It is November 1st. Halloween was a blur of candy wrappers and my oldest saying “well my stomach doesn’t hurt yet.” My youngest loved the power of handing out candy to bigger kids. They had to follow the rules – say Trick or Treat and Thank You. I had on one of my favorite fall outfits and snuck away at a few points to read “Well Met” (a Rene Faire romance novel complete with an outsider visiting a small town, foes that end up falling for each other and someone who bakes).
But now that it is November 1st I’m switching to holiday mode and realizing that I always end up strung out on sugar cookies and yelling while everyone is decked in Fraser tartan plaid.
This year I have some tricks up my sleeve for meeting holiday stress with calm. There’s no avoiding it but these are the things I am doing to help my system cope. Physically, Mentally and Socially. Part 1, Physically, is what we’re going to talk about today.
If you’ve been living under a rock then this will be news to you; Stress is bad for your body. Also if you’ve been living under a rock you either have almost zero stress in your life or are stressed for very different reasons than I am.
Human anatomy isn’t evolving as fast as our society is. Our fight, flight, freeze or fawn response to stress was developed to protect us from life-or-death dangers… not forgetting the cupcakes for the class party (and the allergy/dietary preferences options for the three kids with those).
You’re familiar with the first three responses. Fight is going to show up as fist clenching, jaw tightening, stomping – you know, the typical anger signs. Flight is antsy feeling, over exercising, trouble sleeping from too much adrenaline because we didn’t actually have to outrun a bear. Freeze is going pale in the face, feeling numb because our body doesn’t think fighting or fleeing is going to work.
Fawn is the new one. Fawn has been identified as a stress response and I can most easily describe it as people pleasing. Over-agreeing, overly helpful and making sure that everyone else is happy.
WebMD lists Fawn as likely in people who suffered childhood trauma or abuse. I’m not a doctor so please talk to your own therapist about this but people pleasing is also learned behavior for a lot of people, especially women and girls regardless of trauma or abuse.
A people pleaser is someone who has an emotional need to please others often at the expense of his or her own needs or desires. Moms fall in to this A LOT without even knowing it. The babies come out completely helpless and for the first several months postpartum your body goes into keep-baby-alive-mode. And then slowly they start sitting up, feeding themselves and wiping their own butts but your brain is still in keep-baby-alive-mode.
If we’re not careful we totally lose our sense of self and our boundaries and that can lead to resentment and chronic stress because we’re in a fawn response pattern to everything.
And even though the fawn stress response is much calmer than punching a wall like a fight response it is still a response to increased stress hormones which causes an ongoing increase in heart rate. The elevated levels of stress hormones and blood pressure can take a toll on the body. And by now we all know this long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
Unless you’re one of the under a rock people.
Okay, we’ve established stress is bad. We’ve talked about Fawn and how women might handle stress that way. Now let’s tackle HOW to optimize your body for handling stress.
The easiest way to reduce stress in your life is to have a glass of water. Even being half a litre dehydrated increases cortisol levels. All of our organs, including our brains, need water to function properly. If you’re dehydrated, your body isn’t running well. And when your body isn’t running well you are stressed so you reach for the unhealthiest options which dehydrate you more and the cycle continues.
I’ve definitely been there before. Have you?
Also drinking a glass of water helps to regulate your breathing. You physically can’t hyperventilate while taking a drink of water. I use this trick on upset kids – have a drink of water which helps hydrate them but also resets the breath and then work to bring them back down from blowing their lid. (side note, works the same way for moms too)
In general, you should try to drink between half an ounce to an ounce of water for every pound you weigh, every day. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, that would be 75 to 150 ounces of water a day. (via WebMD)
Limit or Avoid Alcohol
What’s the first thing that happens to your body when you drink alcohol? Well it isn’t actually dehydration but that most definitely comes later.
Alcohol is a diuretic meaning it causes your body to remove fluids from your blood through your renal system, which includes the kidneys, ureters, and bladder, at a much quicker rate than other liquids. (And then at the end of the night or in the morning you reach for overly sugary or salty snacks which keeps that dehydration cycle spinning on high)
Internally your body’s secondary response to alcohol is to release cortisol and adrenaline. Alcohol is a depressant so people reach for it to take the edge off. That glass of wine does the trick for about 20 minutes and then the “relaxed” (depressed) feeling wares off and there is an excess of stress hormones in our system making us feel anxious.
Yes my friend, that drink you thought would help you feel less anxious is actually causing anxiety.
I made the choice to go alcohol free in September 2021 and social outings are tricky at first but most people actually applaud you when you order a San Pellegrino instead of a glass of wine. “Oh I wish I could do that” or “I bet you feel so good”.
You can. And I do.
Limit or Avoid Caffeine
Caffeine is an interesting stimulant. Like alcohol it is tied into a ritual for most of us. Our brain starts to prepare for the incoming caffeine by releasing a neurotransmitter called adenosine to tell you that you’re tired; the more adenosine you build up, the more tired you feel. Caffeine prevents adenosine from acting on your brain and triggers cortisol release making you feel more alert.
But because our brains try to keep things under control more adenosine is released when you start to get your coffee maker set up to brew. (Another reason to set up your coffee process before bed!) I use brain tricking techniques all the time when it comes to my mood and motivation but this trick from Bulletproof is one I can definitely implement.
Add a cup of decaf in the afternoon – half the time you get caffeine, half the time you get decaf, and your brain will stop associating coffee with caffeine. It will also stop associating caffeine with mornings, which could make waking up much easier for you.Bulletproof.com | Does Coffee Stress You Out?
I personally drink half-caf in the morning and will have a decaf or a black or green tea in the afternoons.
Caffeine is also a mild diuretic. On it’s own it won’t dehydrate you but it’ll contribute to the dehydration cycle if you’re already dehydrated and drinking alcohol too.
Adding fruits and vegetables and grains and legumes to your diet this time of year will increase your body’s ability to function well. Plants have more water in them (hello hydration) and they contain vital nutrients.
Avoiding refined sugars is another way to combat stress. Refined sugar triggers spikes and dips in blood glucose levels which triggers the release of cortisol. Starchy meals are a staple for most of our holiday tables. And everything in moderation is the motto to live by. You’re a smart person who knows what a healthy diet would look like over the course of the day. Unless you’re my under-a-rock friend.
Healthline.com has a list of foods for us that help to lower cortisol levels:
- Dark chocolate. Dark chocolate contains a high amount of flavonoids, which have been shown to buffer stress reactivity in the adrenal glands, resulting in lower cortisol release.
- Whole grains. Unlike refined grains, whole grains are rich in plant-based polyphenols and fiber, which may support stress levels and gut health.
- Legumes and lentils. They’re high in fiber, which supports a healthy gut while also managing blood sugar levels.
- Whole fruits and vegetables. Whole fruits and vegetables contain an abundance of antioxidants and polyphenolic compounds that fight cell-damaging free radicals.
- Green tea. Green tea contains a calming compound known as L-theanine, which has been linked to reduced stress and increased mental alertness.
- Probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are friendly, symbiotic bacteria in foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Prebiotics, such as soluble fiber, provide food for these bacteria. Both probiotics and prebiotics are linked to better gut and mental health.
- Healthy fats. A diet high in unsaturated fat and low in saturated fat is associated with better overall health and mental well-being. In particular, omega-3 fatty acids are best linked with brain health and reduced stress. Good sources include fatty fish, nuts, and seeds.
- Water. Dehydration has been linked to a temporary increase in cortisol levels, making it even more important to drink water throughout the day.
Earlier this year I learned about the Endocannabinoid System. And although the ECS developed in humans over 500-600 million years ago, we only discovered its existence in the last few decades. We also learned its primary function: to maintain a balanced, neutral state called homeostasis.
CBD mimics/works with the ECS transmitters. I encourage you to watch this video to learn more about it.
I decided to start a daily Hemp Oil supplement and I have noticed a shift in my mood. I am generally speaking calmer, more present and less anxious. When an anxiety attack came about in September I upped my dose and alongside therapy and mindset work I have recovered from it.
I notice that I am more agitated when I don’t take it so going into the stressful holiday season I’ll me making sure I take it as part of my morning supplement routine.
(I take Green Compass Hemp Oil and if you want more information send me a note!)
Pobody’s Nerfect and please don’t live under the assumption that I follow these guidelines all day every day for myself. I’ll definitely be dunking sugar cookies into a coffee most December mornings. I’ll also be hydrating and keeping the rest of my diet plant-based and nutrient rich.
Part 2 is about the mental practices I am putting into place to help cope with stress. Part 3 is the tactical ways I’m handling stress this holiday season.
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