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Get a Handle on Stress

By Mellanie Hills

Reprinted from Women in Technology International

Do you have stress in your life? Most of us do. Especially those of us in technology, where many of us are Type A's: multitasking, fast-talking, over-committed, always in a hurry, adrenaline junkies. You know who you are. Type A's create stress for ourselves and sometimes for others.

Have you ever awakened late the morning of a big meeting, and in a panic, thrown on your makeup and clothes, sped to work, fought traffic, whipped into Starbucks for your coffee fix, spilled your coffee on yourself, and arrived late for the meeting only to discover that you are making the presentation? Talk about stressful, or is it?

Stress is largely within our control. It's really the symptom, not the disease. It is the product of a number of factors - lack of sleep, improper diet, insufficient exercise, or others - making it difficult for us to deal with the curves life throws us.

Sleep deprivation can impair our ability to deal with stress, and even exacerbate the smallest stressors. Consider the poor woman who was recently at the center of a national security incident. She lost her father, had an operation, her husband lost his job, and then her brother was hospitalized, causing her to become exhausted from 2 sleepless nights. The following morning, while driving to pick up her mother-in-law from President Bush's speech, she drove past traffic barricades where police and Secret Service tried to stop her. She drove on, crashed into the civic center, was pulled from the car kicking and fighting, and landed in jail. Talk about having a bad day, all from stress-induced sleep deprivation.

What we eat can also be a major factor in how well we deal with stress. Brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters (i.e., adrenaline and seratonin), control brain function. Since they're made from the foods we eat, a poor diet impairs the body's ability to make these chemicals. Our bodies need proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables, and grains. Vitamins B and C and magnesium are especially important in helping the body handle stress.

If you're feeling stressed, check whether you're eating properly. Are you living on high-fat and high-sugar junk and fast foods? Are you overdoing caffeine (coffee, tea, sodas, and chocolate)? Overloading the body with fats, refined sugars, and caffeine can throw it out of balance.

Diet is especially important for Type A adrenaline junkies. High protein and caffeine-laden foods increase adrenaline, shoving the body into overdrive. Those who consistantly use adrenaline at work keep their bodies in perpetual "fight or flight" mode, causing fat and sugar junk food cravings to build stores for the next emergency. Adrenaline also supercharges the heart which is why we're starting to correlate high stress with heart disease. Pouring more and more adrenaline into an already overstressed body is like pouring gasoline onto a fire and in extreme cases can lead to fear, anxiety, and paranoia.

The fight or flight response, which originally helped cavemen flee danger, causes the body to release cortisol, the stress hormone, to shut down systems not needed for flight, such as the immune and digestive systems. No wonder we get sick or have indigestion when under heavy stress! The more stress, the more cortisol builds up, making you even more cranky and stressed. Even skipping breakfast can cause the body to release cortisol.

Keeping the adrenaline system in overdrive also lowers the body's serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good. By depressing serotonin levels, you may be at risk for anxiety and depression. Getting enough sleep, a minimum of 6 hours per night, rebuilds serotonin, as does eating turkey, bananas, walnuts, avocados, and tomatoes.

When you're under stress, a diet of vegetables and high-quality, low-fat protein, such as fish or chicken instead of red meat, dairy, or caffeine, can optimize the body to withstand stress. Everyone's body is different, so your nutritional needs may vary; your doctor can advise you on the right diet for you.

If you feel stressed, take a moment to examine why and to identify what you can do immediately about it. Be sure you are eating properly and getting enough rest. Sometimes, simply changing your perception can help. Even negative stress, such as health issues or job loss, can be perceived positively as we figure out how to make the best of them. It's not about what happens to you, it's what you do about it.

Mellanie True Hills is The Health & Productivity Revitalizer. She coaches individuals to create healthy lifestyles that revitalize their health, and works with organizations to create healthy workplaces that transform productivity. She is now a featured columnist for WITI, and will be speaking at the February 9, 2004 kickoff of the new Austin, Texas chapter.

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Copyright 2004 Mellanie True Hills Company.  All Rights Reserved.

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