Is anxiety slowly creeping up on you? Deal with everyday angst by rethinking your mindset and making a few tweaks to your diet and lifestyle choices.
The unprecedented unfolding of the last year has resulted in a roller coaster of negative emotions for many of us.If you’re feeling low as a result, you’re not alone. Many adults experienced high levels of anxiety during the lockdown. It’s normal to be stressed and scared during a crisis, but the way we deal with these feelings can significantly affect our mental health.
When our brains decide that a stressful event is occurring, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, known as fight or flight response, to keep the body at a steady state of equilibrium. In response to stress, the brain stimulates this part of the nervous system, which then activates the adrenal glands.
On a physical level, fight or flight results in faster breathing and increased blood pressure. Your sense of pain is reduced, and strength and performance levels are increased. In addition, the brain releases hormones that stimulate the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone cortisol, which enhances the effects of adrenaline by releasing more glucose.
It also shuts down nonessential systems to the stress response, such as the digestive and reproductive systems. In the short term, this stress response isn’t a worry; chronic stress, however, can be detrimental. Persistently high glucose levels can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Excess cortisol can lead to digestive issues and flare-ups of conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Plus, you may be more prone to infections and injury; persistently raised cortisol levels suppress the immune system and promote muscle and protein breakdown. The production of ‘happy hormone’ serotonin can also be altered, leading to irritability, disturbed sleep, and mental health disorders. Here we share some of the biggest stress culprits and suggest ways to feel more serene and less stressed.
The evening is often the time when anxiety rears its ugly head. If you’ve been frantically juggling tasks throughout the day and haven’t really had a moment to pause, it’s these night-time hours when anxiety can strike. You might find it difficult to get to sleep, or lie awake at 3 am stressing about everything from work deadlines to your relationship.
According to a wellbeing report by Aviva, as many as 16 million of us suffer from sleepless nights. Fragmented sleep is associated with persistently raised cortisol levels throughout the day. This can cause a vicious cycle of stress, increased cortisol levels, and sleep disturbance.
Practical steps such as avoiding digital devices and sticking to a regular nightly routine where you go to bed at the same time can help to improve sleep quality, and thankfully your diet can also play a part. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that diets that are low in fiber and high in saturated fat and sugar are linked to poorer sleep with less time in the restore phase of sleep, known as slow-wave sleep.
Frequent night-time awakenings can also alter appetite hormones such as leptin and ghrelin, which can cause cravings and increased appetite. To counteract these effects, eat more sleep-friendly foods. These include magnesium-packed leafy greens and tryptophan-rich chickpeas, turkey, and milk.
Working from home
The ripple effects of the unprecedented pandemic have left many of us feeling a lack of control. The sense of uncertainty in the air, financial constraints, health concerns, and in some cases, the after-effects of bereavement have contributed to the rising level of stress; in fact, a whopping 25 million of us have admitted drowning in anxiety throughout lockdown, according to a report by the Office of National Statistics.
Many of us have had to rethink the way we work, which has brought its own unique challenges. While there’s no intimidating board meetings or lengthy commute to contend with, for many of us working from home has meant juggling our day-to-day work schedules with homeschooling and caring for others while coping with the pressure of remaining productive and meeting expectations that might not always be realistic given our personal circumstances.
When you add all of these stressors up, there’s a risk of burnout. Dwindling energy levels turn into exhaustion, and before we know it, we get stuck in a rut.
Being hauled up at home can certainly take its toll on our health, especially when the lines between work and personal life are so blurred, so striving for a good work-life balance is super-important. This means sticking to a clear schedule that marks the beginning of the working day, as well as the end – avoiding replying to emails or finishing a work project when you should officially be ‘out of the office’.
Designate a space in your home as your work zone; this should be separate from where you eat and where you sleep. Your diet also plays a crucial role when you’re working from home.
It can be tempting to reach for snacks around the clock, but this will just leave you feeling lethargic and sluggish. Having a strict working day where you start work at say 9 am and finish at 5 pm will allow you to slot in three regular meals, one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon snack. Breakfast is the most crucial consideration here, as smart eating in the morning will set up your energy levels and your mood for the entire day.
A protein and complex carbohydrate-based breakfast, such as oats with seeds and berries or poached eggs on wholemeal toast, helps to keep blood sugar levels even so that you don’t run on empty. Instead, you’ll have improved concentration and memory.
Physical activity is vital for mental health, and the rush of endorphins when we get moving massively improves our feel-good factor, something that most of us need now more than ever. On the flip side however, too much exercise can have adverse health effects.
Prolonged high-intensity exercise without adequate rest time in between sessions can throw your body out of kilter resulting in excess cortisol and higher levels of inflammation, impacting everything from immunity to energy. This is known as overtraining syndrome, and signs to look out for include decreased performance, increased perceived effort, prolonged muscle soreness and fatigue after exercise, recurrent injury or illness, sleep disturbance, irritability, and low mood.
Listening to your body’s needs is the best way to manage exercise-induced stress. The overtraining threshold is different for everyone, so you need to pay attention to how your body is coping, while ensuring that you are getting adequate sleep, water, and nutrients.
You might need to mix up your workout, weaving in high-intensity runs with rolling out your yoga mat or going for long walks to mindfully engage in the present moment and reduce stress. Include more immunity-boosting foods in your diet. These include vitamin C-rich orange and grapefruit, which contain unique flavonoid compounds to help increase immune system activity, and zinc-packed pumpkin seeds and shellfish to help reduce any inflammation in your cells.
Micromanaging your diet
You might count calories or skip meals in a bid to see the number on the scales drop, but constant dieting can lead to emotional and physical stress.
The chronic stress of yo-yo dieting can ignite flight or fight mode, leading to anxiety and irritability. You’ll be lacking in vital nutrients, and a nutrient-deficient diet can pose a form of stress on the body.
Chronic stress can impair the absorption and deplete stores of essential vitamins, potentially leading to deficiencies.
If you’re not eating enough in the day, you’ll have reduced levels of essential nutrients and lower levels of neurotransmitters.
To ensure you’re getting enough nutrients, fill half your plate with a variety of veg (peppers, spinach, broccoli), a quarter of your plate with lean protein (chicken, tofu, or legumes), and the rest with complex carbohydrates (such as wholegrain rice or sweet potato), and healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds. This ensures you’re getting a range of beneficial nutrients to sustain energy and mood without having to rely on restrictive calorie counting.