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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.