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Stressed? Many of us are, but sometimes we use unhealthy ways to deal with it. So what else should we be doing, asks Joanna Hall.
In today's fast-paced world, stress is a fact of life. While some short-term stress can be positive, in the long term it can be dangerous as we risk turning to unhealthy ways to cope.
A US study reported that 43 per cent of adults suffer adverse health effects from stress. In particular, women reported feeling the effects of stress more than men. So what can you do? The first step is to recognise some of the detrimental ways we handle our problems, and replace them with healthier strategies.
Eating for comfort
In the study, 31 per cent of women said they ate comfort foods or made poor diet choices when stressed. "Some reach for ice-cream or chips when they are feeling stressed, while others do the opposite and eat barely anything," says dietitian Clare Evangelista.
High-fat and high-sugar foods are top of the list of foods we reach for when stressed. 'They are more convenient and offer a quick boost of energy," says Evangelista. "There is also the perception that if you're stressed, you're too busy to cook a healthy meal, so you get a takeaway on the way home instead."
Poor food choices can end in weight gain and low self-esteem, leading to more comfort eating and more weight gain. In the long term, however, weight gain can also increase the risk of health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.
"Make sure you have healthy food on hand," says Evangelista. "When it comes to dinner, cook batches of healthy meals when you have time and freeze them for use later." A couple of squares of dark chocolate are a healthier choice than a biscuit or muffin, and a little salsa dip and a few rice crackers should do the trick when you're craving chips.
Over three million Australians smoke, more than 91 per cent daily. Ironically, using nicotine to ease stress can have the opposite effect. Matthew Peters, professor of respiratory medicine from the Australian School of Advanced Medicine, Macquarie University, explains: "The brain has a pleasure zone influenced by activities including sex, eating good food and so on, which cause dopamine to be released into the body, making you feel good. Nicotine also causes dopamine release."
Peters says that the problem with nicotine over time is that brain cells become desensitised. They quickly develop tolerance to the pleasurable effects and require increasingly higher levels of nicotine. The result? Your brain tells your body to keep supplying nicotine and when it doesn't get it fast enough, cravings start.
Smoking has serious health risks, from inhibiting female reproduction to heart disease, stroke and cancer. Lung cancer in particular is on the rise, killing more women than breast cancer.
Ways to quit smoking include using nicotine patches, exercising and counteracting cravings with small amounts of sugar. "Avoiding situations where it is hard not to smoke is important early on when you quit," adds Peters. "Behaviour can be 'unlearned', so if your morning routine is to get up, make a coffee and light a cigarette, take a walk instead."
Stress is an excuse to be inactive but working out is an effective antidote to stress. "When you exercise, your body releases 'feelgood' chemicals called endorphins, including serotonin," says exercise scientist Martha Lourey-Bird. 'Also, when you exercise you breathe deeper and take in more oxygen, which helps to calm you down. All this makes you feel better overall."
Missing a workout occasionally may not do much harm in the short term but in the long term risks include possible weight gain and a loss of fitness, both of which can affect self-confidence and health. "If you are used to exercising with friends, or in a team, you may also become isolated when you stop exercising," says Lourey-Bird.
How you exercise to manage stress is highly personal. "For one person yoga is good, for someone who's stuck in an office all day doing something outdoors helps, and for a third it might be a team game for the social aspect of exercising," says Lourey-Bird. "The minimum you can do without excuses, however, is walk, and you can make it enjoyable by listening to something on an iPod."
For the full story, see the July issue of Good Health. Subscribe to Good Health and receive a FREE La Mav Intense Moisture Nightly Repair Nectar, valued at $69.95.