Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Banishing Stress

As much as people complain about stress, they go out of their way to create it. They over-schedule, overspend, under-sleep, and under-nourish themselves. I'm still working on getting enough sleep, but I've found some ways to reduce other sources of stress.

Poor diet will affect your mood. Contrary to what's written by a lot of self-help authors, your mood isn't just a matter of attitude. Your brain is mostly made of fat and cholesterol and requires various nutrients to run properly. It needs glucose, but the glucose needs to be in your bloodstream, not your stomach in the form of carbohydrates. (Your liver can make glucose out of protein.) Drs. Phinney and Volek describe how low-calorie, high-carb diets can affect the brain in The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living. (The short answer: depending on how much you exercise, you can mentally and physically hit the wall.)

If for example you decide to eat 1200 kcal per day, composed of 25% protein (75 grams), 25% fat, and 50% carbohydrate, your daily carb intake totals just 600 calories. That's more than enough to keep your liver from making ketones, but it's just barely enough to feed your brain. But, you say, your liver can also make glucose from some of the protein via gluconeogenesis, which is correct, but that totals less than 50 grams (200 kcal) per day....But what happens if you decide to jog 5 miles in 50 minutes (which consumes 100 kcal per mile). Typically in this setting, people start to feel lousy (see "bonking" below)....[Upon bonking, or hitting the wall, I]f at this point you do not immediately stop and eat, the bottom falls out of performance capacity and you feel profoundly depressed.
If you're at work or puttering around the house, the same thing happens, but in slow motion. Even disciplined people lose their grip due to poor diet. During Ancel Key's starvation experiment at the University of Minnesota in the 1940s, two men--pacifists who grew up in the historic peace churches--got into a fist fight over a piece of macaroni. Another subject, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not, chopped off a few of his fingers. "Starvation" in the experiment was a calorie and macronutrient balance typical of some of today's popular diet plans. For further reading, check out The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker and my post on the bookThe Diet Cure by Julia Ross (Jimmy Moore podcast here) and my post Lousy Mood? It Could be the Food.

Turn away from a problem for awhile. An article about high-intensity training remarked that the American way of solving problems was to work harder and longer. Sometimes that's what needed, especially if you already know what needs to happen and it's a matter of doing it. But it doesn't lead to insight. How many times have you had to leave a problem for a number of days, and on going back to it, a solution came to you? Or you saw the problem wasn't worth worrying about in the first place?

Set up an emergency fund. Having bills you can't pay is a tremendous source of stress. If you don't have an emergency fund, create one at your bank and set up small automatic transfers to it every month or every payday. (A human at your bank will do this for you if you ask.) I'm sure this is one reason I haven't had too much stress from my accident a month ago: now that the bills are coming in, there are funds to pay them.

Find ways to spend less. Even things that tend to be expensive can be brought under control. Over the weekend, my niece got married in a simple but beautiful ceremony. The wedding was at the house of a family friend, and everyone had cake and punch afterward. (Two friends on mine were married in a similar fashion last year.) They're just as married as if they'd put on a production worthy of Broadway, both couples had a happy wedding day, and they didn't start their marriages under a strain of extra debt. (I've heard of couples whose wedding debt outlasted the marriage.) And, dare I say it, someone who gets cold feet can think about the upcoming marriage instead of the huge outlay of money for wedding expenses (the sunk cost fallacy).

Ignore what's supposed to work, and do what really works for you. Girly relaxation stuff isn't chocolate for my soul. If a candle-lit bubble bath de-stresses you, that's terrific. But to me, sitting in a hard tub full of water that's getting colder by the minute, knowing I'll have to scrub the tub and put away a bunch of candles later isn't relaxing. (Nor is worrying about the towels catching fire.) I also detest romantic comedies that don't make any sense (that is, pretty much all of them) and crying gives me a sinus headache. Dancing is my stress reliever of choice. And if I had a fireplace, I'd chop my own wood. Video games are underrated, at least by the fill-every-minute-with-useful-or-enriching-activity nerds. In practice, throwing yourself into something is an effective de-stressor, and might even save your life. A video game developer who suffered a mild traumatic brain injury created a game called Super Better when she started feeling like she had no reason to live.


tess said...

great post, Lori -- you're so right...!

Lori Miller said...

Thanks, Tess. Big, costly weddings in particular never made any sense to me.