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How your diet could be affecting your stress levels

Do you devour a pack of chocolate buttons when you’ve had a bad day? Do you pour yourself a glass (or two, or three) of wine when it all feels a bit much? Does smoking a cigarette take the edge off your nerves? If you answered yes to any of the above, then you may be using food and drink (and even other substances) to help you cope with stress and negative feelings you experience.

Last week, we covered a short-term way to deal with stress – bagging up our worries and throwing them away (how did you find that activity? Do let me know!) In this second post during National Stress Awareness Month, we will be focusing on a longer-term approach to cope with stress: what we eat and drink.

How food and drink can affect how we feel

Everything we consume has an effect on how our bodies function. However, some food, drinks and other substances can affect our mental functioning and wellbeing because they produce a psychoactive effect. That is, some of what we consume can contribute to us feeling happy, sad, calm and anxious.

How does this work? Key to the relationship between what we eat, drink, take and our wellbeing are different chemicals in our bodies:

  1. Serotonin – this controls how happy we feel
  2. Dopamine – our reward system, this contributes to us feeling good about ourselves
  3. Noradrenaline – influences how alert, anxious or calm we are

Different food, alcohol and drugs can affect these chemicals, leading to changes in our mood and wellbeing. Today’s post and activity will explore how what we consume can affect our levels of stress and wellbeing. We will also look at how making small changes to our diets can have a long-lasting impact on our mental health.

Why we use food and drink to cope with stress

Many of us eat, drink, smoke or take drugs to help us cope with stressful situations and negative feelings. There are many reasons for this, but over 90% of our serotonin receptors (the chemical that makes us feel happy) are in our guts. This may be why we associate feeling happy with eating and resort to food and drink when we feel stressed or unhappy.

Over 40% of us overeat or eat junk food and nearly 60% of us drink alcohol to cope with everyday stress. Although these and other substances can provide some temporary relief from stress, they are not a long-term solution:

What can I eat or drink to help me feel less stressed?

Cutting down on sugar and junk food can increase our resilience. Limiting our alcohol intake can have a positive impact on our wellbeing and reduce the paranoia (and consequent stress) experienced after a big drinking session. Only consuming caffeine in the morning or in smaller doses can reduce anxiety and improve sleep.

One thing we can increase in our diets is protein. The amino acids found in protein are used by our brains to protect against low mood and feeling angry. Foods high in protein include fish, meat, beans, lentils and nuts.

This week’s activity requires you to look at your diet and see if you can make any changes to it to reduce your stress levels and improve your wellbeing. The worksheet provides further information on protein, caffeine and alcohol, along with some questions to help you explore whether you can improve your diet and your wellbeing.

Click the link below to download the worksheet. You can fill it in using the ‘fill and sign’ tool or alternatively print it off and fill it in by hand.

If changing your diet has reduced stress and helped improve your wellbeing, please do get in contact and share your story!

I share wellbeing-related research, news and stories on twitter and Instagram inbetween weekly blog posts so do follow @15minwellbeing on both platforms to keep up to date.

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If we feel so good after exercising, why do we lose motivation?

It’s been widely reported that exercise is not only good for our physical health, it can benefit our mental health too. Yet many of us find it hard to maintain our motivation to exercise. Even when we have good intentions to exercise, they don’t always last.

Each year, one third of people in the UK make a New Year’s resolution to get fitter, yet 63% of us break our resolutions. On average, two thirds (66%) of New Year’s resolutions last for one month or less. If your exercise and fitness goals have fallen by the wayside, you’re not alone.

If you’re struggling to find the motivation to exercise, it could be that you haven’t found the right physical activity for you. Not getting the mental high from working out that you’re after? Then maybe it’s time to change your exercise routine. This week’s blog post can help you find the best exercise for you and your wellbeing.

Theme 4: Physical health

The focus of today’s post is exercise and how choosing the right type of exercise for you can help improve your mental health. As we progress through the blog posts each week, you will discover that this theme is about more than just exercise. Other elements of our physical health – what we eat, how we sleep and self-soothing activities – can all impact our health and wellbeing.

Often, when we think about exercising we think about long runs, intensive gym sessions and ‘no pain no gain’. The good news is that physical exercise does not need to be vigorous to have a positive impact on our mental health. Even better, just 10 minutes of exercise is enough to elevate mood. Those of us who struggle to make time for exercise can still improve our wellbeing by incorporating a brief amount of physical activity into our lives. Over time, 15 minute wellbeing will introduce a range of physical activities that can be completed in 15 minutes or less and enhance our wellbeing.

Why is exercise so good for our wellbeing?

Exercising can distract us from our negative thoughts, improve our perceived ability to cope with stressful situations and increase our sense of control. Physical activity can also improve our quality of life, mood, self-perception, social interaction and life satisfaction.

Exercise can also help us cope with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Aerobic and anaerobic exercise (such as resistance training) are effective treatments for depression. Regular exercise may help prevent people prone to feelings of anxiety from panicking when they experience symptoms such as increased heart rate and sweating. These physical reactions occur during exercise so regular exposure to them through physical activity could reduce the frequency of panic attacks.

Making small changes to the amount of exercise we do – even if we don’t do much at all – can enhance our wellbeing.  For example, going for a walk can help us feel good. If we go for a walk with someone else, it has the added benefit of increasing our connection with others.

If we feel better after exercising, why is it so hard to keep doing it?

People who exercised and then stopped tend to feel more down and depressed than those who continue exercising, so how can we maintain our motivation to exercise?

One factor to consider is the intensity of our physical activity. Do you tend to start off too hard? When we exercise to the point where it is hard to talk, the immediate mood boost we usually experience after exercising is delayed by approximately 30 minutes. This delay in mood enhancement can put us off exercising. Starting slowly, with a moderate exercise plan can help us to maintain our physical activity goals.

Have you found the right exercise for you? It is important to find a physical activity you enjoy, not one that feels like a chore. If you start a gym class to help you lose weight but you don’t actually enjoy it, it’s unlikely you’ll stick at it.

One way to find the right exercise for you is to consider your social-psychological needs, which can change over time. These are:

  • Achievement
  • Mood and tension release
  • Playfulness
  • Search for meaning
  • Self-esteem
  • Stress management

Different needs require different exercises. If you want to cope better with stress, activities that provide a welcome distraction such as running or aerobics would be beneficial. Activities such as competitive team sports are likely to add to the stress that you’re already feeling, so you won’t get the same sense of enjoyment from them.

Therefore, it may be that you haven’t found the right exercise to meet your current needs. Today’s activity helps you do just that! The worksheet includes a quiz to help you determine your current social-psychological needs and the types of exercises that match these needs. Once you’ve discovered what type of exercise may be right for you and your wellbeing, why not give it a go?

Click the link below to download the worksheet. You can fill it in using the ‘fill and sign’ tool or alternatively print it off and fill it in by hand.

If you are doing the right type of exercise but are struggling to stay motivated, research has shown that the following can increase your chances of staying active:

If you take up a new physical activity or make a change to your exercise regime, please do get intouch and share your story.

I share wellbeing-related research, news and stories on twitter and Instagram inbetween weekly blog posts so do follow @15minwellbeing on both platforms tokeep up to date.