mental health

Getting on the right side of stress

Getting on the right side of Stress

Your new colleague always gets your very last nerve – all of the time! It’s gotten so bad you dread receiving their emails and have to bite your tongue anytime anyone mentions them. Things are not great with your partner, everything you say leads to an argument these days… You would love for things to go back to the way they were but you do not have the energy to do anything different right now. Your Dad is really struggling. The care home calls almost every day (this is the 3rd care home in as many years) and of course you are managing this alongside work and the kids…You are supposed to be grateful that you have not been made redundant due to the pandemic. But working from home alongside home schooling has you in tatters by lunch time everyday. All very stressful, right? Here how you can get on the right side of stress.

Recognising Stress

Sometimes there is persistent stuff going on in our lives that is not comfortable. We have little control over the situation. We cannot ignore it and we cannot make it go away. At times like this, our bodies are dealing with “Chronic Stress”.

Chronic Stress puts pressure on the body for an extended period and can cause various symptoms including:

  • Headaches
  • Neck pain, back pain, tight muscles, etc.
  • Exhaustion / fatigue
  • Mind-fog or inability to concentrate
  • Irritability
  • Digestive problems
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of libido
  • Loss of confidence
  • Changes in appetite / weight gain
  • Frequent infections or illnesses

It is normal, expected even, to try to “push through” situations that might be causing stress – we say things like: “it’s life”, or “other people have it worse”, or “it’s all good”

However, if we do not take notice of the symptoms of stress, the ongoing effect on our bodies can lead to some pretty poor outcomes. Examples include:

  •  High Blood Pressure
  • Decrease in lung function
  • Stroke
  • Lower immunity
  • Reproductive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity

Recognising the symptoms is fundamental to being in a position to deal with stress before it has too much impact on our health, our relationships and those around us.

Stress & Cortisol

Our bodies respond to stress by producing adrenalin and cortisol – these are the hormones that get us ready to “fight or flee”. The hormones allow us to release glucose into the bloodstream so we can deal with the threat at hand.
Cortisol is an appetite enhancer, its role is to replenish the energy it believes we have used whilst dealing with the “threat”.

This was exactly what was required when we dwelt in caves and a threat was likely to be a predator we had to run from or fight. These days though, the threat is more likely to be an unwelcome email or a degraded relationship, neither of which require much physical response.

Cortisol typically has us seeking high sugar and/or high fat foods as these will be the most efficient at replenishing the energy we have not actually lost!

Metabolism & Cortisol

The other effect cortisol has on the body is its effect on our metabolism. Metabolism is the rate at which our bodies use energy.

If you have a higher metabolism than average, you will require loads of energy just to maintain the same weight – therefore you would need to eat more than the average person before you gained weight. If on the other hand you have lower metabolism than average, you would not need as much food as the average person to maintain your weight so if you ate like the average person the excess energy will be stored in your body as fat – typically around your mid-section.

Research has shown that cortisol slows down the metabolism – therefore making it difficult to lose weight (or easier to gain it).
In 2015, a study at Ohio State University, showed that on average, women who reported one or more stressors during the prior 24 hours burned 104 fewer calories than non-stressed women. This could result in 11lb or 5kg in one year – before accounting for the increased appetite already discussed above!

Stress & Sleep

Lots of people have trouble sleeping when they are stressed. Research has linked sleep deprivation to a slower metabolism. Also, being fatigued calls up cortisol again – enhancing appetite and driving cravings for unhealthy food.

Stress & Habit

Our behaviours change when we are stressed. Our brains have two types of thinking:

Slow – this is the decision-making part of our brain that weighs up alternatives and then decides what to do based on as much information as possible. Example, if I had hurt my right hand and I were about to pick up a heavy bag, the slow decision-making part of my brain would tell me to use my left hand and protect my right.

Fast – this is the instinctive response to situations i.e. intuitive thinking, which is mainly focused on keeping us alive. Example, if my right hand was hurt but I tripped and was about to fall flat on my face my instinct would put out any hand available to break my fall –effectively without thinking… this is the fast instinctive brain reacting to threatening circumstances.

When we are stressed the brain mainly uses the “Fast thinking” approach as all the brain knows is that something is wrong, and it needs to keep us alive. Making good decisions for the future can come later

We therefore do things like:

  • Eat “accessible” food – basically anything that needs little effort usually loaded with sugar and fat
  • Skip meals – but graze on junk
  • Exercise less – life is already so full, how can you fit in exercise?

Gaining Control Over Stress Before Stress Gains Control Over You

As you can see, being in a stressed state can lead to unwanted habits and behaviours that end up reinforcing each other and making the situation worse not better.

First place to start would be determining whether you are already experiencing some of the symptoms described earlier.

If this is the case, some things you can do to deal with the symptoms include:

Listening to music

Music reduces levels of cortisol and can improve the body’s immune system


Physical activity lowers cortisol while increasing the brain’s production of endorphins. Endorphins are “feel-good” neurotransmitters that give that feeling of euphoria many people experience after exercise. Exercise also assists with some of the symptoms above like ability to sleep, energy levels and self-image.  One tip – choose something you enjoy… dancing, skipping, walking, it does not matter what you choose… forcing yourself to participate in an exercise you do not enjoy will only aggravate stress.

Talk to a friends

Getting the space to talk can relieve stress. Studies have shown that talking about our problems and sharing our negative emotions with someone we trust can be profoundly healing – reducing stress and strengthening the immune system. It is important to choose someone that will allow us to get stuff off our chest (preferably with no judgement).

Caffeine & Alcohol

Were possible ditch these. Alcohol causes more cortisol to be released. Also, it reacts with the brain’s reward systems causing reinforcing effects and can lead to dependency or addiction. Caffeine also increases the body’s levels of cortisol, while at the same time reducing absorption of Adenosine which calms the body. Caffeine increases dopamine hormone in the body acting like amphetamines – typically leading to dependence.


Depending on where you live, getting out to enjoy nature can have a beneficial impact on stress. Research has shown that as little as 10 mins in a natural setting can help lessen the effects of physical and mental stress.

Eating differently

Becoming more conscious about food choices and selecting nourishing foods will provide your body with resilience to deal with some of the effects of stress like lowered immune system, high blood pressure, etc. important nutrients to seek include:

  • Vitamin C – helps lower cortisol and boosts the immune system. Citrus fruits are good sources.
  • Complex Carbohydrates – encourages the release of serotonin which is calming and reduces blood pressure. Try whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
  •  Omega-3 – has been shown to reduce stress hormones and can protect against heart disease and depression. Foods to try include: nuts and seeds – e.g. pistachio, almonds; and fatty fish e.g. tuna or salmon.5
  • Magnesium – Magnesium works against fatigue and headaches. Good food sources include green vegetables and soybeans.
  • Kindness – practicing kindness and forgiveness to yourself will provide a calming effect and allow you to start seeing opportunities to change the situation you are in.

Over and above dealing with symptoms you should also explore how to deal with the root cause – i.e. the situation that is bringing on the stress. For this, I would always advice recruiting additional support. This is because a key aspect of stressful situations is that we feel out of control. If you are already feeling out of control, it will be difficult to see any solution or way out on your own, hence the support. Support can come from a trusted friend or family member, a coach or a counsellor. Getting help might seem impossible when you are “in the midst of it all”. And if you are an A type personality, getting help might seem like admitting failure; however the real failure would be getting to the point of burnout or serious illness.

The first step to getting on the right side of stress is the hardest. Just decide to take one small step and go from there. Your mental health underpins all that you wish for yourself – don’t leave it to chance


Author: Ola Molade 

Ola is a qualified nutritionist who specialises in areas such as nutrition solutions for health conditions, meal plans and food intolerances.

Check out Ola’s services here x

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