Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
28 Dec

15 Ways to Fight Stress

Do I need to really even say the holidays are a stressful time of year? Every lifestyle blog, magazine, evening news program, and newspaper will have a stress-related feature right about now. I bet Dr. Oz has a “holiday stress relief” show airing. It’s part of the culture – we expect holiday stress and seem to love wallowing in it. So I’m not going to go on and on about how stress is a problem, or even why it’s a problem (I’ve already done that), because we know it. So, how do we avoid it and, once it’s here, how do we deal with it? That’s the important part. How do we hack it?

Well, we don’t want to hack it all to pieces. We need stress, too – just not too much. It bears mentioning that many things can be considered stressors depending on the context. Lifting heavy things is a stressor, and the right amount causes muscles, connective tissue, and bones to respond by getting stronger, which are desirable; too much, or too little recovery, and muscles, connective tissue, and bones suffer and atrophy, which is undesirable. It’s about context, quantity, and quality. With that in mind, I’m going to break down anti-stress strategies into categories.


An ounce of prevention is worth… you know the saying. Just as Batman depends on extensive amounts of prep-time to defeat his often-physically superior opponents, our bodies do best when we lay a strong foundation before stress hits. That means:

Brace for the Punch

Stress will come. It cannot be avoided. Accept this. In my experience if you don’t and then stress comes it will hit you harder than if you had accepted its inevitability. How you think about stress affects and even determines how it’s expressed in your physiology. So flex those abs and prepare for the inevitable shot to your groin.


We talk a lot about fractals and randomness, but there’s nothing wrong with a little order in your life, especially if you’re worried about family-related stress. I personally hate flying by the seat of my pants if large groups are involved; I like knowing what we’re doing, with whom we’re doing it, and when it’s going to happen. If things have the potential for spiraling out of control, make a schedule to minimize the guesswork.

Balance Your Omega 6 to Omega 3 Fatty Acid Intake

Our bodies use the PUFAs we eat to manufacture inflammatory cytokines, which are part of the stress response. If the ratio is all out of whack, the response to stressors will be overly inflammatory. An overabundance of omega-6 fats, for example, will produce an overabundance of IL-6, one of the premier inflammatory stress-response cytokines that’s potent in small doses but overwhelming in large doses. Avoid industrial seed oils, vegetable oils, and try to eat fatty fish. Take fish oil, and favor pastured animal products over CAFO products.

Go Primal. Yesterday.

Being healthier, stronger, fitter, and less metabolically deranged will prepare your body for the coming onslaught, and going Primal is the best way to become those things. Ditch the grains, legumes, sugar, and seed oils if you haven’t already; start a resistance training and sprinting regimen to build up those muscles and organ reserves, because you’re gonna need them; start a normal, healthy sleep schedule. You’ve been mulling it over in your head for weeks now, but it’s time to just do it and go Primal already.


Avoiding unnecessary and excessive stress is the best way, but it’s also the trickiest. Oh, I suppose we could go Thoreau and become hermits to avoid social stress, but then we’d go crazy from isolation stress. Let’s explore some effective, realistic strategies for stress avoidance.

Know Your Limits, and Hold Yourself to Them

Man is finite. We can’t be everywhere at once. Be honest with yourself when apportioning your time. You probably can’t wrap up work by noon, have two lunch meetings, pick up groceries, prepare a five course meal, then meet up with friends for drinks all in a single day without driving yourself mad from the stress of it all. But if you’re honest about your limits from the very start, you won’t have failed, and there will be no stress – because you never convinced yourself the impossible could be done in the first place. Don’t overcommit!

Opt for Acute, Rather Than Chronic Stress

We’re built to handle acute stress. Things like animal attacks, natural disasters, confrontations on the street – these are examples of acute stressors. They may not be pleasant, per se, but they make us feel alive. Time slows down, your senses hone in, and you just tough it out. But what about sitting in traffic for two hours every day on the way to and from work? It’s not exciting. It’s mind numbing chronic stress that drives you insane. I’m not asking you to go get mugged or wrestle with a mountain lion; I’m saying instead of sitting around the house or battling the holiday crowds, go for a hike. Head off trail and climb some boulders. Get dirty and don’t shy away from rough terrain. Shock your system with those real-world, in-your-face acute stressors, instead of submitting to chronic stress.

Do One Thing at a Time

People are obsessed with multitasking. The ability (or should I say willingness to try?) to do it has become a prerequisite for resumes and job interviews. It’s no longer just something that occasionally occurs during the course of a working day; it has become the norm. People text while driving, check email while eating, check stock quotes while lifting, and browse Facebook on their phones in the middle of conversations. And yet, for all the focus on multitasking, there’s considerable evidence that true concurrent multitasking is impossible. Instead of cramming multiple tasks into the same temporal space, our brains are actually flitting between various streams at breakneck speed. The illusion of multitasking is there, but we’re really just running around like mad inside our heads. The result is a more superficial understanding of and engagement with the tasks, and a more scattered, battered brain. Try focusing on a single task, item, or duty at once before moving on to the next one.


Remove yourself from stressful situations. Turn off the computer, shut down the laptop, leave the cell phone at home. Walk to the corner store; don’t drive. Turn off the TV and turn to your loved ones instead. Talk things out, read stories, tell jokes. This is how humans typically relaxed and retooled, with mental and social stimulation. Disconnect from LCD (or plasma) screens and unnatural lighting, and connect with the people you love.


Prevention, avoidance, acceptance – these are all fine and dandy, but sometimes you just wanna know if there are any dietary, lifestyle, or supplement hacks for stress relief, especially once stress has already arrived and looks to be staying for an extended visit. Luckily, there are some things you can try, supplements you can take, and strategies you can employ:


We covered this a couple weeks ago, and it’s worth reiterating: breathing deeply can reduce stress by promoting relaxation. Just focus on belly breathing through your nose, and exhaling – slowly – through your mouth. Use a chant or a metronomic assistant if you need guidance to breathe deeply and rhythmically.

Explore the Blurry Realm of Causality and Correlation

Happy people are not stressed out. Are they happy because they’re stress-free, or are they stress-free because they’re happy? And to go a bit further, are they happy because they’re smiling, or are they smiling because they’re happy? If you’re unhappy without justification for smiling, does smiling produce happy feelings? I’m not sure, but in my experience, these states of mind are all quite malleable and, rather than being a linear cause-and-effect type thing, the smiling and the state of mind are subject to a feedback loop. You smile enough and eventually you start feeling it, and it just snowballs from there (it goes the other way, too). If you’re stressed out and on the verge of losing it, trying bursting into uproarious laughter or forcing a big beaming smile. Think of a funny joke if it helps, but the important thing is the physical act of laughing and/or smiling. It can’t hurt to give it a shot, and I think you’ll be surprised at the results. Force a smile or laugh when enduring stress.

Get Amorous

I suppose this could also be “do something fun,” but that’s selling sex short. Sex is incredible fun, yes, but it’s far more than that. It’s technically the ultimate reason we’re here (at least from the gene’s perspective), reading this stuff and trying to better ourselves – so we can live long enough and well enough to have enough sex to make more of us. It’s also a beautiful thing, a “release” of stress (and other things) that most people probably don’t get enough of. Ironically, it can also be the source of stress, if you aren’t engaging in it or if you have some hangups about it. Whatever your relationship to the act, having more of it with a person who means something to you is a powerful anti-stress activity. Have more sex.

Get More Magnesium

Most people probably get insufficient amounts of dietary magnesium, but it’s one of the most important minerals for overall general health, including the stress response system. It’s nigh impossible to overdose (you’ll just have to hit the toilet), making it very safe to supplement – so do it! Take some magnesium if you aren’t eating leafy greens and nuts on a regular basis.

Drink Tea

Excessive cortisol is the bad guy, obviously, and black tea has been shown to reduce stress, lower stress-induced cortisol, and increase relaxation when compared to placebo. Green tea’s not too shabby in the psychological stress arena, either. Drink a cup or two a day, and mix it up with both green and black.

Take L-Theanine

L-Theanine, which is present in green tea leaves, has anti-stress properties, most likely by inhibiting cortical neuron excitation. This goes for both psychosocial and physiological sources of stress. Take some L-Theanine in addition to the green tea.

Take Phosphatidyl Serine

If there is one supplement I’d recommend for its stress mitigating effects this would be it. The body doesn’t make much of it and we don’t get much from our diets, but its particularly concentrated in and is vital to the healthy functioning of nerve cell membranes. And get this: stress depletes it. PS is one of those 21st century hacks I’m always on the lookout for. It works on both mental and physical stress; improving mood and blunting cortisol after physical exercise.

Full Disclosure: Both L-Theanine and Phosphatidyl Serine are ingredients (among others) in Primal Calm, an herbal supplement I designed many years ago and regularly take myself.

There are plenty of other strategies for avoiding or mitigating stress, including the standard Primal line – eat whole, real foods, lift heavy things, move around a lot, sprint now and then, get sun, take a break from the madness, and get good sleep – and stuff I’ve written in the past, here, here, and here. I’m sure I’ve missed a ton of viable options, so, please, leave your strategies in the comment section. Reducing stress, or at least improving my response to it, is a huge focus of mine going forward. It’s probably my biggest weakness, and I want to change that. Any suggestions would be welcome!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. “You’ve been mulling it over in your head for weeks now, but it’s time to just do it and go Primal already.”
    HA!! You’ve been reading my mind! Any chance you’ll be launching a 30 day trial anytime soon? I’m trying to self-motivate, but so far I keep thinking January 1 is my target date, followed closely with ‘Just do it already for goodness’ sakes!’.

    Beth wrote on December 28th, 2010
    • I have so much stress during the day that I don’t have anytime to manage it

      Colyncashen wrote on September 30th, 2014
  2. These are my 2011 resolutions for dealing with stress:

    Learn to love the person looking back at you in the mirror’s reflection.

    Accept you can’t be perfect.

    Forgive yourself when you are not.

    And one from a therapist friend of mine and this really works if you keep at it … keep a sh@t list (as he calls it – jot down problems/issues/the negatives) and deal with it regularly!

    Kelda wrote on December 28th, 2010
  3. A number of us on the forum are in for a jump start beginning January 1st! We’re starting the year off right!

    Croí wrote on December 28th, 2010
    • Where do I find your posts in the forum to follow? I need the motivation to get back “on”!

      Louise wrote on December 29th, 2010
  4. hi mark
    most of the time i have too much energy and also so used to have that acute stress,i wonder if i am overdoing or not doing strong enough since i am very active. Most of my activities are arranged arnd climbing..i do strength training exercises after climbing sessions and intervals-sprints the next day..i almost do soething every morning to make me sweat..if i dont do it sll day i feel sluggish and lazy. even during the day when i am in the office i always take the stairs down from 30th floor..feels refreshing and energezing and better than you think is that too much or just about right ? i eat pretty primal almost 99%. i WAS 85% primal for 5 years and became more since august.

    salim wrote on December 28th, 2010
  5. One way to reduce chronic stress is to not watch or read the news. Most news today is inaccurate, exaggerates crisis, and under reports good news.

    Studies show that people who regularly follow the news are more neurotic, more unhappy with their lives and more fearful about the future. If something important happens you will learn about it.

    Just as you avoid grains, you should avoid the news media. Both are very detrimental to you health.

    Jake wrote on December 28th, 2010
    • Were these controlled studies, or simply correlational? I can easily see how a more-nervous person might simply be more likely to watch the news obsessively than someone who was naturally more laid back. Unless they took a random sample and had them change their news-watching habits, it doesn’t prove much.

      I think a causative relationship is probable, though.

      Uncephalized wrote on December 28th, 2010
    • I so agree! Stopped watching the news and reading the paper a few months ago.

      Good thing for the weather radar-only channel…or I would never know whats up!

      Julie wrote on December 28th, 2010
      • Try going all out and cut the TV off altogether. Grok didn’t have one. I don’t have one any longer and still seem to know a lot of what is happening around me (and the world). I listen more, read more, but better yet, I spend that precious time that I was watching that weapon of mass distraction doing things with my family, hiking, biking, walking the dogs – you name it.

        Michael wrote on December 28th, 2010
        • I stopped watching/listening to/reading all news and current affairs media-output three and a half years ago.

          I highly recommend it!

          It gives you more “head space” for thinking about problems that you can actually do something about.

          There’s no way to escape knowing what’s going on in the world. You catch headlines and hear conversations. I never feel I’m missing out – at least not on anything that has direct relavance to my life.

          RedYeti wrote on December 31st, 2010
  6. I went back on the Paleo/Primal track just yesterday XD , and now it’s for good.

    Thank you for your fantastic work, Mark, and have a good start into 2011.

    San wrote on December 28th, 2010
  7. I was about to start a sprint routine, but this toe surgery hurts more than I expected. I’ll most likely start after the new year.

    Brett K wrote on December 28th, 2010
  8. Great post, Mark! We can all use a reminder to JUST CALM DOWN!


    Cara wrote on December 28th, 2010
  9. Just turning off the TV is HUGE. I get so many more things done when it is off and as for using TV as background noise, i would much rather listen to music. Music + Dancing around = Stress relief!

    mainer_daisy wrote on December 28th, 2010
  10. So needed this today! Heading to visit my folks tomorrow, (who are divorced and remarried!) and bring my lovely hubby and my two boys (the only grand-kids in the family) did I mention I live two states away….so the grandparents are always a little over excited for us to be there…with high expectations!

    Breathe Breathe Breathe

    Thanks for the advice!!
    Starting my own 30 Primal Challenge Jan 3rd!!

    Joanne(MamahoodMyWay) wrote on December 28th, 2010
  11. Great post. I think one way to avoid stress is to know yourself. I don’t mean in a metaphorical sense. I mean your personality type. Introvert or extrovert or somewhere in between. I took a personality test a few years ago and learned I was an introvert. More specifically, I’m an introvert’s introvert. I then read a book called the introvert advantage. It gave me great insight into my personality. Once I understood more about how my personality worked a lot of unnecessary stress went away.
    Just my 2 cents.

    Gorm wrote on December 28th, 2010
  12. My favorite is putting in the headphones and working out or going to yoga. Either way I get my “me” time where no one can bother me.

    The Get In Shape Girl wrote on December 28th, 2010
  13. A post about stress without mention of meditation?

    Primal Pete wrote on December 28th, 2010
  14. Great post Mark,

    I couldn’t agree more about the multi tasking and I find it hard to believe how many resumes I used to see with the ability to multitask as there big perk.

    Trevor Somerville wrote on December 28th, 2010
  15. Indeed, stress is one of the worst Neolithic offenders. I would add power napping to the list:

    Ned Kock wrote on December 28th, 2010
  16. Read this article at work (on a very stressful day). Great timing.
    Going to do the deep breathing here the rest of the shift.

    Clint White wrote on December 28th, 2010
  17. Just thought I’d throw in hugs! It’s been shown that hugs lasting longer than 30 seconds in women releases happy hormones. Probably a good precursor to the Have more sex suggestion.

    I really can never have too many hugs.

    Caitlin wrote on December 28th, 2010
  18. Great article. Love how you focus on putting the healthy in rather than attacking current norms. Well done. The concepts are so consistent with the Seven Healers. Keep it up.

    Scott Conard, MD

    Scott Conard, MD wrote on December 28th, 2010
  19. Walking is probably our biggest stress reliever (besides uhh.. “amor”) and I strongly recommend walking regularly.

    Conversely, driving is a really hot button for me. I always catch myself holding my breath while driving and my blood pressure is always higher because of it. I find it hard to relax while I’m driving as I’m always waiting for some jackhole to pull out in front of me or slam on their brakes.

    Richard wrote on December 28th, 2010
    • The only time I grind my teeth is when I am driving or playing golf.

      Jake wrote on December 29th, 2010
    • Since starting yoga, I’ve been trying to become more aware of my breath. It is amazing to sit in traffic, randomly take a deep breath, and realize that I wasn’t really breathing before!

      Alex wrote on December 29th, 2010
      • That’s a good idea. I’ve looked for yoga instructors near me before, but only managed to find one lady offering classes and could never get in touch with her.

        One of the bad things about moving away from the west coast has been that it’s a bit more difficult to find fitness instruction. When I worked in CA we used to have yoga instructors come by the office on Wednesdays; but I never engaged in the classes due to embarrassment. :)

        Richard wrote on December 29th, 2010
  20. Multitasking is half-assing a bunch of sh** at once!

    Carl wrote on December 29th, 2010
    • I’m going to post this on the office wall. Maybe make t-shirts!

      Martha wrote on December 29th, 2010
      • hahaha, Great Idea!

        Carl Frey wrote on December 31st, 2010
        • Carl! You did it! Bravo. :)

          Martha wrote on January 3rd, 2011
  21. Fo Sho you mentioned sex but you didn’t seem to include the ‘world wide wank’ ?
    Am sure most are conversant with Frans De Waals books but verily if wanking is good enough to make pan paniscus some of the most peaceable mammals as opposed to pan t who are some of the most huge difference seeming to be how the orgasm acts as a social healer…we should all get with Madalm Rosy Palm and her five lovely daughters /Dickie Digit and induce the hallowed orgasm if we’re not rubbing genitalia with a fellow species member.

    Simon Fellows wrote on December 29th, 2010
    • Gotta love the Brits. :) Thanks Simon!

      Martha wrote on December 29th, 2010
  22. I have a question about magnesium toxicity, for I think my circumstance may make it so I wouldn’t be able to detect it.

    After tracking my dietary habits I’ve noticed my magnesium consumption levels were pitifully low and that even my best effort with leafy greens and black chocolate still got me nowhere near where I judged I should be. I’ve started taking supplements, but taking them orally upsets my stomach and makes me flush out more minerals than I put in. Consequently, I’ve started taking my supplement sublingually; that is, I place the gel caps underneath my tongue and let them be absorbed into the blood stream from there, which bypasses my digestive system. That means I won’t get diarrhea if I’m overdosing.

    For folks taking their supplements sublingually, what would constitute a toxic dose?

    Benpercent wrote on December 29th, 2010
    • Can’t comment on the efficacy of sublingual mag but I’d just check that it’s not that you’re taking something like Magnesium oxide?

      Oxide is very hard to get at. From memory you’d be hard pressed to see more than a few percent of it. The rest will simply increase the water in your stool!

      Something “chelated” is best. Try Magnesium Taurate (Biocare do it in the UK at least).

      RedYeti wrote on December 31st, 2010
      • I’m just taking plain magnesium, The Carlson Labs variety. I tried both Solgar’s chelated and Solgar’s citrate, but they both caused my gut to burn, for the water in my stool to increase dramatically, and for me to flush out minerals (I think).

        Sublingual is the best method I’ve tried to date. I’ve been one for consistent leg cramps, so I can tell it’s working since the cramps and twitching are steadily going away.

        Benpercent wrote on December 31st, 2010
        • I don’t mean to be picky but plain magnesium is a lightweight, silver metal that burns rather brightly!

          Even if it’s sublingual it must be bound to something to make it available.

          I’m surprised to hear that you had trouble with the forms you took but hey if it works sublingually great.

          As to your question, if you want the advice of some guy on a comment thread – why not just go for topping up to the level that is generally recommended if you read up on it which from memory is something like 400-600mg? (Not the RDA which is pitifully low of course).

          RedYeti wrote on December 31st, 2010
        • Ah wait – sorry, reply in haste… Yes I guess it might be available in an ionic form. So that would essentially be plain magnesium. Albeit very, very small “bits” of it!

          That’s what you get for listening to some guy on a comment thread 😉

          RedYeti wrote on December 31st, 2010
  23. Assume two 1 minute power poses (basically, an open posture which takes up a lot of space, e.g. feet spread on desk, hands behind head) and reduce cortisol by 20%. Here’s an intro, from where you can also download the paper with all the science

    It works amazingly well for me. But it also makes you less risk averse, so best avoided on top of cliffs!

    David McCarthy wrote on December 29th, 2010
  24. Hi All-
    If you have not heard of “Earthing” or “Grounding” take a look at
    The earth is electrical and so are we but we’ve lost being grounded to the earth, literally. We need barefoot connection to grass, sand and sea to rebalance the electrons in our bodies. I had shoulder pain for months that went away in 3 days. Mark is 100% right on when he says to go barefoot, it’s Primal. We are connected to the earth but insulated shoes create a barrier.
    Go Forth & Get Grounded!

    DBeee! wrote on December 29th, 2010
  25. Learn EFT (the Emotional Freedom Technique). You’ll never believe how incredible it is until you try it for yourself. It’s based on tapping with your finger tips on acupuncture meridians while tuning in to the stressful feeling. As you said Mark, emotions can be quite malleable and EFT is an amazing tool to quickly and permanently turn off the fight or flight response, reduce cortisol and release the feelings associated with stress. The main website is here and there is some interesting science to back it up. It has changed my life and the lives of thousands of others.

    Ellie wrote on December 29th, 2010
  26. One good stress reducer is to not be too hard on your self. As Art Devany says “there is no failure, only feedback.” We all make mistakes. Learn from them and carry on.

    P.W. Lester wrote on December 29th, 2010
  27. Thanks for the reminder, Mark. My Father-In -Law passed away yesterday,and what did I do? I ate pie and chocolate candy! I know, I know! The stress in all in the details of who is going to do the paper route, and who is going to feed the cat while we’re gone. At least I did my workout. And tomorrow, I will only eat foods that will help my mind and body.

    Joanne wrote on December 29th, 2010
  28. Mark,
    Any tips on rehabbing a bad back? I’ve been battling a bad back for 20 years now with exercise. After a quick trip from Orlando to Phoenix, sitting in a classroom for a couple of days and sitting 5 hours on a plane back it finally said uncle! I’m contemplating surgery. Any posts or thoughts on this?

    Dave wrote on December 30th, 2010
  29. I have been going hunting and spending the entire day in the woods. I usually sit in the morning before daylight for about 3 hours(very relaxing)and then join up with some other hunters and do drives through the woods(lots of hiking through briars, thickets, etc up, down and across very steep hills) which is very good exercise and then finish the day by sitting in a tree stand for the last 2 or 3 hours of daylight. Very Groklike!!

    Mark wrote on January 1st, 2011
  30. Dave, check out Mark’s entry for Oct. 15. He
    discusses a book by Esther Gokhale, “8 Steps to a
    Pain-Free Back”. There might be some ideas that will
    help you. You mentioned that you had been sitting
    for many hours in a classroom and then an airplane.
    No wonder your back hurt. The author has some
    great ideas about this difficulty. Yes, I tried it and it
    works. And yes, it took awhile for my back to fully adapt to the new regimen, but who cares? It’s worth it to avoid surgery.

    bev wrote on January 3rd, 2011
  31. Thanks Bev. I will look it up right away!

    David wrote on January 3rd, 2011

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