How to Get Healthier and Stress Less at the Same Time

366.46.2. I need chocolate!!!

When we are stressed we have higher levels of a chemical (cortisol) that damages our system. It’s like a little hammer chiseling away at our healthy insides. (Watch the effects of stress on the body with this cool graphic.)

The problem is that not everyone understands just how unhealthy this is on our physical health. Because of this, many people may be less likely to use stress management strategies that improve their health.

Have you looked at the recent findings of APA’s Stress in America survey? This survey highlights the negative impact of stress on physical health, and it shows that not all survey respondents were aware of the connection.

According to the survey,

“Although the majority of adults understand that stress has a strong impact on a person’s health,  a sizeable minority still think that stress has only a slight or no impact on their own physical health (31 percent) and mental health (36 percent).”

Notice that reference to mental health. Depression also comes into play. Research shows they are related, but it’s thought to be bidirectional. That means that the more depressed you are, the more you engage in unhealthy eating and physical activity habits; and the more you engage in these behaviors, the more depressed you become. It creates a vicious cycle from which it’s tough to break.

More from APA’s stress survey

Obesity and depression are often exacerbated by stress. Those who suffer from these conditions report that they are unable to take the necessary steps to relieve their stress or improve their health and, therefore, engage in maladaptive coping behaviors.

  • People with depression (27 percent) or obesity (24 percent) are more likely than the general population (20 percent) to report feeling dissatisfied with their lives and less likely (76 percent for the general population vs. 69 percent for those depressed or obese) to report feeling satisfied with family relationships.
  • Those with depression (33 percent) or who are obese (28 percent) are significantly more likely than the general public (21 percent) to say they do not think they are doing enough to manage their stress.
  • As compared to the general public (11 percent), more people who are obese (34 percent) or depressed (22 percent) report that their disabilities or health issues prevent them from making positive changes in their lives (i.e., reducing stress and improving health).

The good news is that research shows that depression, obesity, and stress share common effective treatments. Each can be improved (i.e., increased positive mood, weight loss, and lower stress) by a variety of methods, including cognitive (the way we think) and behavioral (what we do) components.

Here are two techniques to help you started on the road to a happier, healthier, more relaxed life.

Rate your mood before and after an activity. Then, rate your feelings of accomplishment before and after this activity. Begin to recognize those that improve your mood (not just in the moment, but later on) and make you feel better about yourself.

You may find that some of your favorite activities (Friday morning trips to the donut shop or Tuesday night carryout pizza) may cause momentary happiness, but lower your self-confidence in making positive choices or decreased physical health that creates more stress and depressed feelings.

Move more and sit less. Research has linked higher BMIs (indication of overweight) with higher rates of screen time (time spent with TV, video games, cell phones, computer, etc). Make your goal simple. Say something like “I will get a few tasks accomplished before I plop down on the sofa and catch up on TV.” For kids, this could be as simple as having them pick up their belongings and engage in a productive, physical activity prior to watching TV or playing video games.

By starting with these two things, you may find that you are identifying activities that make you less stressed, help you get healthier, and improve your interactions with others. You’re putting down that stress chisel, and improving your mental and physical health.

Photo by practicalowl (via Flickr)

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