The Obstacle Meter – 23: Stress

23: Stress

I often eat or drink (alcohol or other calorie containing beverages) because I am stressed.

There are two ways you can look at food.  Food is either

1) fuel (energy) for our bodies or

2) a means to stimulate the pleasure/reward circuits in our brains.

The reason this distinction is important is because if you are stressed out, you are not viewing food as a simple combination of fats and carbs that fuel our bodies, you are looking at food as a means to activate your pleasure/reward circuits to dampen your stress response and to make yourself feel better, at least for the moment.

But before we move on, we need to ask ourselves the following question, “What is stress and why do we get stressed in the first place?”

By definition, stress is the real or perceived inability to meet the demands (stress) placed upon a person or a biological system.  Notice that stress is not always real, but if it is perceived to be real, then that makes it real.  More on that later.  The reasons we get stressed are too numerous to list but a few of them may include that you

Have Too Much to Do and Not Enough Time to Do It.
Lack the Skills and/or Abilities Required to Complete the Task.
Are Facing Too Many Factors that are Unknown or Uncontrollable.

Or more generally, from

  • Work
  • Relationships
  • Finances
  • Kids
  • Aging Parents
  • Your Own Health
  • How You Feel Perceived by Others
  • Lack of Sleep
  • Worry about the Future


Identify Why You are Stressed: take the time to slow down and journal/write out why you think you are stressed.  Writing out why you are stressed, in bullet point fashion, will give you a quick snapshot of why you are stressed and what you are up against.  You can also think of this exercise as writing out all the responsibilities you have.  Without writing down why you are stressed, you cannot really get a good picture of what is stressing you out.  The stresses will come and go in your mind, but you will not be able to gain a comprehensive picture of ALL your stresses and without knowing the big picture you will not be able to generate an action plan to begin dealing with them..

Develop an Action Plan: once you have your stresses written out and have a clear picture of what you are up against, it is time to develop a plan to tamp down and mitigate some of your most common stressors.

Delegate Tasks/Ask for Help: some people view asking for help as a sign of weakness when in reality asking for help is a sign of strength.  You do not have to do everything on your own and it is okay to relinquish some control.  If you have too much to do and not enough time to do it or lack the skills and abilities to perform a certain task or tasks, ask someone else to help you out.  More often than not that person will not feel put out by you asking them to help you, rather they will feel grateful that they can be helpful to you.

Learn to Say No: if you have too much on your plate as it is why add more?  You cannot help everyone, every time, you need to learn how to say no.  Some people go so far as become difficult to get ahold of so that they can protect their time for things they need to get done.  This is not selfish, this is smart.

Manage/Set Realistic Expectations: it is super frustrating and stressful when you think that you are going to be able to get a certain number of things accomplished in any given day and then you actually only get half of them done.  I am not suggesting you do not work hard or set the bar excessively low, but we need to be realistic with how much we can get done on any given day.  Setting up unrealistically high expectations not only leaves us feeling like a failure but also causes a tremendous amount of unnecessary stress.

Put Things into Context: many of our stressors are more perceived than they are real.  Ask yourself, in the grand scheme of things, will this really matter?  If I do not perform a particular task or if something does not get done or does not happen, how will things change?  More often than not we make things out to be a bigger deal than they actually are (a mountain out of a molehill).  Now, do not get me wrong, sometimes, yes, things are really that important, but we need to be able to separate the important stuff from the –shoulder shrugging– oh well kind of stuff.  I myself cannot abide from the following advice but it is a great metaphor to help us understand the difference between the important and the non-important or should I say less important, –do not sweat the small stuff and it is all small stuff–.

Get Some Sleep: I cannot tell you how many times I have been stressed, upset or overwhelmed in the afternoon and the evening.  My problems seem so big and I sometimes wonder what the hell I am doing with my life.  But guess what, nine times out of ten, when I wake up the next morning I feel just fine and suddenly what was once catastrophic, now seems pretty manageable.  My friend Bryan pointed this trend out to me a while back and although it took me a while to realize it, tomorrow is a new day, no matter how terrible today might seem.  Do not underestimate the power of a good night’s rest.

Exercise: exercise really is a wonderful thing.

  1. It can help you sleep better.
  2. Exercise can provide your brain relief from dwelling on your problems and getting caught in a vicious cycle of problem solving.  During vigorous exercise your brain cannot simultaneously juggle problem solving and trying to keep your pace up.
  3. After a hard workout you are too tired to think about your stressors and will subsequently sleep better that night.
  4. Exercise training (over time) can provide you with more stamina to help power you through your day.
  5. Exercise can also give you time to think about problem solve (if you exercise at a moderate intensity).

Find Activities that Bring You Pleasure other than Exercise or Eating to help Alleviate Your Stress: sex, talking with a friend, gardening, watching your favorite tv show or sporting event, listening to music or a podcast, hiking, working out, meditating, watching a beautiful sunset, painting, reading or writing, whatever makes you happy, do it.

Decide Where to Put Your Focus: one of the biggest keys to happiness is deciding where to put your focus.  Are you a glass half empty or glass half full kind of person?  Social scientists have found that your happiness does not necessarily depend upon your life situation.  You can have two people in identical situations one is stressed and unhappy, the other is perfectly content.  There are some truly terrible situations but the vast majority of us can improve our situations by focusing on the good rather than the bad.  Now, with that being said, human beings, by our vary nature, tend to default to focusing on the bad.  We need to be mindful of this and practice focusing on the good in our lives.  Dwelling on the bad, will only bring more bad.  Dwelling on the good is our only option.

Decide What Is and Is Not Controllable: change what you can, accept what you cannot.  I think we have all heard this one before but it is so true.  You can only change or control so many things in your life.  We need to take advantage of the things that we do have control over because there are so many things that we have no control over and we need to do our best to accept those things for what they are.

Do the Best You can Do and Try Not to be so Hard on Yourself: some of the best advice my parents have ever given me was, do the best you can do and if you do the best you can do, we will be happy with you.  We have all got to remember that we are human.  We are doing the best that we can do.  Nobody is perfect and sometimes we need to cut ourselves a little slack.  Oftentimes, we are our own worst critic.

Breathe: I am not very good at this but need to be better at it.  Stop what you are doing and take 10 large, slow breaths in and out, focusing on your breaths.  Do you feel better?  Ninety-nine percent of the time things will be alright.

Think of Stress Eating as Medicating: eating is not the only medication for stress.  As we stated earlier, find other ways to bring you pleasure/medicate your stresses away.  Hopefully, if you can take the steps to reduce the stress you have in the first place, you will find less of a need to medicate your stress away with food or with other activities and you can do those other activities for the pure pleasure of doing those activities rather than using them to self-medicate.

If you agree with or can relate to any of these stressors and their solutions, take the time to choose one or two and IMPLEMENT them into your life!  It is not enough to read through them and say, uh huh, yes, uh huh, totally.  That is not going to change anything.  So please, take the time to practice some of these solutions and incorporate them into your daily life.