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Staying Healthy When Stressed
The Big Benefits of Maintaining Your Health
Life can be challenging, there’s no question about that. For college students, mid-terms, final exams or the ever-dreaded group project deadline can mean a one-way train to Stress City. For others, big changes like moving, getting a new job, having a baby, or just trying to balance life in general can bring on a major case of anxiety.
When the going gets tough, it’s easy to skip the gym, hit the drive thru and skimp on sleep. It’s almost as though your brain is shouting, “I’m busy, it’s ok!”
But the truth is, the better you take care of yourself during stressful times, the easier they’ll be for your mind and body to endure. Here are some things you can do that will help you deal with stress physically, mentally and emotionally.
Don’t Give Up on Healthy Eating
For some, feeling anxious or stressed triggers the desire to eat. An increased appetite combined with less time to prepare proper food is a recipe for disaster, or at least, a calorie disaster. Eating too much or eating unhealthy foods as a way to calm down are very common responses to stress.
It might be easy to grab a cheeseburger after a long day of studying or work, but there are actually foods that can help you relax, such as leafy greens. Vegetables like spinach contain folate. Folate produces dopamine, which is a pleasure-inducing brain chemical that helps you keep calm.
There are also easy ways to make crave-able comfort food a little healthier, such as swapping regular pasta for whole wheat or making turkey meatballs instead of beef.
While it’s ok to splurge on fast food or decadent sweets once in a while, making it a habit can lead to weight gain and a myriad of health problems, which will lead to, you guessed it, more stress.
Move Your Body
When stressful situations hit, gym time usually gets bumped to the bottom of the to-do list. It’s understandable, but actually the opposite of what should happen. Of all known stress fighting techniques, exercise may be the one most recommended by healthcare professionals. And there’s a good reason for that: Physical activity produces endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers. Endorphins improve the ability to sleep, which in turn, reduces stress.
Exercising has many other benefits too. Even just five minutes of cardio activity can help relieve anxiety. It can improve concentration, reduce fatigue and enhance overall cognitive function – which is especially helpful when your energy is depleted because of stress. Alertness and concentration are two things you definitely don’t want to squander when it comes to finals, tests or presentations.
Or Don’t Move Your Body
While breaking a sweat can work wonders by releasing endorphins and improving overall wellbeing, so can sitting still. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can help you control stress, improve heart health, decrease anxiety, and achieve a greater overall sense of relaxation. The best part is, it doesn’t have to be time consuming. Spending 10 minutes a day meditating can push your body and brain in the direction of inner calm.
Having a hard time thinking about not thinking, or just don’t know where to start? There are tons of ways to dip your toes into meditation – from guided meditation websites to phone apps. And even though 10 minutes isn’t very long, it might seem like a long time when you’re first getting started. If you find your mind wandering or start making a to-do list in your head, aim for a shorter time period. Try meditating for just two or three minutes, and increase your time from there.
Count Enough Sheep
The relationship between stress and sleep is a complicated cycle. Either we can’t sleep because we’re stressed, or we’re too stressed to make time to sleep! But the fact is, sleep is an incredibly important human function. It allows the brain to rest and the body to recharge. Even the slightest sleep deprivation can cause a change in memory, judgment and mood – and not for the better.
According to a study by the American Psychological Association, more than a third of millennials say they don’t sleep eight hours a night because they have too much to do, and not enough time to do it.
Not only does sleep deprivation make you tired and sluggish, it can also mess with your weight. Lack of sleep disrupts the functioning of ghrelin and leptin—chemicals that control appetite. You might also find it harder to resist the temptation of vending machines or late-night takeout when you’re tired or grumpy from lack of zzzs.
Here are some easy things you can do to get a better night’s sleep, even during stressful times.
* Limit caffeine, alcohol and big meals late at night
* Do some type of physical activity at least once each day
* Meditate or read before falling asleep
* Keep your room as dark as possible and/or wear a sleep mask
Know it’s Ok to Ask for Help
Sometimes stress is more extreme, and can’t be conquered with fierce workouts or meditation. If you’re still feeling anxious even when finals are over and your last project has been turned in, you might want to consider talking to a therapist, counselor or physician. A trained professional can help you figure out what’s triggering your reactions and might even be able to help prevent these reactions from recurring. It’s always okay to reach out for help when you need it.
Regardless of lifestyle, life will throw you curve balls. You’ll experience periods of pure chaos, and periods of relative calm. This is all part of life, and it’s important to know how to navigate these times while still maintaining your health. Because in the end, maintaining your health during tough times actually helps you get through them better.
source: Northwestern University – Northwestern Medicine