Article by Nicola McGillicuddy
Stress can manifest itself in the human body in different ways. It can induce migraines, exacerbate skin conditions, and aggravate digestive disorders. Personally, it can cause my IBS to flare up, not to mention do things like walk 5km home from college still wearing my lab coat (I honestly thought I must have been looking really well that day from the amount of looks I got).
Recently I’ve been thinking about how to manage my stress better in order to improve my health and wellbeing, and have been wondering how much I actually bring on myself. I let myself get wound up by everyday stressors; traffic, rude people, my workload. I can worry about things that haven’t happened yet. I can give myself 100 things to do every day, and if I don’t get them all done, I feel like a failure. Sometimes I actually write things on my lists that I’ve already completed just so I can cross them off – other people do that too right? Right?! When my IBS would flare up, it was frustrating because I felt I was doing so much right. I generally exercise regularly, eat quite clean, and take the supplements I think my body needs. But did I make sure I took time out to reflect and relax even for a few minutes every day? I most definitely did not. I was too busy adding more things to my never ending lists. However, giving our minds the same care and attention that we give to our bodies is vital for good health and wellbeing.
I’ll explain how in a little sciencey bit. When we are under stress, our brains set off an alarm to our bodies, which in turn release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases the heart rate and boosts energy supplies, while cortisol (the primary stress hormone) increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also supresses functions that would be nonessential in a fight-or-flight situation. These include immune system responses, regulating the digestive and reproductive systems, and growth processes. This stress response system can also control mood, motivation and fear. Typically, once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. Adrenaline and cortisol levels decrease, the heart rate and blood pressure return to normal levels, and other systems resume their regular activities. But when stressors are always present (as is so common these days), that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. This in turn leads to a long-term release of cortisol, which can disrupt many of the body’s processes. We are then at increased risk of many health problems, including anxiety and depression, digestive issues, weight gain, and issues with sleeping. So you can see why learning to cope with stress is so important.
Something I’ve been working on to manage my stress is by practicing mindfulness, which is the practice of bringing attention to the present moment, or paying attention “on purpose”. We live in a fast paced, technologically driven society where everything we want is at our fingertips, and when we want something we want it now. We are greedy; for information, things, time. We keep 10 tabs open on our laptops at any one moment. We check our phones 6 times while waiting for the bus. We eat our dinner in front of the T.V. We meet people for coffee, but are thinking about where we need to be afterwards. While writing this I’ve already thought about what to have for dinner tonight, that I need to put petrol in my car, and whether or not I should watch Game of Thrones (am I the only one who doesn’t watch it? I feel so left out!) We do 5 things at once because we’ve been taught that think multitasking makes us more efficient, rather than really focusing on one thing at a time, and truly living in the moment. Mindfulness is a non-reactive state that teaches us to notice something, acknowledge it, and let it go. By doing this we can decrease the effect of something (both positive and negative) on our lives, and create a space of freedom.
When I originally started to practice mindfulness, I really struggled. I thought that the goal was to stop the myriad of thoughts that I had, but trying to do that is impossible. I got frustrated when I couldn’t “switch off”, as I thought I wasn’t doing it right – but this is human nature. Really, the only bad mindfulness or meditation is the one that you don’t do. The goal is actually to bring my awareness back to myself, and what I’m doing in that moment. I started off using an app called Headspace (yes, I appreciate the irony of a piece of technology helping me to practice mindfulness!), which I used to help me start with 10 minutes for 10 days – the first day it seemed I couldn’t focus for more than 20 seconds, but like anything, perseverance is the key and slowly I started to see the benefits. Now I try to take at least 10-20 minutes a day to really be present. Some days I can focus, some days not so much, but I make those few minutes a priority, like I do with the gym, or cooking healthy food.
I wouldn’t say I’m a Zen warrior now, but I’m definitely getting better at accepting things that happen rather than trying to change them. I write a list of the 3 most important things I can realistically do in a day rather than swamping myself and adding to my stress mountain – and I feel so much better for it. I do still do things like accidentally sit on cake, but I don’t think I can blame the stress for that! If you want a starting point for practicing mindfulness, maybe pick one thing a day – making a coffee, taking a shower, reading the newspaper, listening to a song – and really focus on it for those short few minutes.
Today I focused on making (and eating…and eating more…I really focus on the eating) this paleo banana bread – I’ve tried and tested loads of banana bread recipes and this is definitely my fave one so far. Bananas are a good source of tryptophan, which is an amino acid the body uses to make 5-HTP, a compound which is then used to manufacture serotonin and melatonin, two important mood and sleep-regulating neurotransmitters. Use the ripest bananas possible for extra sweetness, and enjoy while doing…absolutely nothing else! Have a wonderful week x
- 3 medium very ripe bananas, mashed
- 2 Tbsp melted coconut oil
- 1 Tbsp maple syrup/honey
- 1 Tbsp organic vanilla extract
- 3 eggs, separated
- 1 cup almond flour
- 1/2 cup coconut flour
- 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 cup walnuts/chopped dark chocolate (optional)
- Preheat oven to 175°C. Grease a 2 lb loaf tin.
- In a large bowl, mix together the bananas, coconut oil, honey, vanilla, and egg yolks.
- Mix the dry ingredients together and stir into the wet mixture until well combined.
- Whisk the egg whites in a clean bowl with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form, and fold into the bread mixture a bit at a time, until fully incorporated.
- Fold in chopped walnuts/dark chocolate if using.
- Pour the mixture into the loaf tin and smooth the top with the back of a spoon.
- Bake for 30-40 minutes or until the bread is golden brown and a skewer inserted comes out clean. Leave in the tin to cool for 10 minutes and then invert onto a wire rack to cool completely.
- Enjoy with butter, almond butter or on its own!