How do you deal with stress?
The holidays can be a particularly stressful time of year for many people. The list of stressors that intensify with the holidays is long: the sadness that comes from missing a loved one, the pressure that comes from navigating the long list of social and family obligations, the anxiety that increased spending can cause, or even the emotional toll that dealing with family conflicts. All these lead to high levels of reported anxiety and depression in the general population. Holiday time also tends to be a time when people engage in fewer self-care activities – usually because they think they have less time.
In reality, stressful and busy times are the MOST important times to take care of yourself. There are many reasons that you should be especially diligent about self -care. Nutrition and physical activity are integral to your long-term health as well as to how you may be feeling right now. We know that stress weakens the immune system while healthy behaviors, including eating a nutritious diet, getting adequate physical exercise, hydration and sleep strengthens the immune system.
I like to think of nutrition as the base of the health pyramid. Poor nutritional habits have significant negative health consequences. “About 45% of the cost associated with heart disease, stroke, and diabetes — what we call cardiometabolic disease — is related to an unhealthy diet,” (https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-high-cost-of-a-poor-diet). On a daily basis, if you aren’t getting your share of nutrients from whole foods, fruits and vegetables, you may notice a lack of energy, brain fog, digestive problems and, in general, not feeling your best. For some, this becomes the norm – they think it’s a normal part of aging or of having a busy and demanding life. Fortunately, it’s not – integrating more fruits, vegetables and unprocessed foods in your diet can have an immediate impact on how you are feeling. High quality food will give you more energy and help you to deal with the stress more efficiently. It may seem like the constant social events, big meals, busy days and longer “to do” lists make it impossible to maintain good nutrition, while, in fact, all those things make it even more imperative to eat the healthiest diet possible.
Physical activity is also an important component of both mental and physical health. I know from my own personal experience that I am more productive, calmer and actually feel much better when I am consistent with both running and gym workouts. Research supports this. According to an article published by the National Institute of Health, “a growing body of evidence has accumulated that has given legs to the hypothesis that the promotion of physical activity may be the most effective prescription that physicians can dispense for the purposes of promoting successful aging.” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4365421/) Engaging in some type of physical activity at least 3-4 times per week will yield the best stress-busting results – even better if you can do something every day! If you have a hard time fitting exercise into your day, you may want to re-define your view of what a viable workout consists of. Any activity is better than no activity – I know many people feel that if they don’t go all out at the gym for at least an hour, it doesn’t count. This couldn’t be further from the truth – even a 20 minute walk can have health-boosting physical benefits AND can help clear your mind for your daily tasks. The medical community recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (by the way, that’s just 21.4 minutes per day) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination each week.
We can think of sleep as the third leg of a healthy lifestyle. Without adequate sleep, people tend to eat more, exercise less and be less productive in their work, family and social lives. This is the behavior that I struggle with the most. I have a busy schedule: I work six days a week and have to be into the gym before 5:00 am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (before 6 or 7 on the rest of the days). That means getting up at 4 am to run into the gym three times per week and up by 5 or 5:30 on the other days. Sometimes I work until 6:30 pm, so it can be really challenging to get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night. I have found that going to bed when I’m tired works best – that sounds kind of elementary, but it is sooooo easy to want to stay up to watch a show or get chores done (or even socialize….). This is an ongoing challenge for me and many others – but one that merits significant effort. Mood changes, memory issues, accidents, weight gain, weakened immunity, difficulty concentrating, and risk of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure have all been linked to sleep deprivation.
In sum, caring for yourself will have both short- and long-term effects on your health and happiness. While it can be challenging to find time to shop for and prepare nutritious foods, engage in adequate physical activity and get enough sleep, it’s definitely a challenge worth meeting. And, if you DO meet the challenge, you and your family will feel better for it.