Well, first of all it’s important to understand that people can have both unhealthy and healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress; even though on the surface of it, they sometimes look the same.
Let’s take the example of having a G&T after work – this could be a healthy or an unhealthy way to deal with stress; it’s all about understanding the intention behind the G&T.
Are you using the G&T for comfort – perhaps it helps you relax and chill out after a day’s work? Or does the G&T numb you and drown your feelings so that you feel worse as a result? Same G&T, different outcomes.
There are several common habits people use to deal with stress, generally considered unhealthy coping mechanisms because in the long-term you end up feeling worse.
Here are some common ones:
Eating food to numb – you may eat to drown your feelings, resulting in feelings of emptiness of disconnection (on the other hand, food can be used to comfort and to nourish).
Drinking more alcohol than usual – you might be reaching for a drink to numb your feelings (on the other hand, the occasional glass of wine can be a well-earned treat).
Burying yourself in work – this could be your work (especially at the moment whilst more people are finding it hard to separate home and work life). But less able to spot is when people bury themselves in other projects – house work, decluttering, DIY and home projects.
Binging on news or social media – once again, you want to pay attention to how you end up feeling as a result of the binge. It’s fine to stay tuned in, but how do you feel afterwards?
There are many activities to help deal with stress; here I list four healthy coping mechanisms known to reduce stress.
Staying connected with friends and family is so important because a strong social support network relives stress. One study[i] shows that having your best friend around reduces the negative experience of stressful situations.
Moving your body is a stress reliever because it boosts your feel-good endorphins, and gives you something else to focus on. Any type of movement works – walking, yoga, Pilates, jogging, swimming, rock climbing, cycling. Here’s a great article by the Mayo Clinic highlighting the benefits of exercise.
Connecting with nature is important for stress, being outside like taking a walk in the park, improves your general wellbeing and lowers stress[ii]; even just one walk a week in nature will lift your mood.
Sleeping strengthens your immunity so that your body can better deal with stress. Sleep helps the body repair and good rest prevents excess weight gain, heart disease and reduces the time you are ill Medical News Today. If you struggle to fall asleep at night, switch off technology at least one hour before bedtime to help you relax.
For centuries, there has been so much written about the benefits of yoga and meditation, and now we have the tools to measure exactly what happens to the body.
Research now shows that yoga has a measurable positive impact on your body’s stress response:
Similarly with meditation, there is a plethora of research extolling its benefits. One such study [iii] showed that those who practiced meditation regularly start to experience changes in their stress response, helping them to more easily recover from stressful situations and experience less stress from day-to-day challenges.
The food we eat can have a huge impact on our stress levels. In short, a healthy diet can help counter the impact of stress by improving the immune system and lowering blood pressure.
Eating carbohydrates signals the brain to make serotonin (otherwise known as the happy hormone), which can be beneficial for people experiencing stress NCBI. However, refined carbohydrates (think biscuits, donuts and sweets) aren’t going to do you any favours as they spike your blood sugar levels and then cause it to crash shortly afterwards, which actually increases feelings of stress. So you want to focus on complex carbohydrates which take longer to digest (think sweet potatoes, brown rice, broccoli, beans and leafy greens).
Eating healthy fats can help with stress, such as eggs, avocados and nuts. These foods help you feel full, sleep better and improve your energy balance.[iv] Another great option for a quick pick-me-up is a banana (or any other potassium rich food), because it boosts the chemical dopamine, and magnesium, both of which are known to drop during stressful periods.iv
This is a very good question, and important to address. Researchers[v] tell us that there can be “good” stress (it’s short-term and can help us deal with challenges), and also instances where stress can be harmful (when it is long-term and chronic).
For example, if you were facing exams, or a big presentation at work, feeling stressed is perfectly normal. In fact, you might find that a small amount of stress motivates you to focus and revise for the exam, or practice several run-throughs of your presentation. However, if this stress lasts a long time (perhaps it’s a particularly busy period at work that goes on for several months), you may feel totally overwhelmed and unable to concentrate.
In small doses, and for the short-term, stress helps you meet certain challenges or deadlines because it can help you achieve tasks more efficiently (how many people do you know that say they thrive when they are under a little bit of stress?)
So, short-term stress can be beneficial and motivating on the one hand, but on the other hand, long-term stress can cause anxiety and – left unchecked – can lead to negative health issues.
[i] Adams, R.E., J.B. Santo, and W.M. Bukowski, The presence of a best friend buffers the effects of negative experiences. Developmental Psychology, 2011. 47(6): p. 1786)
[ii] Pearson DG, Craig T. The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014;5:1178. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178.
[iii] Hwang WJ, Lee TY, Lim KO, et al. The effects of four days of intensive mindfulness meditation training (Templestay program) on resilience to stress: a randomized controlled trial. Psychol Health Med. 2018;23(5):497–504. doi:10.1080/13548506.2017.1363400
[iv] Miller, Ali. The Anti-Anxiety Diet: A Whole Body Program to Stop Racing Thoughts, Banish Worry and Live Panic-Free. Simon and Schuster, 2018.
[v] Dhabhar, F.S. Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunol Res 58, 193–210 (2014).