Let's face it--stress isn't going anywhere. "We talk about how to reduce stress," says Jenny Evans, a frequent speaker on stress and resiliency, and author of The Resiliency rEvolution. "The reality is, nobody's job is going to be asking less of them next year. And nobody's family is going to be asking less of them either."
So while we may wish to cut out the stress in our lives, the truth is we can't, she says. "Our only other option is to train our bodies to recover from it more efficiently." Fortunately, we can do that and it's easier than you might think. It comes down to two simple but effective changes:
1. When stressed, do 30 to 60 seconds of vigorous exercise.
That's barely enough to get warmed up. How could something so brief possibly help? It makes sense, Evans says, if you understand stress as the chemical event that it is. "Your body is flooded with stress chemicals, of which the worst is cortisol," she says. A 30-to-60-second workout, which might be lunges or pushups or running up a flight of stairs, releases endorphins and endocannabinoids, which Evans calls "bliss molecules."
Sixty seconds is sufficient, she says, because that's what we evolved for. Stress activates the fight-or-flight response in the primitive part of our brain, which is meant to produce short and intense bursts of activity. "Historically, fight or flight did not go on for days or months. It was over--or you were over--very quickly. So our systems are designed to turn on this stress response for a short period and then hit the reset button." A quick burst of vigorous activity is that reset button. Do it as soon as you can after a stressful moment, she advises. But even after an hour or two it can still help since the stress hormones will still be running free in your system.
A 60-second workout doesn't require taking time off, or delaying your next appointment, or changing your clothes. In 30 to 60 seconds you won't have time to get sweaty or grimy. You can pick an exercise and set a timer. "It raises your heart rate and challenges your muscles and when the timer beeps, it's done," Evans says.
2. Nourish yourself all day every day.
I mean this in the most literal sense. Hunger adds to stress and makes the fight-or-flight instinct more likely. And stress and hunger combined make it extraordinarily difficult to resist the temptation of high-fat and high-sugar foods with which we're all surrounded every day.
Eating those foods will only make things worse. "High sugar foods create a spike in blood glucose--which causes stress," Evans says. High-fat foods have a similarly stressful effect on our systems. And nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol--all of which we tend to reach for in stressful moments--create stressors of their own.
Vaccinate yourself against this urge to eat bad stuff by eating healthy foods at least once every three hours. "Any time we go longer than four hours without eating, that stimulates the stress response," Evans says.
"Make sure your snacks between meals are low glycemic (i.e., no refined carbs such as white bread, pasta, or sweets), high in healthy fats, and high in proteins and/or fiber," Evans says. "That means fruits and nuts, whole grains, many dairy products, and generally foods in their whole or natural state."
It's especially smart to follow this advice first thing in the morning, she adds. "When we wake up our blood glucose levels are well below what the body needs to function, so the body is in a state of stress because we've been fasting all night. Instead of going to coffee or nicotine, have a small, low-glycemic snack within an hour of waking up."
The beauty of Evans's two-pronged approach is that it's likely to create a virtuous cycle, improving your health in several important ways, and possibly leading to weight loss as well. "When you start working with your body in this way, it's improving your resiliency to stress," Evans says. "Those stress hormones make us deposit more fat around the midsection, which raises our risk for heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer." Also, with less cortisol in your system, you'll likely sleep better. Since sleep deprivation makes us both hungrier and prone to make bad food choices, you'll likely eat better as well.
Sounds like a pretty good deal, huh?