This article was originially published as an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, 19th Oct. 2023: https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-769155
In my 38+ years in Israel, I have certainly experienced my share of stressful situations. But what happened here in Israel two weeks ago has certainly created the most stressful of situations. We are all praying for the families of those taken from us, the wounded and injured, the hostages and certainly for our soldiers. Is there a way for us to manage this much stress?
The nature of stress
So here we are making things even worse: reaching for a bag of chips, stocking the pantry with chocolate, sitting too much, and watching the news. Instead of taking some steps to reduce and control our situations, we are trading 4 minutes of pleasure for long-term damage.
Stress damages our health and wellbeing. Even in the best of times, we live in a society where the demands made upon us are unreasonable. Everyday stress can originate in the workplace, school, from relationships, or a host of other areas. The most dangerous aspect of stress is its long-term activation, which disrupts almost all of the body’s processes and increases the risk of numerous health problems.
Even when we are not at war, the latest data on stress is indeed frightening. Using statistics from the United States, we see that in a survey of 3,000 adults over the age of 18, 75% reported feeling financial stress.
Job-related stress sits at the top of the list. 80% of workers say they feel stress on the job. The cost? Workplace stress causes healthcare expenditures of roughly $150 billion per year. That is about 7% of all health care expenditures per year.
Stress and it’s damage
Certain kinds of stress can indeed be healthy. If we had no stress at all, we wouldn’t get things done and deadlines would be meaningless. However, chronic stress, can be debilitating or even dangerous. When one’s stress response is turned on too much, and certainly, if it is turned on ALL the time, this leads to serious issues – both psychological and physiological. For many people in Israel today, this is the unfortunate reality.
Stress is linked to a long list of illnesses, including heart disease, depression, insomnia, and anxiety. Dr. Kenneth Pelletier of The Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine has research showing that 85-90% of all illness is stress induced or exacerbated. Stress frequently causes sleep deprivation, which in turn intensifies stress levels. This becomes a terrible cycle where one gets more and more stressed and less and less sleep.
Improving stress levels
How do we deal with stress and improve our wellness? Many people need professional help, but there are certain things we can all do on our own to help keep our stress in check.
Here are some helpful tips in order to help you control your stress:
- Maintain a program of healthy eating and adequate sleep.
- You might not feel like it, but exercise anyway. Not only does it promote physical fitness, but it is a big contributor to emotional well-being. Just going for a walk can make the biggest difference.
- Do acts of kindness. Help others. What we have seen over the past two weeks is nothing short of amazing. Get involved in helping you friends, neighbors, and soldiers in battle.
- Balance work and play. All work and no play can make you feel stressed. Plan some time for recreation to help you de-stress. Music, art, and journaling are good ways to de-stress as well.
- Take a warm shower or bath. This will soothe and calm your nerves, and relax your muscles.
- Have a good cry. Tears can help cleanse the body of substances that accumulate under stress, and release a natural pain-relieving substance from the brain. There is nothing wrong with a good cry and you aren’t the only one!
- Talk out your troubles. It sometimes helps to talk with a friend, relative, or Rabbi. Another person can help you see a problem from a different point of view.
- As difficult as it might be right now, try to develop and maintain a positive, optimistic attitude.
- Modify your environment. Manage your exposure to things that cause stress whenever possible. So, yes, check on the news from time to time and stay abreast of the situation, but you don’t have to be glued to it. Allow yourself breaks from following the news too often.
Nutrition plays a part
Food does not make the stress go away. However some foods can reduce negative health effects that are highly associated with chronic stress, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and cardiovascular disease. Some recent research also indicates that eating has a pronounced effect on mood.
Although our tendency might be to eat excessively during these stressful times, please remember: while it is essential for nutrition and helpful for real hunger, food solves NO OTHER PROBLEMS!
Changes on the foods front
- First, eliminate junk food from the diet. These “food-like” eatable substances cause both physiological and psychological problems.
- Research over the last 15 years on gut microbiome has shown that our “feel-good” hormones dopamine and serotonin MOSTLY come from the gut. So what you eat matters!
- Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus are loaded with folic acid, a vitamin associated with more serotonin production. In addition, oatmeal and other complex carbohydrates can stimulate the brain to produce serotonin. Carbohydrates that are absorbed more slowly help to ensure a steadier supply of serotonin – think unrefined, whole foods.
- Besides food and exercise, sunshine and other sources of vitamin D may boost serotonin levels through an increase in the enzyme that converts tryptophan to serotonin.
- Oranges, grapefruits, red and green peppers, and many other fruits and vegetables, are rich in vitamin C. Such foods can aid in lowering blood levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and ease stress.
Implementing any or all of these tips can make a big difference in your stress level. Of course, seeing a good psychologist or qualified therapist can be very helpful. I always emphasize to my client that it’s NEVER one thing. Exercise, diet, therapy, meditation, and prayer are all important. Use them all.
One more thing
You may feel that a few times a week, you need to treat yourself with some dark chocolate or some other dessert type food. If you can set limits, keep it as occasional, and not use food that is terribly addictive, then schedule it in. Just don’t make it into a bad habit.
It’s tough times for the Jewish people and the world in general. The one thing that is key to stress management is not trying to control those things we have no control over. But, keeping our stress under control will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”