I was trying not to feel stressed as the traffic backed up and then stopped. I was, after all, on my way to a seminar titled "Stress, Anxiety and Depression." I took a deep breath - which was later confirmed as a great stress reliever - and was thankful I had allowed extra time to get to my destination.
Stress affects several areas of the brain, I soon learned. For example, ever wonder why we know it's not a good idea to eat a half-gallon of ice cream when we're feeling tense, but we do it anyway? Turns out the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain that helps us make reasonable decisions - shuts down when we are stressed.
Chronic stress also can wreak havoc on my appetite and metabolic rate by altering hormones controlled by the hypothalamus - the brain's master control area.
Some stress can be good for survival, experts say. If I'm trapped in a burning building, for example, stress hormones rapidly pump fat and sugar into my blood to help me run to safety.
But when this same stress response is repeatedly turned on - whether I face a real threat or not - my blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood cholesterol remain elevated and affect my physical as well as emotional health. No wonder chronic stress is now recognized as a trigger for heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung disease, diabetes, accidents, pneumonia and flu.
When stress hormones are kept under control, I sleep better and my body can repair and restore itself to sanity. When I am calm, my body digests food more efficiently and blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure are lower.
How can we do that? Here are some suggestions:
Schedule time to sleep well. Stress hormones are turned off when we are in deep sleep. And it's during this time that the body and brain are in restoration mode.
Cut out caffeine at least six hours before beddy-bye. That's how long it takes for this stimulant to be cleared out of the body for better sleep.
Put a lid on the bottle. Alcohol suppresses REM sleep - the deep, dream-related sleep that refreshes the brain and stores memory.
Don't rely on sleep supplements. Products like melatonin to induce sleep only encourage our brains to make less of this natural substance, increasing the problem over time. Only take sleep aids for a short term to restore natural circadian rhythm, say experts.
"Rest and digest." When I take time to calm down and eat pleasant unhurried meals, my body sends out signals that improve digestion and keeps my blood sugars on a more even keel.
Take time to be active. Inactivity can trigger anxiety, while regular exercise calms the stress response.
Pick your battles. People who stress only about things they can control tend to be the healthiest and longest-lived, say experts. Which is why - as I watched the traffic back up on my drive home - my first thought was for ice cream. But my second thought, after I took a deep breath, was to remember the serenity prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.