Recently, a reader emailed me to ask the following:
I notice that you always find ways to stay healthy despite chaotic student schedules. I am in the midst of finals week in college and I have been so bad in the nutrition department… I am not as bad as some other college students, but I am certainly in need for some advice.
Do you have any simple tips that I can use to either destress or survive? I know I should eat veggies and fruits for snacks and meditate/deep-breathing, but do you know anything else?
I smiled when I saw this email, because at first the idea of me doling out stress management advice felt akin to a toddler giving out driving instructions. Stress management is hardly my forte; I think I did an OK job at some moments of my post-bacc, but stress got the better of my health (emotional and physical) more often than I’d have liked in the last three years, especially this past spring.
Still, sometimes it’s better to get advice from someone who is herself challenged in a particular arena, rather than an “expert” who has it all together. I haven’t figured out the key to destressing, but I do have some tips, which I hope will feel doable/realistic to you. One of the things I find frustrating about most stress management advice is that it presumes a little more open time and space than a lot of people have. Depending on your work lifestyle demands–student, professional, full time parent–you may find that you can only dedicate a little time/effort to managing stress each day, if any. That’s OK. Let’s look at a few easy tactics than can improve the quality of your life, no matter how busy you are. Some of these are very simple, others a little more comprehensive, so take what you need and ignore what you don’t.
1. On a very hectic day, take five minutes to breathe deeply. My breath gets very shallow when I’m stressed out, which can increase anxiety and give me tension headaches. Deep breathing (right into the belly, as I’ve learned in yoga) helps immeasurably. If you can’t do this for a full five minutes, that’s OK. Even a minute can make a difference. During my post-bacc, and back in the days when I would fret about presentations at work, I sometimes escaped to the nearest ladies room for just one minute of meaningful breath. I always returned feeling more focused than I had been before.
2. Yoga. I can’t do justice to how profoundly yoga has helped me manage stress and tension (in addition to everything else it has given me: strength, healing, better digestion, community, fun). I personally get a lot out of practicing in a studio environment, in part because I like the company. If you’re a student, many colleges offer yoga classes on campus; if you can’t do that, check out student deals at nearby studios, or do an internet search to see what yoga might be free for you in your hometown. DC has a ton of free outdoor yoga, especially in the summer, including Wednesday night classes at 6 pm in Dupont Circle.
Of course, one can’t always reserve 60-90 minutes for yoga. This is where home practice can be a life saver. You can simply flow through your favorite asanas at a pace that works for you, or you can download a video/audio guided practice. Yoga Download has a huge range of affordable and excellent classes of every kind, ranging from 10-90 minutes in duration, and YogaGlo is also a great resource; it features classes with world renowned instructors (like Tiffany Cruikshank and Kathryn Budig) for a reasonable monthly cost. It’s my go-to exercise when I travel!
3. B-vitamin. Take one. Your body burns through B-vitamins when you’re stressed, and of course vegans already need to be vigilant about taking adequate B-12. Deva and Country Life vitamins are vegan.
4. Think about the way you exercise. Intense and extended cardiovascular exercise, including running, can elevate cortisol, which may already be elevated if you’ve been stressed out. Cortisol, often referred to as a “stress hormone,” is released by our adrenals in response to stressful situations; it elevates blood glucose levels, which can in turn give us energy (this is why it’s release is associated with the “fight or flight” response–it readies our body to deal with a threatening situation).
Cortisol is essential for our survival, but chronically elevated cortisol levels have been associated with weight gain and inflammation. If you’re already on the stressed or anxious, you may want to consider forms of movement that aren’t associated with elevated cortisol, such as power walking with music you love (or a friend!), yoga, pilates, rebounding, or dance.
If running, spinning, biking, or any other cardio activity actually helps you to de-stress, then by all means, continue! You know your body best. But don’t feel pressure to keep up with very rigorous exercise if you’re already edgy. In the two months before the MCAT, running and other high intensity cardio activities made me feel a bit addled, so I stuck to yoga and flipping through flash cards while gently cycling on the elliptical machine. It worked for me.
5. Aromatherapy. Essential oils can be marvelous medicine for stressful times. I like peppermint or eucalyptus oil for when I’m struggling to focus (I bring it to the library, and use it when I’m getting sleepy), sandalwood for when I’m anxious, and lavender both as perfume and as a calming scent right before bed. You can find essential oils online or at a local health food store. I like to put a few drops directly on my wrists and then inhale deeply, but you can also put some drops in hot water and inhale the steam. Be sure to get instructions for using the oil (either on the packaging, from someone who is knowledgable, or by reading the internet carefully), as some can be irritating to the skin, and if you put them on your hands, don’t rub your eyes after!
6. Cook. But cook simply. Having a busy schedule often means less time to cook. In my early working days, I fell into a pattern where I’d spend a few weeks not cooking enough (and relying too much on takeout), then try to break the cycle by cooking all sorts of fancy new recipes.
Try to find a middle ground. Don’t stop cooking altogether, but when you cook, make stuff that’s easy and low maintenance. Batch cook. Simmer a big pot of quinoa while you study at night. Bake a few sweet potatoes as you catch up on assignments or emails. Spend an hour washing and chopping veggies on the weekend, so that you can have them at the ready to throw into big salads through the week. Make a big jar of salad dressing for salads, crudite snacks, and grain bowls. Make sure you have frozen bananas for smoothies.
And don’t think you have to do everything from scratch when you’re short on time. When I’m not going to be home often, I buy a lot of canned, BPA free beans, commercial almond milk, and the occasional tub of hummus or bottle of salad dressing. I love to make this stuff from scratch, but there’s no shame in cutting corners when you’re too busy to do it all.
7. Eat foods that support your body in stressful times. My faves?
Almonds. They have both B vitamins and Vitamin E, which may aid in stress reduction.
Sweet potatoes, turmeric, cinnamon, olive oil, and walnuts. All of these foods have been shown to help reduce inflammation, which rises when the body is under stress.
Dark chocolate. Because it makes me happy.
9. Speaking of happy, when you’re under stress, eat foods that help to keep you to feel comforted. One typical response to stress is that we crave foods that are starchy and filling. A lot of folks try to work against this, doubling up on leafy greens rather than having an extra bite of potato. I tend to feel better when I work with cravings, rather than against them, especially if I’m overwhelmed. In the weeks before the MCAT, I was (of course) craving a lot of sweet potatoes, rice, avocado toast, and oats. All warm, grounding foods, which helped to make me feel supported as I studied (and worried) the days away.
Obviously, you know what works for you, and I encourage you to eat what will make you feel your best. But if you find that you’re fighting your cravings to a degree that’s creating even more stress, see if you can find ways to eat in harmony with your appetites.
The recipe for this super comforting avo toast+sweet potato combo will be up tomorrow!
10. If you can’t get a lot of sleep, try to get high quality sleep. Turn off your phone, keep the room super dark, and try to be consistent about when you fall asleep and when you wake up. It’s not always possible to get 7-8 hours–sometimes 4-5 is the best we can do–but you can make the hours you get restful and deep.
These are the tips I shared with my reader. Of course, there are plenty of others! I often find that a quick phone call with a loved one is hugely helpful (though you may also need to alone time to refocus). Microbreaks are also high on my list; these can be as simple as a walk around the block (or the library) every few hours, sitting in the sun for five minutes, or listening to a song you love.
Finally, if you feel chronically stressed out or anxious, consider seeking the support of a health care giver whose services may help: a therapist, a nutritionist, a doctor, a naturopath, or an herbalist. Making time for appointments when you’re stressed isn’t always easy, but the returns can be profound. My friend Melanie is a wonderful local herbalist who gave me a lot of valuable tips during my post-bacc. You may also find that acupuncture or massage therapy makes a difference (and there are more and more community acupuncture clinics popping up, where services are made accessible). Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who has the tools to help you; it can feel lonely to cope with the feeling of being overwhelmed on our own.
I’m flattered that I come across to anyone as healthy no matter how busy, but don’t let blog appearances fool you. I hardly took all of my own advice in the past two years. For every time I took a soothing microbreak or breathed deeply, I also tripled my caffeine consumption, cut back dramatically on sleep, and overcommitted to stuff. Sometimes I chose to worry needlessly when I might have let go. Sometimes I procrastinated rather than getting things done. Sometimes I had that extra cup of coffee and kept myself up late. C’est la vie. Sometimes the best way to deal with being stressed is to heed impulse. And it’s important to realize that, faced with a busy schedule or any other challenge, we can only do so much. Learning to accept our limits, even as we do our best to take care of ourselves, may be the best stress relief of all.
Readers! I’d love to hear your favorite quick and simple ways to de-stress and stay healthy when you’re busy. Please share, and I’ll be back soon,