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Take care of yourself: Eight ways to manage stress – and your weight

When we feel like we lost control it’s natural to feel stressed. Here are some healthy coping strategies to deal with stress that help you to remain calm and regain control.

Stress has helped humans to survive for thousands of years. But modern life can keep our stress levels so high for so long that our health starts to suffer. For some people, eating tasty and energy-rich food is their way to cope. And this can lead to an increase in body weight and raise the risk of developing obesity.

It's not uncommon. 43 percent of Americans overeat when they feel stressed, according to the 2007 report Stress in America.

The problem with stress is that it’s often about things that have yet to happen. We worry about meetings, starting a new job, or maybe about the future of a relationship. It’s hard to control what’s going to happen in the future. But you can control how you respond to feelings of stress.

"We worry about meetings, starting a new job, or maybe about the future of a relationship. It’s hard to control what’s going to happen in the future. But you can control how you respond to feelings of stress."

-The Harvard Gazette. Health & Medicine: With mindfulness, life’s in the moment.

Some symptoms of mild stress include sleeping problems, restlessness or ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. If these sound familiar, here’s eight strategies that can help you to regain control and remain calm.

1. Identify the source of the stress

Try to identify the triggers. Are there specific situations or issues that make you feel stressed? Consider whether you can do something about it. If yes, try to write down a plan. For example, if you feel stressed because you have too much work, you could call for a meeting with your supervisor to discuss your workload.

2. How do you react to stress?

The good news is that we can learn new ways to respond to stress. The idea is to identify how we react and then learn a new – healthier – way of dealing with stress.

3. Overcome stress with increased physical activity

Exercise can make us feel good and improves our mood. Try activities that you enjoy and perceive as rewarding.

4. Meditate

Mediation helps us to focus on the present moment instead of worrying about what might happen in the future. You could start with a breathing exercise to calm down, or listen to relaxation music. There are plenty of mindfulness and meditation apps, such as Headspace, which are designed specifically for this purpose, too.

5. Sleep better at night

It is normal to sleep poorly when you are stressed. But it’s important for an adult’s health to get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. See if you can find a way to improve your sleeping habits. If you need some help, read our tricks on how to get a good night’s sleep.

Woman lying in a bed and smiling

6. Unlearn eating as a solution to feeling stressed

Eating food seems to become a coping mechanism to deal with stress, even though we want to stay healthy and eat in moderation. After all, we all know that tasty food makes us feel good. But for some people it can become an addictive cycle. Try to notice when stress arises and be aware of how you react to it. Then try to establish a healthy response by doing something you really enjoy instead.

7. Get help and help those in need

Calling a friend or being surrounded by supportive family members can help reduce stress. But research has also shown that giving social support to other people can also be a good stress reliever.

8. When stress needs professional help

Sometimes dealing with stress is not simple. And the suggested strategies above might only work for mild symptoms of stress. If the symptoms are more severe, like aggressiveness, forgetfulness, or unexplained pains, sleep problems and being less social, it is important to seek professional help. In these cases a trained healthcare provider can help you find healthy coping mechanisms.

References
  • Chao A, Grilo CM, White MA & Sinha R. Food cravings mediate the relationship between chronic stress and body mass index. Journal of Health Psychology 2015; 20(6):721-729.
  • Guyenet S. The hungry brain. Outsmarting the instincts that make us overeat. New York: Flatiron 2017.
  • Forman E & Butryn M. Effective Weight Loss: An Acceptance-Based Behavioral Approach - Treatments That Work (Workbook Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press 2016.
  • Fox KR. The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public health nutrition 1999; 2(3a):411-418.
  • The Harvard Gazette. Health & Medicine: With mindfulness, life’s in the moment: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/less-stress-clearer-thoughts-with-mindfulness-meditation/ [Accessed July 2019].
  • Spaeth AM & Dinges DF. Sleep and obesity. In: Thomas A Wadden & George A Bray (eds.). Handbook of Obesity Treatment. New York: Guilford Press 2018.
  • Sapolsky RM. Why zebras don’t get ulcers. The acclaimed guide to stress-related disease, and coping (3rd ed.) St. Martin’s Griffin 2004.

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