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Steps to Improve Stress Management

Changing daily habits and routines can make a big difference

You stayed up late last night trying to get caught up on work and emails, so it’s rough when the alarm goes off. You decide to trade breakfast for a few more precious minutes of sleep. Once you get up, you grab a cup of coffee and rush out the door. You get to work, open your calendar and see you’re booked in back-to-back meetings the majority of the day.

You’ll be lucky to find time to grab something for lunch, and there’s no way you’ll be getting in that workout you were hoping for. By the time you get home, you’re exhausted, hungry and on your last nerve. You order takeout from your favorite restaurant and get yourself a drink while you wait for your food to arrive—it’s been a long day and you deserve to pamper yourself!

Unfortunately, many of our daily habits and routines—especially those we use in an attempt to deal with stress—are adding more of it to our bodies and brains. To help you better handle the stress in your life, here are five things to avoid that could be making things worse, plus some healthy alternatives.

Don’t Sacrifice Sleep to Get Things Done

It’s tempting to trade sleep for extra hours of productivity, but lack of sleep ramps up sympathetic nervous system activity, pushing us in the direction of the fight-or-flight response. It simultaneously makes the parasympathetic nervous system, related to restoring balance and calm, less effective. Sleep deprivation also increases body fat levels, specifically around the midsection. This abdominal fat may be frustrating and increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and even premature death.

Keep to a regular sleep-and-wake cycle and aim to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Sleep is one of the best tools we have to help the body recover from stress.

Avoid Drinking Caffeine for Energy

In addition to increasing blood pressure, caffeine stimulates the release of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. To make matters worse, caffeine has been shown to work synergistically with mental stress to further increase cortisol levels.

From a stress perspective, cutting out caffeine is ideal. Why voluntarily pump more stress hormones into your body? If you choose to consume caffeine, do so in small amounts.

Make Time for Meals

When we skip meals or go too long without eating, we experience a drop in blood glucose, a form of sugar the body uses for energy from many of the foods we eat. When there’s not enough glucose, the body thinks a famine is occurring, the stress response is stimulated and the body secretes cortisol. This puts us into a food-seeking mode to get much-needed energy into the body. Cortisol makes us eat large amounts of food and store much of this extra energy away in our fat cells for the next glucose emergency.

Maintain blood glucose levels and minimize stress by eating about every three hours, alternating between moderate-sized meals and small snacks containing healthy fats, protein and fiber.

Prioritize Workouts

Stress hormones are designed to fuel a short burst of intense physical activity—fighting or fleeing. When we do this, it burns them off and releases a new class of hormones that restore balance and counteract the negative consequences of stress. The good news is just 30 to 60 seconds of intense exercise produces these feel-good hormones.

Sprint up a flight of stairs, or do a few jumping jacks or burpees (squat thrusts). Worst-case scenario, you do a few of these shorts bursts to hit the reset button on stress or you squeeze in a few minutes here and there. Exercise can be accumulated throughout the day in 10-minute periods, which can be as effective for improving fitness and decreasing body fat as exercising for 30 minutes straight.

Refrain from Turning to Comfort Foods

One of the actions of cortisol is to replace lost energy during the fight-or-flight process, and in the most efficient and effective way possible. It makes us seek out the most energy-rich sources of food available: sugar and fat. The reason we crave “comfort foods” such as chips, sweets and fast food when stressed is that our bodies want to replace the resources it thinks we’ve burned fighting or fleeing.

Unfortunately, cortisol doesn’t know we didn’t fight or flee, and much of this excess glucose is stored away as fat around the abdominal region, raising our risk of disease. Excess fat also places more stress on the body’s joints and systems.

By getting short bursts of exercise, we use up the cortisol and minimize our cravings for junk food. Eating high-fiber, lean-protein foods with healthy fats stabilizes blood glucose levels and provides steady levels of energy to deal with all the demands of your busy life.


Jenny C. Evans is a speaker, best-selling author, TV correspondent and expert on resiliency, stress, performance, exercise physiology, nutrition and health. As founder and CEO of PowerHouse Performance, she works with Fortune 500 audiences worldwide to increase their capacity for stress and to discover how to recover from stress more quickly and effectively. To book PowerHouse Performance for an event or in-house training, go to ph-performance.com/contact, access info@ph-performance.com or call 612-644-9292.

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