On Nutrition

Stress — the physical or mental response to something our brain perceives as challenging or threatening — isn’t always a bad thing. We feel “good stress” when we’re excited or take on a tough but interesting project, and your body’s short-term (acute) stress response could save your life if it helps you get out of the way of a driver running a red light.

What isn’t good is the chronic, unrelenting stress that develops in response to a long-term stressor or a succession of acute stressors without adequate recovery time in between. If you feel powerless over these stressors, you may even experience trauma. Certainly, more people have experienced chronic stress since early 2020. Frontline health care workers. Flight attendants. Parents juggling jobs and home schooling. Anyone who’s felt especially isolated due to the pandemic — or been unable to look away from television news.

Chronic stress can contribute to assorted physical and mental health problems, including high blood pressure, depression and anxiety. As a registered dietitian, I’ve witnessed pandemic-related stress manifest as increased food and body concerns — including a higher rate of eating disorders, which can be fatal — among people of all ages and genders.

There are no easy solutions to relieving chronic stress. When you feel like you’re drowning in stress — or getting a little crispy around the edges — a bubble bath or a glass of wine isn’t going to cut it (and relying on the latter could become a problem of its own). That’s why I want to share a few books that have helped me and many of my clients.

The first is “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” by sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski. This engaging book explains the difference between stressors — both isolated and systemic — and stress itself, and what happens when you deal with the stressors but not with the stress. There are actionable tips for completing the stress cycle — in other words, moving your body out of a state where its stress responses are stuck in “activate” mode. This is the book I recommend to my female clients who are trying to do it all or have high-stress jobs. If you like podcasts, I recommend the author interviews on “Ten Percent Happier” (Jan. 5, 2020) and on Brené Brown’s “Unlocking Us” (Oct. 14, 2020).

Next is “Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory” by Deb Dana. This is Dana’s first book that’s not written for therapists and other clinicians. The book starts by explaining our autonomic nervous system and how regulating our vagus nerve, the body’s main “information superhighway,” can help us return to feelings of safety after experiencing stressors. The book is rich with techniques you can use to understand your nervous system and shape its responses. Her recent interview on the “Insights at The Edge” podcast is a good listen (Nov. 9, 2021).

Finally, “Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma” by Elizabeth A. Stanley takes its name from the concept of widening your “window of tolerance” to stress. If every little thing seems to send you into fight, flight or freeze mode, then your window of tolerance is likely very narrow. This book takes you on an exploration of the many faces of extreme stress and trauma — including how trauma is often dismissed or denied — then offers strategies for healing and widening your own window. For podcasts, I suggest “Ten Percent Happier” (Dec. 4, 2019) and “Insights at the Edge” (Oct. 13, 2020).