling we have to communicate and emote. If you’re feeling that when things get too much, you want to avoid people, it may well be that you’re more on the introvert scale than a natural extrovert.
Being introverted isn’t about shyness or about lack of confidence but really just about our recovery style
Being introverted isn’t about shyness or about lack of confidence but really just about our recovery style. Introverts need to be away from people to recover energy and resources after excitation, work and being around other people. Extroverts on the other hand thrive when tired and bounce back with the company of others. For an introvert, this could tire them out more and even push them over the edge of feeling to extreme tiredness the next day from lack of well-needed recovery.
You’ll often find introverts in the kitchen at parties or even running away for a toilet break when small talk becomes too much. Introverts can feel quite stressed by talking in groups too.
Introverts can feel quite stressed by talking in groups too.
What to do instead: It doesn’t matter that we label ourselves one or the other, but what does matter is that we recognise our needs, not those compared to other people but what we really need. So, if we have a group of friends for instance who thrive on going out and having lots of stimulus and noise and lights to recharge and we simply don’t feel that way, to pitch ourselves against their needs, their type isn’t going to serve our health in the long run.
That’s not to say that we need to ditch these people as friends but rather pace at our own stride and flow. Maybe that means just going out with them once a week rather than two or three times. Maybe that means suggesting sitting down and having dinner together rather than a busy pub. Maybe it means having lunch rather than dinner all the time. There are many creative choices to meet people in ways that serve everyone rather than just some people who are more sensitive to overload, falling at a pace that is set by those with most energy.
We do live in a culture that applauds more extroverted behaviour, so often we feel that if we aren’t able to go out and party with the best of them, then there must be something wrong with us (or we must be boring) and that really isn’t the case. You may find that if you talk to some of your friends, some might be feeling the same way and everyone just feels like they have to keep up a show. Finding new ways to meet and stay in relation to people can be relieving for many parties. That might mean having nights in with films, meeting for walks at the weekends and maybe it means our leisure time revolving less around alcohol and more around deeper, meaningful chats.
Being open to different ways of serving your best needs and recognising that when you need rest isn’t missing out
Being open to different ways of serving your best needs and recognising that when you need rest isn’t missing out or ducking out, probably you’ll find there’s many, many people on the sofa quite relieved they’re not in a busy pub right now.
I’m so snappy and irritable, I must be a really horrible person
It’s a key sign of being stressed out when we don’t have a sense of equanimity, calm and balance when around other people. Stress involves making continual survival decisions about whether to approach or withdraw people and situations. For many of us, meeting so very many people all the time and even being forced to be around people when we would prefer to walk away means that our boundaries are really tested and we may have a short fuse when dealing with others. This can be particularly true if you work in an office or have to deal with teams in your job.
Being snappy and irritable is a sign that we don’t have much elasticity left
Being snappy and irritable is a sign that we don’t have much elasticity left, that there’s not much adaptability or flexibility in our outlook. At that point we’re just left with the capacity for stress-based kneejerk responses that in all intents and purposes actually mean “Just go away and leave me alone.” That doesn’t make you a horrible person. It makes you someone who can’t take any more coming at you, who can’t take any more questions because they demand energy of you that you simply don’t have any more. There are no resources left.
Now, it’s not always going to be practical to be able to take yourself away and maybe rock in the corner, which is what some of us feel like doing some of the time. Rather it’s better to look at how we can start to replenish our resources and make sure that we have the nourishment, the backup and the sense of grounding we need to be able to present ourselves and meet others in our best light and communicate in ways that we would like to be talked to ourselves. This are particularly true when everyone is getting irritable and everyone needs a break.
A healthy intervention can save us from the effects of our more punchy selves.
What to do instead: Ensure that you step away, take breaks and nourish yourself with meals that include good quality protein, particularly denser proteins like eggs, meat and fish. Whenever possible, choose good quality organic and free range animal products (if you eat them) wherever possible so you’re getting the best nutrient profile and also the tastiest food you can. Having plenty of vegetables gives you the minerals such as potassium and magnesium that you need to cope. These are the foods we may not fancy at this time as stress has us reaching for the quick-fix sugars and junk fats, but a healthy intervention at this point can save us from the effects of our more punchy selves.
Creating space to sit down and fully chew a meal helps to relieve tension in the head that can keep us from clamping our jaw and reacting to stress with facial expressions and voice approaching a snarl or a growl. The chewing mechanism, even just moving your jaw around when you’re away from people can help to relieve the constriction in the head that can make us feel that we’re on a very, very short fuse.
Also, breathing fully, taking deeper in-breaths when you need to express full exhalations, helps bring you down from that heightened place where you’re basically in fight mode. The stress response is often referred to as the fight-or-flight and when we are snappy and irritable, it’s the modern way of being in fight. You’re not going to start taking people down in fisticuffs in the corridor so, we do smaller and repressed versions of the fight. Your bark may be worse than your bite (good to avoid that) but it creates less stress when we’re barking at others less.
So, the flight option can be a good antidote. Rather than walk into the fray, if we walk away, take a walk around the block, walk through a park and some greenery if you can, but just walk away from situations where you’re feeling that you have little option but to growl and snarl at others. You can see why people chose to run as an option to bringing down stress…
I’m just not good enough. I should be achieving more
We live in a culture where from a very young age we are primed that achieving more, doing more and ticking lots of boxes about how good we are – especially compared to others – is a main driver in life. In reality, the things that we may feel we need to achieve may simply be ticking these boxes of our conditioning. Rather than getting lots of stuff done that really gives us quality of life, feels that we’re helping others or is true to our core values, we may just be following old paths simply because that’s what we’ve always done. Examining this and stepping back to evaluate what really matters to you can free you from the tyranny of constant doing and little simply ‘being’.
Surveys of people who are looking back on regret on their deathbeds didn’t come up with “Oh I wish I’d done more on my to-do list” but rather “I wish I had lived in a way that felt true to myself.” The reality of all those things that we feel we should achieve is tantamount to some great big ‘grass is greener’ payoff where when we do the next thing, we will feel so good that it will relieve the stress that we feel from having so much to do. Of course, in reality there’s always something else left to do and there’s always another thing that we could be adding to that all-consuming list.
It’s time to listen to your body
What to do instead: if you’re a person who feels like they need to keep busy or maybe even says things like “I’m not very good at relaxing”, it’s time to listen to your body. If you’re feeling tired or you’re feeling like your head is continually racing, that may be a sign that your continual brain activity is using up energy that the body needs for replenishment and activity and other tasks. We simply can’t expect to keep doing, doing, doing without the requisite recovery. Being a slave to getting things done keeps us feeling that we only have more to achieve.
One trick to try is limiting a daily list to just three to five things. You may have a long-term list too, but homing into what is crucial rather than writing everything down, creates breathing room around tasks and saves us from unrealistic expectations about what we can fit into one day. We can always do more if we have time, but also learning where we can automate and delegate helps When we’re stressed, time seems to speed up and as our mind speeds up too, we feel that there’s the possibility of getting more done than is actually possible in the time we have to do it. We cannot make more time, a continually frenzied pace creates a tired brain that simply cannot function optimally and is in danger of burnout.
We all know that slowing down and taking time can mean that things get done in a more reflective, less stressed and even better quality. So, doing something slowly and doing it well can actually give us more satisfaction than just racing through a lot of quality over quantity. Of course there are times when we simply have to go hell for leather to make that deadline, but when that pace isn’t our usual M.O., we can enjoy the motivation and recover easily, rather than feel like it pushes us close to or over the edge.
If there are voices going round in your head to the effect of “I should be doing more, I just have so much stuff to do, I couldn’t possibly slow down”, then actually addressing the voices themselves may be your next step to free you from that inner taskmaster. Changing the statements that we say to ourselves, so from “I should be” to “What can I get done reasonably today and how can I give myself some time for recuperation?” honours the fact that you are not a machine, that you have needs and true needs of a body are recovery and allowing yourself to calm down and simply be with the present moment.
The practice of mindfulness is extremely helpful for those who speak harshly and in tones that they wouldn’t speak to others in
The practice of mindfulness is extremely helpful for those who speak harshly and in tones that they wouldn’t speak to others in. For instance, it’s unlikely that you would say to a friend “No, keep going. You should be doing more.” Maybe even consider if a friend said the words that you say to yourself, how you would speak to them. Even write down or record what your answer would be to someone else who was giving themselves so many ‘should’ statements in life. Then maybe try turning those words around to yourself and listening to the kinder response.
The word ‘should’ always evokes a constriction in our nervous systems and if you can move away from directing it at yourself, then you’ll find your nervous system can have a break and you can really feel what is realistic for your day, your time, your energy and your quality of life.
Is everyone else except me making perfect Instagram meals?
The answer is no. Instagram is a magazine type social media presence for many. Those who enjoy both creative pursuits and food have become ever more adept at creating pictures of meals and food that look like they’re out of a recipe book. Since food photography in general and modern cameras and filters have improved to great heights, anyone can create pictures way better than any ‘70s or ‘80s cookbook, there’s a lot of competition for beautiful looking food out there.
Now, let’s be honest. Most of us are not making food that looks like that and certainly not enough variety. I’m a nutritionist and I do sometimes post photos of my meals up on Instagram. I don’t really like doing it, seems a little strange for me to take a picture before I actually enjoy my food, but it does seem to help people with ideas. That said, I often don’t find enough of variety to post too many meals because like an average person I am making a different meal for my 6-year-old daughter, often having food on the go or quite frankly defaulting to a similar type salad or stew that I have regularly and serves me quite well. If I Instagrammed all of my meals, you’d start to see an awful lot of repetition. To keep up a continual feed of aspirational food, you need time and the motivation to make that a dedicated creative pursuit. Many are really beautiful and may provide inspiration, but at other times exotic ingredients posted from California might not feel so fuzzy when you’re sitting in a rainy UK flat and are faced with a fridge full of left-overs.
Comparison is a massive source of stress for humans.
What to do instead: Move away from the comparison trap. Comparison is a massive source of stress for humans. Constantly evaluating whether we are in a better or worse position to those near to us is part of our survival response. It’s territorial, it’s acquisitional and it’s driven by desire.
Desire is a very interesting concept. Many spiritual philosophies talk about desire as something very problematic but it’s actually attachment to desire which can cause us most strife and heartache. Grasping and holding on to things that “if only we had them our lives would be better” can cause us a huge amount of undue suffering. An attitude where we are grateful for what we have and can enjoy the moment as it is, forms a foundation for many Eastern practices. However, desire is also an important motivating factor. It’s desire that when babies, allowed us to learn to sit up by getting that toy that we really wanted or reaching for the food that we wanted to put in our mouths. So, desire can be a sure source of stress if ruling the show, but it also keeps us moving forward in a more balanced way.
Desire is also an important motivating factor.
The trouble is that when it’s applied to lifestyle and wanting stuff that we see other people having, we can start to have a skewed opinion that what we have is not enough. The reality is that most of us in the modern world do have enough. We are not in a famine situation and even when funds are very low, hopefully we all have something to eat and somewhere warm to sleep at night. If we have more than this, then starting on the statement that “I have enough” is very effective at dropping away from the seeking mechanisms of “If only I had that” or “How come those people’s lives look so much more luxurious and picture perfect then mine?” And that’s all this stuff is – picture perfect. It’s presentation designed to evoke a sense of luxury and maybe to make us want something other than we have. Yes, it can be inspirational and to look at beauty come make us feel alive, but let’s just be honest and realistic about what these pictures are portraying. Actually being in the moment, enjoying the taste of the food that we eat rather than what it looks like is really being in the moment and truly making the best of our time and our lives.
Personally I find that decent crockery and cutlery always transform any meal. Even if you have one good quality bowl and plate that you really love, then any simple meal can look wonderful. It’s part of the enjoyment of food to enjoy the look and feel of the vessel!
I don’t understand what my body is doing – I have so many strange symptoms
As with any cause and effect on the body, the stress response ripples through all body systems. It’s often viewed as being something that happens in the nervous system and that we might have different reactions to it across other body parts but really the only separation out between different parts of our body is that which we create with language. In reality stress, yes, is a reaction first of the nervous system but that is in tandem with the endocrine system, hormones, effects into digestion, into skin, into the whole of our musculoskeletal system and the fascia that holds everything together – circulation, eyes, senses, every part of us completely intertwined and continually communicating second-by-second how safe we are. That translates into what our needs are at any given moment to protect and look after ourselves.
This means of course that effects are far reaching and we can see that they are individual. The person sitting next to you at work, for instance, who might have very similar job demands may react completely differently. They might have different life situations too, but under pressure you might see stress-related symptoms express in different ways. Or what we perceive to be stressful can also differ from others – you may notice that you’ve easily gone into self-employment where a friend couldn’t consider that type of personal responsibility.
We know that stress doesn’t have a simple cause and effect. If going through a period of acute or chronic stress, many of us see a whole cache of different symptoms that seem to cycle around in phases. A common example is skin break-outs, digestive issues often the two coming together or maybe even taking turns to manifest.
Symptoms can depend on physical things like what we’ve eaten, where we are in our menstrual cycle or how tired we are
Symptoms can depend on physical things like what we’ve eaten, where we are in our menstrual cycle or how tired we are. Then there’s the nature of the stress, whether it’s something very ongoing and emotional like illness in the family, sudden shock like losing a job or something that feels like an endurance event like moving house or grief from being left by a partner or death in the family.
Although it was really once believed that the stress response simply effected the body on a very set physiological path, the different nature of people’s symptoms and the difference in conditions and illnesses coming up at different times serves to highlight how fields like Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) are marrying up different types of stimulus with different types of emotional-physical response. This is where psychosomatics come in, the combination of our psychology and our somatics, the movement of the part of the nervous system that is involved in our response and bodily reaction.
What to do instead: Burgeoning research shows correlations between different types of emotional expression and symptoms. For instance, repressing anger or not being able to fully express ourselves may come out as headaches or migraines, things that are quite internalised and anxiety often occurring alongside digestive symptoms and pain in the abdomen. Whereas to some this might seem like really holistic stuff, even pseudo-science, the research behind mind-body medicine is growing and worth considering. The importance question is, how do you feel when stress hits? Does it affect your emotions and body at the same time?
In my book The De-Stress Effect, I explain how stress effects different body systems. For instance, Stressed and Wired is where we can feel jangly and agitated from that heightened protective first response of stress. When Stressed and Tired, we feel fatigued by the constant energy production that stress demands and Stressed and Sore how we are affected by the inflammatory process. This is a protective part of the stress response to stop us getting wounded when we might be in fight-or-flight and can stay turned on and lead to conditions like joint and skin issues. Stressed and Demotivated explains how constant chronic stress can change our neurochemistry, depleting motivating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
Stressed and Cold describes how the thyroid is affected to conserve energy in this stress response. Stressed and Bloated, how profoundly the digestive system is affected; in fact to save energy in the stress response, digestion is immediately down-regulated. Lastly Stressed and Hormonal explains the relationship between female hormones and stress and the tendencies for stress to contribute to oestrogen dominance in some women.
You need to step back more, rest more, get better quality of sleep and spend more time in the present moment
Yes, we can see symptoms circle around when stress becomes long-term and chronic, but rather than simply treating the end result alone, getting to the root cause and being kind to ourselves in times of stress can help find true relief. That can start with noticing that if you are getting a cycling of symptoms, you need to step back more, rest more, get better quality of sleep and spend more time in the present moment and in circumstances and with people that give you joy and ease. If we don’t do that, then we’re simply plugging holes rather than finding the source of the flood.
Why can’t I lose weight? I don’t eat any more than my thinner friends
The connection between stress and weight loss has become more and more understood over recent years. It used to be believed that weight loss was simply about calories in, calories out, a simple equation between how much food we were putting into our bodies and how much exercise we were expending out. This over-simplification misses a whole heap of nuances and contributing factors to the weight gain that we’ve seen increase massively over recent years.
If it were that simple, we wouldn’t see different weights amongst people eating similar diets. Then simply going on a diet and increasing exercise would work whereas many people know that they’ve had huge efforts in those directions and still they simply can’t lose those extra pounds. This is particularly true in weight around the middle. Stress is shown to have huge implications in how we both lay down fat and continue to store it, switching off our capacity to burn it off as energy. This is because the stress hormone cortisol shunting fat into our energy powerstations, the mitochondria, to be burnt as fuel, instead signalling to the body to lay it down as fat.
This may seem to be a bit of a poor plan, but it’s actually an amazing survival mechanism, the one that would have saved our lives if we were in the wild. When food is scarce and temperatures go down in the cold when there’s less abundance of food, it’s a crucial protective mechanism that we can eat food and get the most out of the calories. For our ancestors, laying down stored body fat and slowing down metabolism took them through months of very lean times.
Stress is shown to have huge implications in how we both lay down fat and continue to store it, switching off our capacity to burn it off as energy.
The trouble is our physiology doesn’t know that we are in a world of abundance now where famine through winter is not going to happen because we can simply go down the road to the supermarket. At the shops we can then be overwhelmed by too much choice. Often much of the stress imposed upon us is from the conflict of decision making, continually being presented with food and having to churn our minds between what we want long term (like not eating too much) and old instinctive patterns to take and eat food because it’s there. No animal in the wild would turn down food. It will be insanity to waste the calories needed to find or hunt food, if you saw something edible you would either eat it then or store it for later and those instincts are still in the driving seat, especially when we are tired or stressed.
Stress also raises appetite
Stress also raises appetite. It’s a highly energetic response and as survival overrides anything else, all signals are on go to fuel up quickly and usually that means sugar that can be in the form of quick fix refined sugars, things that are sweet or starchy carbs, refined carbohydrates such as things with white flour or pasta or potatoes. We might find ourselves wanting those foods late at night or in the middle of the afternoon, times when we have a natural energy lull or where blood sugar drops may commonly occur.
Truth is if we haven’t fueled ourselves up for the challenges of the day from the get-go, whether that’s breakfast first thing in the morning or a mid-morning brunch for you, without the satisfaction for brain and body of healthy fats and proteins, it’s very difficult to play catch-up if we are in constant doing mode and reacting mode.
With these two situations going on, we can see there’s a bit of a push-pull going on between our weight loss efforts and our impulses. Any of the stress reduction techniques mentioned above can help free our biochemistry from the setting to lay down weight and store it around the middle. Cortisol is a long-term steroid stress hormone, not like adrenaline which is a protein-based hormone and just about the immediate stress reaction. Cortisol is there as part of our circadian rhythm, it serves us well to motivate to get us up in the morning, but then ideally drops in the afternoon and evening to allow us to go to bed. So, it’s incredibly important to stop work at a decent time, spend our evenings relaxing and allowing ourselves to come into a more chilled mindset (and therefore body and nervous system tone) to allow good quality of sleep.
Poor quality of sleep has shown to be related to weight loss because of its association with raised cortisol levels
What to do instead: Poor quality of sleep has shown to be related to weight loss because of its association with raised cortisol levels. Taking a magnesium supplement at night can help the quality of sleep that can help bring down weight contributing stress hormones in the day and also help regulate appetite. Try around 300 milligrams of magnesium citrate such as supplements by Lamberts or Solgar with dinner. When we don’t get enough sleep, we can tend to crave and take on more needless calories during the day. It can seem like a paradox, but attention to rest and recovery can help shift those stubborn pounds.
I can’t seem to focus as well and keep forgetting things
High cortisol, as mentioned above, also has the effect of having us react from older parts of our brain like our more emotional limbic system, particularly from a little part of our brain called the amygdala. When that is firing off, activity in the brain higher up is dampened as we act more on instinct and this can reduce activity in the hippocampus. This has been related to things like brain fog, memory loss and difficulty focusing and concentrating. It’s a clear sign that you need to back off from too much, notice when things are overwhelming and take more breaks.
Productivity comes not from simply trying to cram more into time but actually creating more energy
What to do instead: If you are locked into the idea that you need to be doing more and that is more productive, understanding that productivity comes not from simply trying to cram more into time but actually creating more energy, then we can start to have a better relationship between time and energy. Time is fixed, as the famous productivity expert Michael Hyatt states, but energy is not. So, we can keep plugging things in to get more done, but often this is simply a response to the panic that is part of the stress response. Taking a break allows our brain to come into a more reflective tone where we find inspiration, creativity and allows us to start to calm down those heightened emotional responses from the amygdale.
Taking a break allows our brain to come into a more reflective tone where we find inspiration and creativity
We might find that we also need to take some B-vitamins and a B-complex or multivitamin with breakfast to allow us to have the nutrients that our brain relies on, the neurotransmitters that help us focus like dopamine and noradrenaline. Our brains also need essential nutrients such as magnesium, zinc and Omega oils for optimal function. Whole foods like nuts, seeds, oily fish and plenty of minerals in green leafy vegetables are crucial for our ability to use our brain to its best capacity when needed. Carrying an emergency snack like almonds ensures you have a supply of dense nutrients at your disposal.
If you’re the kind of person who can nap, for example, go down into sleep for just 15-20 minutes and come out again without grogginess, (oh and your situation allows!) factor one in whenever possible to truly let those stress hormones that steal focus drop down.
I bloat when I eat anything these days. Am I just intolerant to everything?
Stress has an immediate and profound effect on our whole digestive tract. If we are in any way moving, in an excitatory state or even simply standing, energy circulation and oxygen is rerouted from the gut to the muscles and brain for activity, support or best survival. Digestion is a long-term plan and if our body is sensing it needs to focus on the short-term, then breaking down, absorbing and assimilating food will not be prioritised as a candidate for energy resources.
There are a whole host of other reasons why digestion is upset by stress, not least how it reduces levels of beneficial bacteria in our gut. These seven pounds of probiotic bacteria don’t just help with digestion and keep our gut environment functioning most optimally, but when they’re low, our ability to regulate gasses in the digestive tract becomes compromised. Often this leads to more gas production when we eat food and the bloating that can be yet another source of stress.
Sitting down to eat a meal mindfully and thoroughly chewing is one of the most important things we can do to help digestion
What to do instead: Poorly digested food also hangs around in the gut and putrefies, causing yet more gas and yet more bloating. Sitting down to eat a meal mindfully and thoroughly chewing is one of the most important things we can do to help digestion further down the line.
You can see more about how to help your digestion and how it affects stress in my article The Secrets of Stress Coping Are In Your Belly. I can’t say this too strongly, looking after our digestion and how we eat – not just what we eat – is the absolute foundation to how we can move through life with more ability to adapt and be flexible around stress.
I know I should be exercising but I just can’t be bothered to move
Energy and movement are a very interesting combination. We need energy to move and the movement itself helps to build energy. So, ideally we would be moving in order to have the motivation to do so, but as we’ve explored here, long-term stress is exhausting and leaves us at a state where our body takes over and can put us into recovery mode. At that point it views rest as priority – energy conservation is a very strong and important survival mechanism.
What to do instead: It’s important to be able to recognise when we need rest. If we are ignoring the signs and pushing ourselves past them, we can meet a situation where the body just says no of its own volition. That’s a real indication that we’re listening to our mind’s wants or ideas about what we should be doing over the messages that our body is telling us.
If we’re low in the key nutrients to create energy like B-vitamins, magnesium mentioned here and also vitamin C, then our resources can be low and again body responses to want to want to move will be lowered. If we’re using the word ‘should’, then there’s going to be that push back and even feelings of guilt, blame, shame that steal our energy even more. It’s a useful gauge around exercise that we should be doing enough that makes us feel energised, but not fatigued or with sore, achy legs regularly afterwards.
Regulating the amount we do to the energy we have is a mindful skill. One example is when running. Those who are able to get into the right rhythm for their fascia, their natural elastic recoil in the body can get into a rhythm where they can feel the whole of their body and the communication bottom-up whilst running and rarely get injured as they can regulate the pace and intensity that’s right for them at any time.
Although it’s nice sometimes to plug in and listen to music when we’re exercising, if you’re feeling quite dissociated from your body and you can’t feel your hands and feet whilst you train or practice yoga or even go for a walk, then slowing down and allowing yourself to mindfully feel the ground and your roots can start to give you a firm foundation to have a more connected relationship with your body and movement.
When you’re feeling very exhausted and you’ve been sitting at a desk all day, it really is a good idea to move so that we don’t get stagnate tissues, muscles locked into postures of seating patterns. It’s a good idea even to just lay on the ground and have a roll around, moving the joints, hold your arms up above your shoulders, have a wriggle, have some twists, anything that just feels it gets things going without a huge amount of energy needed, you might even find this loosening and this opening through the body starts to create the waking up that can allow you to move into stronger Pilates or yoga practice at home.
All this sounds like a little bit too much for me. I just feel like sitting on the sofa and bingeing on sugar
Fair enough. After a long day this can be the kind of numbing that we need to feel that we can cope. It’s really important to recognise that the average day in the 21st century has very high demands packed with stimulus, chock-full of information – as discussed, our expectations of what we could get done in an average 24 hours can be pretty overwhelming and lead to shut-down. The trouble is that these expectations are the norm that “Everyone’s doing it. Why can’t I?” and the reality is that most people are struggling. I speak to loads of people about burnout and I’ve spoken to hundreds, maybe thousands over the years and most people are looking at other people and thinking “How do they cope better than I do?”
There’s a reason that “Netflix and chill” has become a popular phrase. It is the modern soma to sink into the sofa and give in to the beta-endorphin rush that sugary snacks bring and the switching off from our frazzled brains that TV shuffles in.
The trouble is that this stuff basically steals even more energy from us. Late night sugar can be laid down as fat incredibly easily because we’re not using up this energy overnight. The stimulus from screens agitates our brains and reduces levels of the hormone melatonin that we need for good quality sleep and recovery.
Late night sugar can be laid down as fat incredibly easily because we’re not using up this energy overnight.
What to do instead: Finding other ways to unwind and feel that we have quality come-down time is crucial to have energy, attention and presence in our everyday life, not to mention being able to do our job with the least likelihood of burnout and the best way for good productivity, ideas and feeling that we’re on top of things.
Listening to music and taking baths is deeply soothing. The recent movement towards crafts like colouring books and knitting shows how people need alternatives to yet more screens and to reconnect back to engrossing hand-to-eye activities. Rediscovering old hobbies like playing board games and doing jigsaw puzzles helps our brains relax in a way that also allows them to re-organise after the challenges of stress.
Treating ourselves well is self-compassion and, yes, of course we all love a good night in on the sofa with a great film but when that’s the norm, we can get into cycles where we feel we’re not really well, living. If you reconnect with things that you used to love, you can find that there’s a whole load more joy and stress-coping in life to be had.
CHARLOTTE WATTS’ is a nutritionist and yoga teacher whose work has focussed on how nutrition and yoga can meet to help people cope with the type of demands we face in the 21st century. Her practice and teaching of mindfulness weaves these together and has culminated in her new book The De-Stress Effect: Rebalance Your Body’s Systems for Vibrant Health and Happiness. She has also authored The De-Stress Diet (with Anna Magee), 100 Top Recipes for Happy Kids, 100 Best Foods for Pregnancy and 100 Foods to Stay Young.