We know that stress can be a major factor in weight gain and overall ill-health (if you’re not sure how stress impacts your weight, read our article Do You Gain Weight When You’re Stressed? Here are 3 Reasons Why now, and then come back here), so it’s vital that we learn ways to support and improve our emotional health to combat these negative physical symptoms.
It’s important to remember that your mind and your body do not work independently - one feeds the other at all times. By finding ways to improve our emotional health and support ourselves in times of stress, we can mitigate some of the negative effects of stress and the harm it causes.
Once we’re in a stressful situation, however, it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees. By learning strategies to handle stress now, you’ll have a better chance of being able to see the bigger picture when stressful situations arise.
3 Ways to Improve Your Emotional Health in Stressful Situations
1) Strive for Balance
This is easier said than done, but a lot of stress results from focusing too much on one area of your life and not being able to see yourself as a person who has multiple interests and roles. If you’re feeling an intense sense of stress at work, do you try to stop thinking about work when you’re not supposed to be working and put-up boundaries around your work life?
You may continue to go through the motions of going to the gym and going to the park with your kids, but if you’re always checking your phone or thinking about what you’ve got to do, it will be easy to be consumed by stress. By leaving your email inbox at work and going home to relax, do hobbies, and spend time with others, you can start to see yourself not just as your work title, but as someone who also has other things going on.
If your stress is at home, try to work in more self-care and give yourself permission to look for support. Consider what rules you’ve put around your life about being self-sufficient; could you find a gym with a daycare facility that would allow you to have some alone time for an hour or so? What about hiring a cleaner once a week? Could you pay a teenager to look after your kid(s) for a few hours so you can have a bath and read a book?
This type of self-care can seem too luxurious or not “big” enough to seriously impact your stress levels, but taking something off your plate and making space for yourself can drastically help you manage your stress during difficult times.
2) Get Enough Sleep
How long is your to-do list? How long is it when you add everything you would like to do in a day? Most of us will get up early and stay up late to fit in all our responsibilities and some time for ourselves each day, meaning we often burn the candle at both ends.
Enough sleep is key for physical and mental health. When we’re tired from waking frequently in the night or try to run on less than 6 hours of sleep (most of us need 7-9 hours) we’re going to be more irritable, are more likely to experience brain fog, and find the day a grind.
With enough sleep, we have more energy, can think quickly, and find it easier to focus. If you don’t have an easy time getting to sleep or staying asleep, start developing a more relaxing pre-bed routine and find strategies to help you stay relaxed when you wake in the night.
For example, you can:
Stop using screens 30 mins - 1 hour before bed
Use a sleep mask to block out light
Do a pre-sleep meditation (guided meditations are great for this, especially for those who struggle with racing thoughts before bed)
If you get up at night, try not to turn on the lights and instead use low-lighting options (you can get lights that attach to the toilet seat so it glows and you don’t need to turn on the lights to see it in an ensuite - installing a dimmer switch or smart lighting are other good options)
Do exercise during the day or in the early evening so you are physically tired enough to fall asleep
Avoid stimulating tasks right before bed
Avoid stimulants (like coffee) at least 6 hours before bed
If you wake up in the night, try not to look at your phone but lie peacefully - you can listen to an audiobook, music, or podcast quietly instead, aiming to give your body almost as good-a-quality rest as you would if you were actually asleep. This often causes you to fall asleep, but at the very least you’ll feel far better rested during the day than if you had scrolled endlessly on your phone.
3) Find Opportunities to Be Social
When we’re stressed, it’s easy to close in on ourselves - social interaction is usually the first thing we eliminate from our diary, especially if we’re naturally introverted. If your world gets smaller when you’re stressed, this point can help you widen your worldview and relieve the symptoms of stress.
Studies have shown that being social helps reduce stress (reduces cortisol release), improves our health, and increases longevity. You don’t need to talk about your problems when you’re social, either, just try to relax with other people and allow yourself to get some perspective. Yes, your problems may be worse than those of the people you’re with, but when you can see the bigger picture and smile, laugh, and engage with others, you’ll feel a lot of your tension melt away.
Of course, sharing your problems with trusted people who have the bandwidth for you can also help greatly. Don’t be afraid to share your struggles - most people have them too, but we fail to talk about them. If you don’t have anyone you feel you can talk to, you can now find online therapy that doesn’t feel as “intense” as the traditional model or find online groups you can share and talk to. Often, digital connections with others will help you feel supported.
We all experience stressful situations from time to time, but if you’re feeling stressed all the time, whether those pressures are external or internal, start prioritizing yourself. A little self-care goes a long way to relieving the intensity of stress. If you feel overwhelmed week after week, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional for support. Unfortunately, many of the stigmas around mental health are still ingrained and so we’re often to ask for support in fear of being labeled or “called out”, but it is often the best thing to do for yourself if you’re struggling, so you can get your emotional and physical health back on track.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.