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Building stress resilience

This post is a follow on from a previous blogpost describing the impact of continued stress on our bodies and, in particular, on weight management. I asked you to think about whether you were showing signs of stress and a cortisol imbalance, and also how you personally respond and manage stress. Women deal with stress very differently, and here are some ways that may or may not be familiar to you:

  • overeating / stress eating

  • alcohol

  • smoking

  • caffeine

  • overspending / retail therapy

  • watching TV for long periods to 'numb' and stop from thinking

What you will notice is these aren't particularly positive or constructive ways to manage stress, and as a regular or long term coping strategy you're likely to make the situation worse and could lead to weight gain - through further continuing to disrupt your hormonal balance. So, what are potentially some strategies that might help you better?

Exercise strategies

Pick exercise that you enjoy, it needs to provide you with seratonin and dopamine to help calm you and your nervous system, rather than even more and prolonged high levels of cortisol and adrenaline! So whilst hours of cardio or running might be what you think you need to help with weight loss, it isn't - unless you really love it. Endurance work just increases the stress on your body and elevates cortisol - which from the previous post is a hindrance to weight loss. So think about it, do you do lots of cardio or run because you enjoy it or to punish yourself or 'work off' the cake you ate last night?

HIIT might be a better strategy with bursts of intense effort... 20 minutes 3 x a week might be all you need (giving you time to rest in between). And HIIT can be done using running, cycling, bodyweight exercise, skipping, swimming, resistance bands or weights to name a few. Basically anything that you can do with a max effort for 20s to 1 min and recovery periods in between. It does not have the same effect on cortisol as endurance exercise does - studies show that long term exposure to cortisol is significantly higher in endurance athletes.

Also a note about resistance work - I believe a form of strength training is a non-negotiable for women (particularly as we age, 35 +) and that includes your own bodyweight. From a weight management perspective, muscle is metabolically active - so when you lose the muscle it becomes easier to gain weight (fat) and harder to lose it.

Diet strategies

To better manage blood sugars, stop the crashes and sugar cravings:

  • Stop 'dieting' so much, feeling like you're restricting foods and making you want more of them

  • Eat little and often, rather than massive meals / binges followed by periods of restriction or starvation

  • Reduce / eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates (go more wholegrain with your pastas, rice and breads /flours)

  • Make sure your having protein and 'good' fats (both help stabilise blood sugars)

  • Stop drinking calories regularly

  • Chew! And slow down when you eat, giving yourself a chance to feel full

Mindset strategies

There are many ways to approach this and it really is very personal to what works for individuals but we should all find at least one 'tool' to help us as we find ourselves beginning to panic or spiral. Here are some ideas:

  • Yoga or stretching - you can combine this with your exercise strategies to reduce stress, plan it in to your week

  • Practicing mindfullness or use a guided relaxation methods (e.g CALM or headspace apps) to help you

  • Stop, and breathe. This is my go to when I feel that things start to spiral or a bit out of control. Even just a few deep breaths can make a huge difference. And you can do it literally anywhere. I wrote a blogpost about breathing that might remind you.

  • Rub your breastbone for 30 seconds - it does help! Not least to help activate your diaphragm so you can breathe better and help calm (see above point)

  • Write things down - this helps me if and when my mind goes in to overdrive at night. I write it down and then say I will deal with it in the morning and it helps stop the racing thoughts.

  • Gratitude journals (or equivalent) - research shows that just being thankful for things you have or happen on a daily basis can help calm and reduce your stress levels. You don't even have to write it down - just think of things that you are grateful for or were 'good' that day, no matter how big or small.

So I hope at least one tip in there might have helped you.... I'd like to think there is something in there for everyone whether it is diet, exercise or mindset related strategies, or a combo of all three, to help you decrease cortisol levels, feel better, happier, and get back in control of your health and your weight.

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