Annabelle is a 53-year-old perimenopausal woman who was just offered an early retirement package from the corporation she worked at for almost 30 years. Slightly apprehensive, she is opting for the package, as she is close to retirement, and figures a year, or two (or five) won’t make that much difference in her lifestyle. This positive approach to a stressful situation is probably because four years ago Annabelle turned her life around. Through healthy eating and regular exercise, she was able to shed close to 145 pounds; now a regular attendee of spin class and an avid hiker, Annabelle enjoys a life of moderation and activity.
Yet, only a few months after retiring, Annabelle inexplicably began to put on weight. Concerned, she began to exercise more and restrict her diet even further—to no avail.
Now, meet Crissy. At 28, Crissy has battled with her weight since puberty. She works out—almost regularly—and tries to enjoy life without fretting about a pound, or two, or 20. About a year ago, her long-time boyfriend proposed to her and immediately after screaming “Yes!” she began making plans for the big day (scheduled for July 2009). Like most brides-to-be, Crissy wanted everything to be perfect—including her weight. She started a vigorous program to lose the extra 20 pounds and even went as far as to cut out all alcohol a few months before the big day. But the closer she got to her wedding day the more she struggled with losing the weight.
What’s amazing is that Annabelle and Crissy are not unusual.
For Annabelle, her weight only started to “melt away” after settling into her retirement lifestyle. For Crissy, her pounds “dropped dramatically” only after the wedding day and during her honeymoon. Baffled by her extreme attempts to “get into shape” for her wedding day, Crissy confessed that while on honeymoon she didn’t monitor her alcohol or food intake and rarely exercised in the gym and still dropped close to 15 pounds.
The reason, says Ellen Karpay, president of Karpay Health, a fitness and nutrition consulting company and the author of The Everything Total Fitness Book, is that stress plays an integral role in our ability to handle emotional and physical strain.
“Stress is pressure, tension, or demand on physical or mental energy,” explains Karpay. “When your body is stressed, it reacts by prioritizing and shutting down less important bodily functions—such as reproduction—[so it can] focus on quickly remedying the situation.”
In Annabelle’s case the situation (or stressor) was prompted by her retirement and exasperated by her body’s reaction to that stressor. During stressful situations, Annabelle’s body produced hormones—including adrenaline—in an effort to produce energy. A few days after the decision (and action) of retiring—and her mind and body being on high alert—Annabelle’s body started to produce cortisol, another hormone that is released in an effort to slow us down. It’s a response known as fight or flight syndrome, says Karpay. While this systematic way of dealing with stress worked when we fought for food, it is destructive in a cultural environment where stress is prolonged.
“Survival responses to stress include increased heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, body temperature, blood sugar levels, blood flow to muscles, sweating, muscular tension, and decreased rate of digestion,” explains Karpay. “These life-saving responses were designed for short-term survival, not for long-term living.”
And the link between our physical health and our emotional well being is much stronger than one might initially believe. At the Institute of HeartMath, an internationally recognized non-profit research and education organization that focuses on stress and emotional management, based out of Boulder Creek, CA, researchers have linked emotions to the heart rhythm.
Over the last 17 years, these researchers found distinct links between productivity, brain function, cardiovascular health and stress. Generally, they notice that:
Negative emotions lead to increased disorder, and
Positive emotions increase harmony, synchronization and balance in the nervous system.
They also found that the key to dealing with stressors is to learn how to consciously change the type and quality of communication that occurs between the heart and the brain.
For example, people who practice conscious thought, where they intentionally replace fear, anxiety, and anger with appreciation, love, and positive regard—a practice known as Freeze Frame—show profound changes in neural and hormonal systems while experiencing positive shifts in perception, an increase in clarity, a reduction in stress and anxiety and improvements in learning, performance and health.
In other words, focusing on exercise and a healthy diet is not enough, explains Suzanne Jonas, a stress psychologist and director of the Inner Harmony Healthy Centre in Walland, TN. How we respond to a stressor—and our choice to change our perception of that stressor—is also vital in developing and maintaining physical health.
This connection between emotional health—measured by our response to a stressor—and how this impacts our physical health is prompting more and more studies by various members of the medical community.
For example, a study in Spain, published in the International Journal of Nursing in June 2008, found that nurses who were consistently able to perceive situations clearly and took time to emotionally recover reported less stress than colleagues who reportedly spent more attention and time on their emotional state, but less time on recovery and perceptual changes.
In another study, published in Stress Medicine in March 2005, found that emotional intelligence (EI)—which is characterized by perception, control, and the use and understanding of emotions—was lower in those with poor general health. The study also confirmed “that there is a relationship between EI and health functioning.”
The key to good health, then, is a good diet and exercise. But the key to adapting, in a healthy way, to life’s stressors, while maintaining that good health, is to develop healthier responses to stress.
Initially, there are some basic practices that anyone can use to ease through tense times. These include:
o Caring for your body: The Stomach Connection: One of the most basic, but essential, ways to keep your energy and spirits up is to take proper care of your physical health. This may seem like simple common sense, but for many people, it takes a lot of willpower to sidestep old habits or persevere with new routines. This basic self-care includes choosing quality foods and improving your diet. If this is a completely new task for you, then ask your doctor to recommend a nutritional specialist—the cost for this service is often covered under a company health plan, so check with your benefits first. Just remember not to jump into any radically different diet or plan without first asking your doctor whether it’s safe. Some simple starting tips include:
Add more fresh fruit and vegetables
Drink six to 10 glasses of water each day
Decrease or eliminate fried or salty dishes
Take good-quality vitamins, especially B, B6 and C, which can boost your energy and help against depression.
Make conscious food choices (don’t eat out of habit)
o Caring for your body: The Lung Connection: “The primary thing we need to learn is how to find that ‘resting in a waking state’ of relaxation,” says Marcia Bernstein, M.S.W., a Behavioral Health psychotherapist with Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires Health Resort in Lenox, MA. “In tense situations, we tend to hold our breath or take quick, shallow breaths. When you’re feeling stressed, take a few moments to inhale and exhale deeply until you’re calmer. “Research has shown that there’s a connection between the way we breathe and our level of tension,” adds Bernstein.
o Caring for your body: The Sleep Connection: Don’t underestimate the benefits of a good night’s sleep. “During stressful, overly busy times, we often sacrifice our sleep, yet those are the times that we need it the most,” explains Karpay. “Start making sleep a priority in your day. Sleep is not a luxury; it is an important component of your health.”
Most people need about six or seven hours of sleep per night, although the amount can vary from person to person.
o Caring for your body: The Muscle Connection: You don’t have to get a gym membership or join a strenuous fitness class right away; in fact, don’t! Start with something achievable and low-impact, like walking, suggests start on would definitely be walking,” says Teresa Taylor-Dusharm, the operational director of Advocate Health Care, an organization of physicians and health care professionals serving northern Illinois. Walking has the added benefit of getting you out into fresh air, and allows you some private time to reflect and clear your mind.
Taylor-Dusharm suggests that to determine the amount of exercise follow the F.I.T. principal: Frequency (the majority of the days of the week), Intensity (you can carry on a conversation but can’t sing a song), and Time spent (this varies with different individuals’ levels of fitness).
Other options include ways to stimulate and encourage a calm mood (ie: taking a bath, getting a massage, aromatherapy, etc.). However, the overall goal is to develop a more relaxed attitude.
“Your attitude creates stress, so you need to revise your attitude to decrease the stress in your life,” says Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., a California-based psychologist, who runs an intensive weekend retreat workshop on anger four times a year.
“Energy follows thought. If your thoughts are positive and upbeat, you’ll have more energy. But if you see through the lens of the glass being half-empty rather than half-full, your energy will be low.”
So the vital component to emotional fitness—regardless of the type of stress in your life, your level of physical fitness, or your life goals—is to monitor your thoughts. When you have fear, worry or anguish, simply shift your thoughts into a more positive place; find the silver lining and you will physically and mentally be better prepared for whatever life throws at you.
Originally published in Check UP! Magazine in March 2009