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Friday, 11 July 2014

The Power of Calm

Stress. It's a nasty business. It can make you feel angry, tearful, hopeless or exhausted. It can also drive you to eat more than you need, overdo it on alcohol, smoke... the list is endless. We're not designed to deal with stress. We aren't built that way, and coping with long term stressors (like relationships, a demanding job or money worries) takes its toll on our health - mentally and physically. 

When we are stressed we eat more to feel better emotionally, and when we are stressed we don’t metabolise food as efficiently. If we’re running around or madly typing emails, we’re in fight or flight mode – our body thinks we are in danger because it perceives a threat. The part of the body responsible for activating effective digestion, the parasympathetic nervous system, (PNS) is switched off and our sympathetic nervous system is in full flow. Basically, if you turn on stress, you turn off digestion. It makes sense because all your energy is going somewhere more important, like your legs for running away from that bear (or so in evolutionary terms).

So what does this mean? Well, it means that when we are stressed or anxious or feeling the need to use a coping strategy (eating, drinking, smoking, gambling, feeling anger, taking drugs etc) it's imperative we find more effective ways of relaxing (activating our PNS) so we aren’t putting on weight or experiencing other bad side effects.

So how can we stimulate this wonderful stress reducing, fat burning system? 

  • Deep breathing. OK don't scoff. Seriously, it's amazing. When I am feeling stressed, tense, running around like a blue-arsed fly I've been taking a minute to just breathe in 5 big deep breaths as far as my lungs will go. You can feel the effect it has and it really helps relax you.
  • Being mindful of how you are feeling. Stop. Listen to yourself. Are you tried? Stressed? Could you use a break? Are you lonely? Just stopping to check in can help us slow down and enter a more relaxed, grounded state. 
  • Stretching or self-massage. This can also be done say, in the toilet cubicle at work. Stretch your arms up, stretch your back, massage your head, scalp and temples while breathing deeply. Do this for a couple of minutes when you're feeling frazzled and it can do wonders.
  • Do something pleasurable. Listen to relaxing music, buy some flowers, go to a yoga class, get a massage, stroke a dog, write. Making time to do something you love activates the PNS and brings stress levels down.

At the end of a tough day at work, and I'm feeling like I want to overeat, I know now it's because I'm wound up and full of the day's stresses. Taking a hot bath, getting a massage or even just practicing deep breathing on the tube turns on that PNS switch and tells my body everything is safe, calm and Ok. In this state, my cortisol levels drop, my need for food goes down, my muscles relax and I just feel so much better. It is in this state that we want to try and be in most of the time. Not just because it releases endorphins to make us feel good, but because when the stress switch is off we are no longer in survival mode, clinging onto our fat stores. Bonus for getting the body we want. 

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