I'm writing this in April - stress awareness month, and in 2021 when all of us, probably without exception have experienced increased stress over the last year of the COVID pandemic. We have experienced grief for both those close to us, but also for our nation's loss. Financial pressures have also contributed hugely to increased levels of stress, as have social isolation and loneliness. In some circumstances we cannot change the external factors which cause stress. But we can take steps to help how we deal with those external factors. In this LIVE article, I make three suggestions which may help- finding some inner calm, better mood eating and how to have a restful sleep.
Find some inner calm
I have my own issues with stress and anxiety and have done for decades. The only way I can manage it is to find myself space to process what I am feeling and to let go of emotions and judgement. Mindfulness was an epiphany for me, slowing down both my thinking and my heart rate, creating a place that is mine and untouchable, feeling gratitude and awareness of the world around me. Gratitude helps us focus on the positive and create perspective of our issues and our stresses. Here's an audio mindful exercise I have created for you to try mindfulness practice.
Establishing a mental place for yourself which is yours where you can breathe, relax and try to sort your thoughts and feelings could help you manage stress levels. Often we think we need to do something to sort out our stress but often we just need to do nothing at all, absolutely nothing.
I also use a note pad sometimes. I write down my emotions, anger, thoughts and frustrations and let them leave my mind and body. Sometimes I go back to them to work through how I can feel better around the situation another time, but sometimes I don't, and just use the exercise for head-emptying. Either way, I feel more relaxed and able to move on.
To create inner calm, it's also important to focus on what you can control and let the rest go. Find a way to deal with the uncontrollable which might be taking yourself away, choosing to avoid in other words, or confront, or make some changes to how you live around that stress. It will also help build your confidence and resilience. If you want to listen more about how to build confidence, here's a podcast I recorded with Gayle Tong of Enrichment Coaching.
A bath, meditation, affirmations, crafting or creativity, altruism and kindness are all ways to destress and create some perspective and calm.
Something else which has helped my stress levels and health enormously over the couple of years is the practice of yoga. Its ethos of non-judgement, calm and connecting with the body in stillness and focus can be extremely relaxing and distracting from the cares of your life. It doesn't matter how well you can do the poses, and in a world where we are feeling very out of sorts, it is a way to just BE, in whatever mood or capacity we find ourselves. The practice of just saying to ourselves "It's ok" is very powerful. There are many ways to access yoga, locally and online such as Yoga with Adrienne.
Better mood eating
Without a doubt, improving your diet can help reduce stress. There are three ways you can improve how you feel:
Choose the right foods
1. Foods which promote the production of serotonin (the 'feel good' hormone) can help us maintain balanced emotions. Tryptophan is the pre-cursor to serotonin so that's what we need to be eating. Here's a list of tryptophan rich foods for you to add to your diet:
Pumpkin seeds: full of tryptophan to help you make serotonin and magnesium (deficiency clearly linked to depression). Other seeds are also good, second is chia, then sesame and sunflower.
Dark chocolate: Hoorah! BUT choose chocolate of at least 70% cocoa solids. Cocoa contains flavonoids linked to better brain function and a feeling of well-being. (I eat two squares every day!)
Wholegrains: Explore new kinds by buying the easy to use pouches which are readily available (Jamie Oliver, Merchant Gourmet etc.)
Herbal tea: St John’s Wort tea affects our feel-good hormones. Chamomile is also an alternative to medication for anxiety.
Spinach: Rich in tryptophan! All green veg will help increase your sera
Beans and lentils: Ditto but also rich in protein
Oats: in addition to wheat bran and wheat germ, they have a high tryptophan content
Mature cheese: (see it’s not all ‘health food’!) like Parmesan, mozzarella, Gruyere, Edam and Cheddar
Fish and shellfish: prawns, crabs, lobster and fish like halibut are good, salmon is also reasonably high in tryptophan
Eggs: loads of tryptophan (mostly in the white)
Mustard: an easy kick of tryptophan!
Mushrooms: any normal, large mushrooms will give you a feel-food factor
Omega-3: has a massive effect on our mental well-being. Very present in oily fish (sardines, mackerel & salmon), nuts and seeds. Try this salmon recipe.
Improve your gut health
2. Gut health is vital to maintaining the stability of our mental health. There is increasing research that gut health is very closely linked to our state of mind, it even has its own nervous system, constantly talking to our brain. Gut health is improved by eating a wide range of fibre rich foods (fruits, vegetables and pulses) and fermented foods which already contain live bacteria (kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha etc.) Reduce alcohol and sugar in your diet to further help develop and maintain your natural gut flora.
Eat with a regular pattern
3. A regular eating pattern will help your mood because it taps into your natural circadian rhythms. It also avoids peaks and troughs in our blood sugar levels which will help you feel more balanced. In general, keeping in tune with our natural rhythms of day and night will help mental balance, weight management and mental any physical health*. If you want to read more about circadian rhythms, this is a great article.
Have the best sleep you can
Stress impacts sleep and sleep impacts stress so, unless we're careful it's a vicious circle. I think we all know what we need as far as sleep is concerned but many of us ignore our body's needs - working or watching TV until late, using our phones at night, drinking alcohol or eating too much just before bedtime. Trying to relax just before bedtime is key. Find yourself a routine. A warm bath or shower, some gentle music on a sleep timer, some stretching or gentle movement. Of course, you can also improve your sleep through diet. As well as the tryptophan rich foods about, melatonin rich foods can help your sleep. Here are is a list of those too:
Goji berries (great addition to homemade muesli)
Fish (better source than meat)
Other foods can boost melatonin production, like bananas, oatmeal and milk.
Good calming options for your stomach are:
small bowl of cereal with milk
2 oatcakes with peanut butter
handful of walnuts
glass of warm milk (my grandmother used to give me this)
slither of cheese
Late night snacks to avoid:
high fat foods (breaking down of fat requires stomach acid which can disrupt your sleep)
anything with caffeine in (coffee, chocolate) - a well-known stimulant
high sugar - this gives you a rush of energy