Cultivate some beneficial self-care habits to combat stress

Modern living and stress seem to go hand in hand and it may be no surprise to you that the effects of stress can have a significant impact on mental wellbeing.

Nevertheless, you may not know that the effects of stress can affect other body systems, potentially hindering the achievement of health goals such as losing weight or improving digestive function, so it is important to understand what the stress response is and how it could affect you.

Luckily, you can cultivate some beneficial self-care habits for a stress-free life - or at least, a stress-managed life!

So what is stress exactly?

The stress response is an evolutionary strategy to cope with immediate dangers, such as an approaching tiger or a Monday-morning inbox full of emails.

In response to an external threat, the chemical messengers, adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline are released from your adrenal glands, which enables you to either stand and fight or flee as fast as you can.

In modern times, the feeling of being under constant stress, whether from work, family or financial pressures is interpreted by your body in the same way and can therefore lead you to be in a permanent state of emergency.

This is significant as stress may be the underlying reason for a seemingly unrelated bodily imbalance, such as an inability to digest well when you're under the pump at work.

A chronic state of stress can have widespread negative effects, such as. -

•Poor digestion - reduced digestive secretions can lead to poor absorption of nutrients, bloating, abdominal pain and reflux.

•Irregular blood sugar control - cortisol signals the release of sugars into the bloodstream in anticipation that muscles will need fuel to help you run from danger.

These sugar spikes can lead to irritability short-term and weight gain in the long-term, if the sugars are not utilised as muscle fuel and instead converted to fat.

A lack of sleep can also lead to poor dietary choices and an increase in coffee consumption.

•Hormonal imbalances - lack of libido, menstrual irregularity and fertility issues can all arise when your body switches to making stress hormones in preference to sex hormones.

Often when we are under pressure, the most important things go by the wayside; sleep, exercise, quality time with the family, time out for yourself, and healthy eating.

Looking after yourself

Here are some tips to look after yourself to ensure you can maximise productivity with your business as well as your health. 

1. Nourish yourself with real food - this will help to maintain energy levels, balance blood sugar levels and feed the brain so that your time at work is more productive.

I always suggest setting aside an hour on a Sunday afternoon to prepare some good food for the week. Such things might include:

Roast several trays of mixed vegetables to use as a base for a salad for lunches as well as adding to curries and quiches. Include a combination of veges such as cauliflower, capsicum, zucchini, onion, garlic, kumara, and eggplant to ensure you are getting a wide range of nutrients along with fibre to keep bowels healthy. Store in the fridge for up to four days.

•Vegetable quiche. This provides protein to keep blood sugar levels stable and sweet cravings at bay. Protein is also crucial for a healthy immune system. A slice of quiche can be eaten hot or cold and is a great breakfast, lunch or dinner.

•Vege sticks - carrot, capsicum and celery sticks are a great snack to keep on hand. If you cut these up, add a small amount of water to the base of the container and then seal it, they will stay crunchy for around 10 days.

A delicious and nutritious snack is celery sticks with a nut butter spread down the centre; a much better option that a chocolate bar.

•Hummus. This is cheap and easy to make and stores well in the fridge for five or six days. There are lots of recipes online but the main ingredients are chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and water.

Hummus provides protein and is great with vege sticks or rice crackers for a healthy snack or instead of a spread in a wrap.

•Nuts and seeds - put around 2 Tbsp of mixed nuts and seeds into small containers for a portion-controlled snack. Each nut and seed has a different nutrient profile so choose a variety such as almonds, cashews, brazils, pumpkin and sunflower seeds.

Preparing a week's worth means you can leave them in your desk drawer or handbag.

•Soup - add shank bones, soup mix and lots of veges to a big pot for a nourishing, easy meal. Soup also freezes well so you could keep some of it in the fridge for the week ahead and freeze some smaller serves for emergency times.

2. Ensure you get enough sleep. Studies show that adults need around seven to nine hours of sleep each night. After the sun has set, the body naturally begins to reduce cortisol (stress hormone) production and manufacture melatonin.

By working late at night consistently, this sleep-wake hormonal cycle becomes imbalanced. Work production is less efficient and we are more prone to illnesses.

Practise good sleep hygiene techniques such as no TV or computer time for at least half an hour before bedtime and avoid caffeine in the afternoons.

Check you have natural fibres for your bedding (cotton, wool, feather) as it ''breathes'', which means less waking due to body temperature changes.

Magnesium is a wonderful mineral our nervous system depletes when we are stressed so it can be beneficial to take this after dinner each night to ensure quality sleep.

A relaxing herbal tea has a great blend of herbs to promote relaxation also. Prioritise quality sleep.

3. Exercise. Our bodies were made to be moved. Often when we are pushed for time, exercise gets neglected. Regular movement helps with circulation, healthy blood pressure and stress management among many other things.

Find something you enjoy doing, whether it be a regular gym class, dance lessons or a walk in your lunch break. By getting out of the office environment for some fresh air and a break, you will benefit.

4. Scheduling time for your family and for yourself is important to keep a balance. Some people find drawing a pie chart and checking it regularly helps to keep balance.

Include a portion each for work, play, time out for yourself, exercise, family time and sleep. Setting aside time for a regular massage, yoga or reading a book is not selfish; see it as recharging your batteries to make yourself the healthiest you can be.

5. More green time, less screen time. Have a day a week, such as a Saturday that you do a ''digital detox'' and turn off phones, TVs etc. Spend time enjoying the outdoors.

Stress is an inevitable part of modern lifestyles, but it needn't get the better of you nor keep you from reaching your health goals.

There will always be times when there is more pressure on at work and some of these suggestions may not be possible but health and wellbeing is about what you do most of the time, not some of the time.

-By Deanna Copland

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