S-T-R-E-S-S and 6 Ways To Counter It

Who hasn’t said, “I’m so stressed right now!”  Seems like our lives and society are set up to stress us out on a fairly regular basis.

What is Stress?

In fact, stress isn’t all bad.  A degree of stress is good: it helps you grow and develop, to gain strength, and it encourages you to make necessary changes.  For example, doing exercise that challenges and strengthens your muscles, be it your biceps or your heart, causes your body some stress.  Taking on a new job, or starting a new relationship, are also both stressors.  Stress is a physical response to allow you to respond quickly to situations around you.  So, it encourages you to make changes, which can be vital and life-affirming.

However, a lot of people end up chronically stressed, because they get no down-time from life’s stressors.  A little stress is good, but a lot of stress is terrible.

Chronic Stress

You may not even put the name to it, but that doesn’t change the effects.  Chronic stress can lead to a whole host of physical and mental issues, ranging from poor sleep, to overeating, and even to depression.

To assess whether you might be suffering from stress, you could consider whether you have any physical symptoms, and how often you get them: headaches, sleep issues, dizziness, muscle tension or pain, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain.

Additionally, consider how often you’ve felt stressed over the last month: never, occasionally, often, constantly?  How about feeling angry about situations you can’t control?  Overwhelmed, anxious, or lacking in self-esteem?  Thoughts whirring, difficulty concentrating and making decisions?  Have you been drinking or smoking more, snappy and irritable, avoiding things or people?

The Effects of Stress

When you are stressed, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol.  In the short term, these hormones give you a boost of energy and wake you up.  In the long term, they keep your body wired way past the point of usefulness, and into ill health.

A new study also shows that a brief episode of stress causes relapse in cocaine-addicted mice.  As ever with science, more studies are needed.  However, it is suggestive that any addiction you have might see a relapse from even a brief stressor.  In even worse news, the relapse lasted far longer than the actual stressor, for days, in fact.  The scientists are looking into what medications can switch off those brain synapses triggered by the stressor, but there are certainly things you can do right away.

What To Do About It

There’s a great acronym to help remember the six keys to beating stress: S-T-R-E-S-S.

pinky-swear-329329_640S – Social Connection

As the song goes, no (wo)man is an island.  Having a network of people that you can be with is incredibly supportive.  We are social animals, at heart, and need to feel cared for and understood.  This doesn’t mean you need to be at the centre of a group of people all the time.  However, you do need at least one or two people you connect with regularly.

Part of this is chemical – oxytocin is released when you have positive social contacts, and is great for counteracting stress hormones.  Another part is that caring for others helps you get outside of your own head and concerns.  And you can also be positively influenced by others, seeing different perspectives, and being encouraged to adopt good, health habits.  So, it’s great to have friends, and even better to have friend’s with healthy habits.

meditation-1384758_640T – Therapy/Meditation

Both therapy and meditation stimulate reflection, attention and forethought.  These are ways to help get a handle on your stress, and to calm your automatic negative thoughts and your emotions.  They also stimulate the brain at a physiological level, leading to increased blood flow.  That, in turn, helps clears out the effects of cortisol and adrenaline, ‘washing’ them away.

Therapy has the added benefit of being a form of social intimacy, with several studies showing the release of oxytocin being stimulated in the therapy environment.  However, if you don’t like sharing your feelings, then meditation gives you many of the same effects, and may have more benefits in terms of creating a calm and relaxed state.

massage-1237913_640R – Relaxation

In itself, relaxation is another stress-buster.  You may find that listening to calming music helps you.  Laughter is also a great medicine in this regard.  Then there are things like getting a massage, or even natural stress reducing substances like spearmint or chamomile tea, or lavender and other herbal essences such as bergamot, clary sage or ylang ylang.

Or consider doing some breathing exercises.  There are so many studies on the benefits of breathing that it’s impossible to deny this is a major game changer.  Somewhat harder to define is which type of breathing may be ‘best’.

Fundamentally, any type of slow, deep breathing is calming.

You can try deep abdominal breathing as a first step.  This is just getting in touch with your breathing, and making sure that your diaphragm is getting involved.  A good way to start out is to lie down and place a hand on your stomach.  When you breathe in, your hand should rise.  This shows that you are breathing deeply.

The next step would be to keep breathing into you abdomen, and start trying to lengthen your inhale and exhale.  It’s a good idea to count your breaths.  You might start out just trying to extend the count.  You can also check that the inhale and exhale are of equal duration.  Or, better yet, extend the exhale beyond the inhale.  For instance, it’s great to try to breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in.

After that, there are plenty more breathing exercises that you can explore.  I’ve mentioned the 4-7-8 breathing technique before.  And there’s also alternate nostril breathing.  In fact, there are so many options that they really deserve a post (or a video) all to themselves, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

white-male-1856182_640E – Exercise

Physical exercise is another great was to relieve stress.  It’s not just kickboxing workouts that act as a pressure release valve (though imagining kicking or punching someone or something that has been stressing you can be very cathartic).  Any kind of physical exercise has stress benefits.

Cardio workouts get your heart pumping and stimulate the release of seratonin, a happy hormone.  This could be cycling outdoors, or a static bike in the gym.  It could be an aerobics class, or dancing around your bedroom.  It could be a brisk walk or something more energetic.  Extreme cardio workouts cause an increase in cortisol, though, so don’t overdo it.

Weights workouts focus more on your other muscles, while also stimulating human growth hormone and testosterone.  These counterbalance cortisol, and it has been shown that your body can tolerate higher levels of cortisol so long as these other hormones are also strongly present.

And yoga has some of the benefits of a weights workout, while also boosting your relaxation levels.

So, find something you enjoy that gets you moving.

cat-2209105_640S – Sleep

This is a biggie, and not all that simple, I know.  It’s really important to get enough good quality sleep.  Yet, so many things in your life work against this.  Here’s another heading that deserves a post of it’s own.

Basically, try to improve your sleep hygiene.  Reduce caffeine and sugar in the evening, ditto to blue light screens (the new iPhones have a setting called NightShift so that you can still look at your phone without getting that melatonin-suppressing glare).  Make sure your bedroom is dark and cool, and that your mattress and pillow are comfortable.  Try establishing a relaxing bedtime routine.  And as often as possible, go to bed at about the same time – you can get a mini-jet lag from varying your bedtime too much!

0c2b7-bf-breakfast1S – Substitute Snacks

It’s one of those bitter truths that being stressed triggers cravings for sugary, fatty, carby foods.  And that those self-same foods aggravate stress, causing inflammation in the body.  So, this is a negative cycle that can easily develop.

The best advice here is to substitute healthy snacks for junk food.  In time, your body will adapt, and thank you for it.  Of course, that’s easier said than done.

How Hypnotherapy Can Help

Hypnotherapy is a great all-round helper for stress.  It is a clear way to bring relaxation to both body and mind.  It is also a talking therapy, helping you to deal with automatic negative thoughts, and to reflect on your situation.  Hypnosis helps promote change, and with the therapeutic relationship, it gives you a social connection oxytocin boost.

Indirectly, hypnosis has been shown to benefit sleep, even when that isn’t the aim of the hypnotherapy.  Though you can also specifically work on sleep disturbances very effectively with it.  And of course, hypnotherapy can be used to target habit changes such as exercising more and controlling what you eat.

The bottom line is that hypnotherapy can help with all six of these proven ways to target stress.  If you’re interested in trying it out, why not get in touch?

Top Five Factors Affecting Your Weight – Not What You’re Expecting?!

Most people think they know what the best advice is to get control of their weight: eat small portions of healthy food and exercise.  Yet, if we look at the science, some different answers come out.

Let’s look at the top five factors that really affect your weight, then think about how best to use this information.

DanceClass5) Exercise

It is really beneficial to exercise on a number of levels.  It boosts your mood, improves how your body processes what you eat, and changes how your body looks.  However, it isn’t the biggest factor in controlling your weight.  There is only so much exercise you can humanly do.  +

Unfortunately, our modern high-sugar, high-fat foods pack a huge calorie punch that you don’t have enough hours in the day to work off.  So, although beneficial, exercise can never be sufficient to control your weight without bringing some other factors into the equation

baby-1151351_6404) Sleep

Lots of studies have shown a direct correlation between getting too little sleep and gaining weight.  That’s the bad news.  The worse news is that more and more people are getting by on less sleep than they need, in our modern society.  Whether you attribute it to electric lights allowing poeple to stay up/work later, too much screen time before bed, or the high stress and long hours of much of modern life, the fact is there.

It’s definitely worthwhile to take steps to improve your sleep quality and quantity.  That might involve looking at your sleep hygiene: avoiding or  cutting down on caffeine (that includes chocolate), alcohol and nicotine; not looking at blue light after a certain time; decreasing sweet foods in the evening; make sure your bedroom is as cool, dark and quiet as possible; establish a pre-sleep routine; do something to drop your stress levels (more below on this).

c71d0-salad3) What You Eat

Of course, what you eat matters.  While food fads come and go at frighteningly regular intervals, and different studies point in different directions, there are some principles which endure.  You may not be sure how much red wine is good for you, but you know that a little can have benefits, at least to your body (your brain is a different matter, according to Dr Daniel Amen, who preaches being teetotal).  And you know that eating crisps, chocolate and pizza, and drinking sugary drinks (or even sugar free drinks with artificial sweeteners) will do you, and your weight, no good at all.

The best advice is to eat moderately from any natural, unprocessed foods.  You may not be able to avoid processed foods entirely (nor want to), but make sure they don’t take over.  And the less sugar, the better.

What To Eat When2) When You Eat

More recently, there has been a lot of press coverage, and a lot of scientific research, on the importance of when you eat.  Of course, there’s the 5:2 diet, where you restrict your calories to a quarter of ‘normal’ on two days each week.  There are also other forms of intermittent fasting, eg. doing a full 36 hour fast once a week, or doing a weekend fast once a month.  Another option is time-restricted eating: going at least 13 hours between your evening meal and when you break your fast.  It seems like everyone has an opinion, and a scientific study or five to back it up, determining when you should eat for optimum health and weight control.

Certainly, eating last thing at night is seen by almost everyone as a bad idea, and giving your digestive system some kind of a break on a regular basis seems like a good idea.

cat-2209105_6401) Relaxation

Stastics on comfort eating and stress eating vary between 25% and 50% of people in modern society.  That’s  up to 1 in 2 people who turn to food for comfort or to deal with stress!  Yet, anyone who has ever done this knows it’s far from effective.  The real result is more stress as you feel guilt and shame, and hate your body for not being the weight you want it to be.

Underlying this are a couple of different factors.  One is boredom or loneliness.  Another is stress and the release of cortisol.  There are lots of studies showing that cortisol triggers appetite for fat and sugar, and that it makes it harder to shift excess weight.  And, to add insult to injury, even over-exercising can be a stressor that causes the release of cortisol!

By relaxing, you can stop the release of cortisol, and balance your autonomic nervous system.  This by itself will help with weight control both at the level of stopping cravings, as well as at a physiological level helping your body to process the food you eat in a healthier way.  It will also help your sleep – so finally we have a win-win.

What’s the solution?

With the stress-relaxation axis being perhaps the single most important factor influencing weight, there is finally some good news.  There are lots of things that you can do to help you relax.  Better yet, many of them can be done in short periods of time.

My top seven picks for de-stressing are:

4-7-8 Breathing

This is a surprisingly simple technique.  The basic idea is that you breath following a three part structure:

First, you breath in through your nose on a count of four.

Second, you hold your breath for a count of seven.

Third, you breathe out through pursed lips on a count of eight.

An added touch is to have your tongue touching the back of your top front teeth throughout, including as you exhale forcefully through your mouth.  However, don’t worry if this is overcomplicated.  Just keep to the basic count, and everything else is icing on the cake, so to speak.

Mini-meditations

There is increasing evidence that meditation doesn’t have to take a long time to be effective.  In fact, some people even suggest as little as three minutes, three times a day, can have a profound effect.  And you can choose from a lot of different kinds of meditation.  Here are a few simple meditation  suggestions:

1)Watch your breath as it flows in and out.  No need to control it or count, just be present with your breath.

2) Imagine yourself in a safe, pleasant place.  Make the space feel as real as possible: what would you hear, what would you see, what would you feel, what would you smell, what would you taste?

3) Be present with your actual experience.  What can you feel right now?  What can you see?  What can you hear?  Can you taste anything?  Can you smell anything?  For three minutes (or more) just keep asking yourself those questions, and seeing what comes up.

Socialising

Take some time to be with other people.  At best, this would be face-to-face.  Really listen to whoever you are with and acknowledge them.  You can also take the time to write a heartfelt text.  The point is to truly connect with someone, so make it a mini-love-letter, rather than a mini-rant.  Or call someone, just to say hello and find out how they are.  We are social animals, and some true human connection works wonders on our mood.

Movement

Pick something you enjoy.  It could be five minutes of chair yoga while you’re on break, or a longer yoga class.  Or it could be dancing, or walking, jogging, skating, weights.  Whatever you enjoy.  And it doesn’t have to take long, even a few minutes will make a difference to your mood.  Moving releases all kinds of natural chemicals to help you feel good, as well as burning calories – yay, another win-win!

Reading

Studies show that just six minutes reading de-stresses you as much as meditating.  How easy is that to fit into your day?

Crafting

Taking up a hobby that relaxes you and keeps your hands occupied is a win-win.  After all, if your hands are busy, they can’t be putting food in your mouth.  Secondly, such pasttimes are meditative, getting you into that flow space where you are challenged just enough to stay interested and relaxed at the same time.  There are myriad different options here, for example sketching, zentangle, colouring, knitting, sewing, painting, felting,

Hypno-relaxation

This is like an amped-up version of meditation.  You are guided, so it’s easier to follow and not get lost.  And extra benefits and suggestions can be added in, to improve your immune system, help you lose weight, teach you a new breathing technique, or many more options.  To try out a mini-hypno-relaxation, just click on the image below and relax!

Top Five Tips When Choosing a Gym

Choosing the right gymChristmas is finally over, and after the weekend it’s back to work.  And last night, you may have gone out partying, or just stayed home.  Either way, you may be feeling rather the worse for wear after the long festive period.  And it’s that time of year, everyone asking you what your New Year’s Resolution is…

Feeling a greater sense of wellnes, and finally achieving your ideal, healthy weight sound like a plan.  So, perhaps you’ve decided you want to join a gym.  Now, how do you actually go about it?  Here are my top tips when picking out a gym that will suit you.

1) Location, location, location

It’s often hard enough to motivate yourself to hit the gym, working around the other things in your life like job and socialising.  So, pick somewhere that’s easy to get to.

If you are likely to go before or after work, you can choose somewhere close to work, or on the way between work and home.  On the other hand, if you’re likely to work out at the weekends, too, or in the evenings, you may want somewhere closer to home.

Convenience really is a big factor, so give yourself that extra help in maintaining your good intentions!

2) Light

This is one that not everyone considers, but having enough natural light will really make a difference to your energy levels.  And windows also tend to mean non-sweaty air, which can make a huge difference to whether it feels claustrophobic, and how stinky the place will get at peak times!

DanceClass3) Who do you want to work out with?

This is an important question on a number of levels.  One is the choice of a unisex gym, or one that caters to all comers.

As a woman, it can be much more pleasant to use a women-only gym.  There is less pressure to try to look pretty when actually you’re just sweaty and red.  And women-only gyms tend to smell better (sorry, guys, it’s true!)

Be aware, too, that some gyms may draw a particular crowd.  For instance, a gym in the financial district is likely to cater to a quite different audience than one in the suburbs, or one in a more “party” section of town.  Will you feel comfortable with the other members?  Feeling self-conscious will give you yet another “excuse” not to go and work out…

Shower4) Facilities

What are the facilities like at the gym’s you’re considering?  For one thing, how clean is it?  That might sound like something pretty basic, but not every gym manages it well.  On the other hand, maybe cleanliness isn’t next to anything important in your priorities.

Another thing to think about is whether there are enough showers, if they have a sauna or jacuzzi, lockers in the changing rooms, a free water fountain or somewhere you can get a drink, or even a snack.  Which of these matter most to you?

WeightTraining5) What kind of exercise do you enjoy?

How well equipped is the gym?  Do they have different spaces for different cardio machines and for weights?  Is there a spinning classroom?  What about a more peaceful yoga space?  Some gyms also have a swimming pool…

And what about classes?  Is there a broad cross-section of classes?  Or at least classes that appeal to you?  Can you take a test class or three to see whether you like the teachers and think they know their stuff before you sign up?

The Bottom Line

It can be really handy to think about what is most important to you.  Consider writing out a list of your “must-have’s”, “would be nice’s”, and “absolute no-no’s”.  That way, you’ll be able to make a faster and better choice when you see what options are available to you.

 

What To Eat When

When I coach people on healthy eating, one of the things that they sometimes bring up is the idea that eating late in the evening isn’t great for health.  That’s absolutely true, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how time affects the health benefits or detriments of your eating.

How could time affect your eating choices?

Eating later in the evening is not the best thing to do, either in terms of the quality of your sleep, or in terms of digesting.  In particular, caffeinated drinks or foods (like chocolate), and sugary food more generally, won’t do you any favours.

Like your grandma may have told you, if you have to eat something at night, the best thing is warm milk.  Milk (and in fact any dairy: ie. cheese, eggs, and even chicken) contains a pre-cursor to melatonin (hydroxytryptophan), and so encourages sleep.  Having it warm is also soothing for your stomach.

Are there other ways you can optimise what you eat when?

Yes, there are!  If you want to have something sweet, the best time is for breakfast.  This may seem counter-intuitive.  Won’t you be setting yourself up for sugar cravings all day long?  Actually, eating sweet, sugary foods at breakfast time doesn’t seem to lead to cravings, and it’s also when they are digested best, as you have a whole day of activity ahead of you.

The second best time to eat something sweet is right before a workout.  So, if you know you’re about to do some exercise, and you really want a treat, go for it!

You might also ask yourself, what sweet treats can you have that are better for you?  Obviously, fresh fruit is better than anything with processed sugar.  And even “healthy” sweet alternatives (such as honey) may be no better than sugar in terms of calories.  Still, honey does have other health benefits, so you may want to include some in your sweet treat category of foods.  Another great thing here are dates (especially medjool dates).  These make a great, sweet treat, and are also good for you in terms of fibre, which helps with feelings of satiety, too.

What about protein?

Protein, whether from animals or from plants, is excellent for health.  For one thing, protein gives you a sense of satiety, helping beat cravings and stopping unhealthy snacking.  For another, it’s a necessary ingredient in building lean muscle, which burns calories.  However, there are huge debates on what kind of protein you should eat, how much, and when.

Research suggests it is best to have protein spread throughout the day, rather than just all at one meal.  So, try to find protein to add to your breakfast.  You could add an egg to your breakfast toast, or nuts to your cereal.

Another important thing to know is that the RDA’s (Recommended Daily Allowances) are set not for optimal health, but for the minimum amount required not to have a deficiecy.  In fact, studies show that most people benefit from having twice as much protein as given in their RDA!  So, don’t shy away from protein, it’s really important at a lot of levels.

As for the question of whether to have meat-based protein or plant-based protein, there are benefits and issues with both.

Red meat and cured meat may have downsides in terms of health, although on the up side animal-based protein provides a very easily accessible source of protein.  Meat sources of protein provide around 30% protein, and contain all the amino acids the human body needs.  However, they may also be fatty, and processed meat such as ham, is linked to carcinogenic effects.  Eggs provide about 12% protein, and fish will provide about 25% protein.

Plant-based protein requires a deal more thought, as only quinoa provides all the amino acids you need, and even then not at a huge rate.  For example, cooked quinoa is only about 4.5% protein, with 23% being carbohydrates.  Combining legumes (such as lentils – 9% protein) with rice will provide complete protein, and also has the benefit of a good deal of fibre.  This improves feelings of satiety, too.

The Elements of Weightloss

Everyone has heard that weightloss is simply about eating less calories than you burn: balancing what you eat with how much you exercise.  So, how come it feels so complicated?

In reality, there are a lot of elements that affect weightloss.  Let’s take a look at some of the most important ones.

Food

All calories are not created equal.  We need a balance of different kinds of food in our diet: carbohydrates, proteins, fibre, and lots of micronutrients.  Studies show that the most important macronutrient in terms of feeling full is protein.  And wholegrains give you fibre and vitamins you won’t find in more processed carbohydrates.

When you eat matters as much as what you eat.  For example, eating late at night puts a strain on your system, so you don’t sleep as well, and you don’t process the calories as efficiently, either.  The best time to eat something sweet is either first thing in the morning, or after a workout.  And it’s best to have protein at every meal, maximising the satiety effect, as well as supporting your body’s rebuilding processes.

Exercise

Cardiovascular exercise is great for burning calories, and for keeping your heart healthy.  This can be anything from walking to cycling, from a step class to aquafit, from kickboxing to dancing.  And remember that things like walking up stairs instead of using a lift, or getting off the bus a stop early, really do add up!  Guidelines recommend an average of half an hour a day.  However, you can do less if you do it at high intensity with short rests: high intensity interval training or HIIT is extremely effective.

Weight bearing exercise is vital for building and maintaining lean muscle mass, which is what burns calories.  It’s also vital for maintaining strong bones, especially important for women, but relevant to men, too, as you age.  Not everyone may enjoy lifting weights, but remember that weight bearing exercise doesn’t have to involve a gym or dumbells.  You can also use your own body weight, as you do in yoga.

Flexibility work keeps your muscles adaptable, and maximises their movement.  While a lot of stretching before a workout isn’t great, incorporating stretching into whatever you do, and especially stretching after your muscles are warm and have been worked is vital.

Perhaps the most important thing with exercise, though, is to find things that feel fun!  If you don’t enjoy it, you’re unlikely to stick with it.

Drink

You don’t always think about the calories in what you are drinking, but these can really add up.  And low cal drinks are often worse for you than “full fat”.  Studies show these encourage fat deposits to be laid down, as well as messing with your body’s sense of fullness, so low cal drinks encourage cravings!

Water is great, hydrating your body, and with no calories.  It isn’t the only answer, though.  Too much water can be a bad thing, washing micronutrients out of your body.  In terms of quenching thirst and making you feel fuller and more satisfied, water with a squeeze of citrus is the best.  Make it up fresh if you can, as most “mineral water with a touch of…” drinks contain either sugar or thosed dreaded artifical sweeteners!

The key word with alcohol is moderation.  While there may be some health benefits to a glass of wine, too much alcohol dehydrates you.  On top of that, when you drink you make worse choices…

Sleep

Not everyone considers how important sleep is to a healthy weight.  Studies link lack of sleep to weight gain.  Being tired encourages you to eat more, and particularly to reach for carbohydrates for the energy boost.

And there is a bit of a vicious circle here.  Being tired has you reaching for starchy foods, but eating starchy foods close to bedtime negatively affects your sleep.

Interestingly, the old idea about having milk before bed turns out to have a basis in science.  All dairy, in fact, contains a chemical which helps your body to make melatonin, the sleep chemical.  So, a warm, milk drink before bed will help your sleep.  If you don’t like milk, consider other ways you can include more dairy in your diet, or taking a supplement like 5-HTP or melatonin.