Stress is a funny thing. It is omnipresent in our lives but we deny its very existence on a daily basis. It is the nagging voice in our head telling us to achieve more, do better and work harder. It is the subtle but persistent worry about money, love, life and health.
The best example I can give you about ‘stress in denial’ – which, by the way, is the most common form of stress – is the following conversation I had with a client. In response to my question, ”Are you feeling stressed?”, I received the following answer: ”No not particularly. Obviously, running my own business takes up a lot of my time and between the school run, the office and cooking dinner for the kids there is not much time for anything else. I suppose life did get a bit more stressful since splitting up from my husband a year ago and my mother falling ill but I still manage to go to the gym 5 times a week. So no, I don’t think I am particularly stressed”! The kind of stress my client is experiencing is what we call chronic stress. This includes any event that demands additional resources of the body and lasts longer than a couple of hours. The body’s initial response to acute stress is a massive outpouring of adrenaline. We can feel the rush of hormones flooding the body after a bungee jump, a roller coaster ride or something less exciting like spotting that speed camera at the last possible second. Other stressful situations that usually demand our attention for prolonged periods of time – like pressure at work, relationship problems or worries about money – trigger the release of cortisol. This stress hormone has powerful effects on not just the body but also the brain.
Our autonomic nervous system controls every movement in our body that we don’t have to think about, like breathing, digesting and our heart beating. Cortisol causes this nervous system to switch into activity mode and a neurotransmitter called glutamic acid is released into the brain. It gets your neurons all excited, firing signals like crazy and making your mind race. Initially this is a good thing because it heightens concentration and makes you think on your feet. Eventually, this over-stimulation of nerve cells will lead to your brain almost exploding with thoughts and worries. We find it increasingly difficult to focus on tasks ahead because, literally, our mind is all over the place. Sleep becomes increasingly difficult because the conversations we have with ourselves seem to go in circles throughout the night. Eventually, this heightened state of arousal can lead to tension, anxiety and sheer panic. This is what I call the ‘headless chicken phase’ of stress and such creatures are quite easy to spot in daily life: rushing from one thing to the next, multi-tasking to the point of madness, having five different conversations at once but not being able to concentrate on a single thing for any amount of time before rushing on to (attempt to) complete the next chore. Sound familiar?
The opposing force to glutamic acid is GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), not to be confused with ABBA which can also have a mind-numbing effect! GABA is produced when our autonomic nervous system is in resting mode and it signals the body to restore, repair and renew. This magical neurotransmitter stops our brain neurons from firing and literally helps us to ‘switch off’. People who practice yoga and meditation regularly have been found to have 20% higher GABA levels than the headless chickens amongst us. Conscious breathing and relaxation techniques can force our nervous system to switch from activity mode into resting mode, initiating powerful changes in our brain chemistry. This might be one of the most powerful ways to reduce stress on a daily basis. It is essential to give your brain and your body a chance to rest and relax, in order to avoid the dreaded burn out syndrome. One of the most immediate effects you will notice from increased GABA levels is that your mind will have stopped wandering off. The noise in your head should now be akin to the gentle lapping of the ocean sending you into a peaceful sleep.
Besides swapping high energy spinning classes for relaxing yoga sessions, your daily cup(s) of coffee should make way for generous mugs of green tea. This ancient brew contains a powerful amino acid called theanine. Theanine completely blocks glutamic acid from latching onto receptors in the brain, promoting calmness while increasing concentration. It is the perfect pre-exam or presentation drink and a cup of the green liquid at night might even contribute to a restful sleep if you are not sensitive to caffeine.
If you’d like to master the art of increasing GABA levels through food, you can have a perfect pantry of pure relaxation – in your fridge! A generous helping of hummus and sardines doesn’t sound very zen but does in fact have the ability to alter brain chemistry. Chickpeas are high in GABA, giving you an immediate dose of highly palatable calmness and the healthy omega-3 fats in oily fish will help to balance brain chemistry over the long term. Other foods high in GABA include cherry tomatoes, shrimp and kefir. This traditional eastern European fermented yoghurt drink is not only high in brain chemicals but also teeming with friendly bacteria. The gut is often called the second brain because we can find almost every neurotransmitter that is active in the brain, also in the digestive system. By keeping your intestines functioning properly you might also be able to keep your brain sharp and focused.
Should you have started to wonder now if you are stressed or not, as long as you lead a Western lifestyle it would be safe to assume that you are! I don’t expect you to spend the rest of your day in a highly sophisticated yoga pose while trying to reach Nirvana, but adopting a few simple techniques and stocking up on the right foods might make a world of difference!