The other Tuesday morning I woke up at 3:58am because my dog, Bowser, insisted that he had to go out. I couldn’t get back to bed, so I decided to go ahead and start working, because it was either that or watch infomercials. Later that day I went to the grocery store for my parents so I could try to stock up on whatever food was left in the picked-over store. Like many of us right now, I walked into a grocery store that looked like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie. By the time it was all said and done, I spent a frustrated 3 hours waiting in line to get in, searching high and low to cross items off our list, and doing my best to avoid coming into close contact with any of the other hundred people on the same journey I was.
That trip to the store sent me over the edge. The crazy part? I didn’t even realize it until a few hours later.
I’d gotten a much earlier and unexpected start to the day than normal. That’s stressful, not even counting the lack of sleep. Then I worked. After I worked, I fought my way through the grocery store. And what’d I do after I got back from the grocery store? I worked some more. Because what else is there to do when you can’t go anywhere? All of that left me feeling like a tightly wound rubber band ball of stress.
Fast forward to 9pm: I’d eaten a couple of pieces of chocolate chip pecan pie to “unwind”, and had willingly thrown the towel in on my numbers for the day. None of this was planned. This wasn’t how I hoped my Tuesday would go. But stress had other ideas.
Stress is something we all have to deal with every single day.
Stress could be sudden, like you dodging an oncoming car because you accidentally walked into traffic while Facebooking.
We’re typically good at handling this sort of immediate stress because we can tap into what’s known as the fight or flight response. Meaning we either face what’s coming our way head-on or hightail it out of there.
The other form of stress is chronic stress, and this is the kind of stress that most of us are typically much worse at handling. It’s also the form of stress most of us are dealing with right now, in the time of Coronavirus. We can’t just up and fight or flight our way out of a chronic stress situation, much as we may like to.
I’m well aware I’m not telling you anything new right now. Everyone knows stress is something we need to cut back on and avoid, but that’s easier said than done. Especially right now.
Stress isn’t all bad.
Eustress is a term coined for a positive kind of stress. The kind that causes us to rise to occasions and to dig deep within ourselves at times. We adapt to the stress and are better because of it.
Maybe it’s a major deadline at work that tests you in a number of different ways. Maybe it’s a major event in your family in which all of you rally around each other, drawing closer thanks to the stress that brought you there. Or maybe it’s just trying a new PR in the gym, hitting it, and getting stronger afterward.
Keeping watch over your stress reservoir.
Something that many of us misunderstand about stress is that we all have a stress reservoir. Think of this reservoir as a big cup. This cup represents your ability to manage stress. When it’s full, you can handle all the stress the world can throw at you. But as the cup gets lower and lower, you inevitably have to do something to refill it, or your body will try and push you to refill it.
All during the day, you’re pouring from your cup to deal with the normal stressors of daily life. Maybe you woke up late. Maybe you’re like me and the grocery store sent you over the edge. Or maybe every day feels like it’s constantly pouring from your cup because we have no idea what the future will look like.
When it comes to stress, we all inherently understand that we need a bit of it. We all knew that the first time we were in a class that may have been a bit over our heads, studied to learn the material, and then grasped what we were talking about. That’s a positive development in reaction to stress. But at the same time, stress doesn’t always work like that. If it did, I sure wouldn’t have sought comfort in pie a couple of weeks ago.
That double-edged sword is why stress can keep us from reaching our goals in the gym or in the mirror.
Remember the stress reservoir? Everything pulls from that stress reservoir. Chronic stress like the news and Coronavirus do it. And immediate stress like driving in traffic (is it weird that I kind of miss traffic?) does it too.
So to manage your stress effectively, start thinking of ways you can refill your cup.
When the stress reservoir runs low.
We have to replenish the reservoir when it runs low and to do that we need energy. Where do we get energy, you ask?
You know the interesting thing about my late-night kitchen adventure to secure some pie? My rational brain knew that wasn’t the right choice for me. But from an emotional point of view, it’s the only choice that existed. That’s because when all you can see is how stressed out you are, most rational decision making goes out the window.
That impaired ability to make rational decisions isn’t a failure of will or strength, though. Quite the opposite. See, that’s a physical response that’s hardwired. We know we need to replenish our stress reservoir, and we need to do it quickly, so we seek out the densest source of energy we can find.
Now, research hasn’t completely decided on if we actually seek out highly-palatable and refined foods in response to stress. Conventional wisdom tends to tell us that when we’re stressed that’s when we reach for the candy, cake, or whatever else does it for you. But research is just starting to examine this, and as they study stress-related overeating in larger and more diverse population groups, we’ll sure know more.
However, even if research can’t confirm that stress causes you to eat candy, you can probably confirm what stress causes you to do. All you have to do is think back to the last time you walked through the door at 9pm, utterly exhausted from the day. What did you have then? What was the food that became a source of comfort for you at that moment?
And if you’re like me, after you go crazy in response to stress, you later on stress over the fact that you ate so much food that you know didn’t support your goals or values. Can you guess what happens next? If you guessed that leads to more stress, you may pass go and collect $200.
Some actions to manage stress.
Battling stress is a tough fight, and that’s especially true right now. But even when we come out of self-isolation and life starts to get back to normal, dealing with stress is something that we will still have to continually work on. Because even if the circumstances of our life change, stress is sure to be a constant.
Stress being a constant theme in our life is the reason that we should be practicing strategies to manage it. Getting better at managing stress can help us succeed with our diet, but it can also make us happier and healthier. The sources of our stress might have some commonalities, but they’re still highly individualized. What is a major stressor to some of us might not be stressful at all to others. Along with that, how we choose to handle and cope with that stress changes for each person. So when thinking about how you can best handle the stress you feel, it’s up to you to think of things and activities that help you fill your cup back up. Those cup filling activities will look different for each and every one of us, but here are some of our favorites:
- Talking to old friends.
One of the unexpected benefits of living in widespread self-isolation? There’s a gigantic emphasis on talking to old friends. Talking with your friends about what is going on in your life and the world at large can be one of the best activities there is in the fight against stress. No matter if it’s the phone, FaceTime, or a Zoom call, talking with friends that you love is one of the easiest ways to not only curb the stress you feel, but it can also provide a helpful reminder that we’re not alone in navigating the unknown.
Getting in touch with your friends is great, but it’s hard to replace physically being around someone you love. This is where your family comes into play. Spending self-isolation with family is an excellent way to deepen the relationships we have with the closest people in our lives. But then again, spending a bunch of time around family might make for even more stress. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which camp you fall into.
- Love your pets.
Physical touch causes the release of oxytocin, which in turn makes you happy. Go cuddle your dog or cat. They’ll love you for it. Okay, maybe not the cat. But you get the point. We can’t get physical touch from other humans, so shower those pets with love. The cat might hate you, but you just might feel better because of it.
- Go for a walk!
Physical activity is an excellent stress reliever. If you are able to get outside for a short little walk, great! If not, a treadmill or just making a point to walk around the house and move your body can do wonders in helping you calm down.
- Turn the TV off, or turn on something you enjoy.
I’m not one to advocate isolating yourself from what is happening in the world. We all have a responsibility to stay informed and know what is happening in our community and the world at large. But that responsibility to know what is going on doesn’t mean that you need to mortgage your happiness. If having the news on all day long heightens your anxiety, give yourself permission to turn it off. Start up a new show instead. Watch a new movie, or an old movie you haven’t seen in a long time. Take some time away from electronics and read a book. Your choice is up to you, but find something!
- Enjoy cooking!
We have more time than ever to spend in the kitchen. Now, that doesn’t mean that we should fill our homes with things like chocolate chip pecan pie. We’ve seen how that worked out. But that being said, right now is a great time to practice your skills in the kitchen. Get creative with the things you’ve got sitting in the pantry and refrigerator. Try new meals and recipes. Cook with the kids or your spouse. Food isn’t only a source of energy, it’s also a source of fun. Treat it as such! Just don’t follow my lead and be sure you plan any treats you’ll have into your day.
- Working out.
Maybe your normal routine for working out has been put on hold, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean you have to stop making an effort. You don’t need to have the most well-outfitted garage gym on Instagram to get the benefits of working out. Move your body with intention. That’s all you need to do right now.
This is the part where I let it be known that I’m actually a hippie that likes to eat vegetables and meditate every day. I know, I know. I can feel you judging me right now, but here’s the reality: it works. Sitting still and being with yourself for 10 minutes might sound like the most miserable thing in the world, but it’s also something that we know can help us more effectively manage a very wide array of challenges we all deal with, including stress.
All of that being said, the most important thing you could possibly take away from this rambling diatribe about stress is this: you’re not going to get better at this right away. Effectively managing our stress so that we’re mindful and aware of the food choices we’re making isn’t an overnight change. That’s even more true when we’re trying to navigate a global pandemic. Have some grace with yourself. Nobody expects you to handle a completely novel situation perfectly every step of the way. Getting great at managing your own stress is more like a continual evolution that we’re all on, and that continual evolution is filled with plenty of missteps and mistakes. That’s okay. A misstep or mistake isn’t the same as a stop sign, it’s just a bump in the road.
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