It is no secret that we all experience stress, and the pressures of modern society can make it seem as though if you are not stressed out – then you are not working hard enough. But stress takes a significant toll on your physical and mental well-being. When stress becomes the norm, so do all the associated physical and mental illnesses. In fact, some suggest that up to 80% of illnesses can be attributed to stress, and addiction is one of them.
Stress is one of the most common relapse triggers for those in recovery — which is why stress prevention is a top priority for relapse prevention. Your diet and health play an important role in stress management, and can be used to your advantage to not only reduce stress, but prevent relapse, and generally feel better.
Healthy Eating Tips for Stress and Relapse Prevention
There are many ways your diet can both cause and prevent stress. Succumbing to sugar cravings, inconsistent meals, and caffeine intake are all common habits that negatively impact our body’s ability to handle stress — and in turn create even more stress that can lead to drug or alcohol relapse.
On the contrary, we can use our diet as a tool to not only reduce current stress levels, but prevent stress from building up in the first place — which is crucial for relapse prevention.
Here are some practical tips to help you improve your diet in a way that also improves stress levels and therefore aids in relapse prevention.
1. Eat these foods
There are particular foods that help fight stress due to their nutritional qualities. Incorporate at least one of the foods on this list into your diet each day to get the stress-fighting nutrients your body needs.
- Salmon. Salmon provides essential omega-3 fatty acids which have been found to help improve memory and cognition, as well as improve levels of depression and anxiety, and not getting enough has been correlated with higher levels of depression. Omega-3 is not only great for your brain function, but salmon is a low fat, high protein fish that can be easily incorporated into any relapse prevention diet. Cashews and other nuts also contain omega-3 among a wealth of other essential minerals, and they are easy to snack on at any time of day!
- Poultry. Chicken and turkey both contain a ton of complete proteins which contain essential amino acids — the kind your body needs to produce new neurotransmitters in the brain. Drug addiction depletes neurotransmitters, which are responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being, as well as contribute to our ability to cope with stress.
- Broccoli, cabbage, and kale. These vegetables support liver detoxification. This helps the body get rid of toxins that when accumulated put stress on the brain and can contribute to mood instability. Experiment with new recipes until you find a way to easily incorporate these vegetables into your diet. Kale can be roasted in the oven with olive oil and a pinch of salt to make a great alternative to potato chips!
- Spinach. Spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables contain maximum vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B, vitamin C, and magnesium, which are essential for optimal brain functioning, reducing stress and illness, and overall health. In your next salad swap lettuce for baby spinach. Berries also contain a high level of antioxidants and vitamin C — keep a bag of frozen berries in the freezer for a quick and delicious addition to yogurt, cereal, or simply to snack on alone.
2. Eat three meals a day
While there is some discrepancy in whether or not healthy snacking between meals is recommended, eating three solid meals a day is always recommended as a way to regulate blood sugar levels.
Eating regular nutritious meals gives us the energy and concentration needed to complete daily tasks. The less concentration and energy we have the more seemingly simple tasks can feel overwhelming and stressful.
Like most relapse prevention techniques, the habit of eating regularly does not just happen on its own – it has to be practised. Plan meals in advance. Are you rushing out the door without eating breakfast every morning, and then finding yourself at the vending machine with a candy bar at 10am? This pattern can be detrimental to your stress levels. The sugar rush from a temporarily satisfying treat quickly wears off and you end up craving more, feeling more fatigued, and ultimately less focused and more stressed.
Instead, pack a breakfast the night before, cook hard boiled eggs, pack mixed nuts and dried berries, yogurt, or sliced chicken or turkey breast.
3. Drink water
We learn the importance of drinking enough water early in life, yet many of us still do not get as much as we need. Becoming dehydrated, even just slightly, increases your body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol.
Dehydration is also a source of fatigue. Next time you crave an afternoon coffee or snack, drink a glass of water first. One way to ensure you drink the recommended two litres of water a day is to buy a 2 litre water bottle and know your day isn’t complete unless you have drunk it all.
If you struggle to drink plain water, try switching to non-caffeinated herbal tea, or add a squeeze of lemon to your water. Drinking chamomile tea at night can be a great relaxing and stress reducing addition to your routine that also provides hydration.
4. Avoid or reduce caffeine and sugar consumption
When we feel stressed and tired it is easy to reach for a coffee, pastry, or chocolate bar. While these foods may temporarily make us feel better, soon after eating them we experience a drop in blood sugar which leaves us feeling even worse than before. Those in recovery from a substance or process addiction are more prone to develop food addiction — another reason why limiting sugar consumption is important for overall health for a recovering addict.
Using Exercise to Reduce and Prevent Stress
We have all heard that exercise helps reduce stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and fatigue, and helps with heart disease. It is basically a cure-all when it comes to improving physical and mental health. But how exactly does it work?
Exercise — physical activity that raises your heart rate — promotes stress-fighting neurohormones. (The same neurohormones that substance abuse and chronic stress deplete.) It is the release of these neurohormones that make us feel good after exercise naturally.
But how can you incorporate exercise into your lifestyle when the very thought of working out is stressful? Start by using the 5 minute trick – ‘Today I’ll walk for 5 minutes.’ Usually once you get started, five minutes easily turns into longer. And on the days that it doesn’t – that is okay too. At least you put in the effort. However, if you regularly can’t get past five minutes, try finding someone to be your exercise partner. An exercise partner can help support you, keep you accountable, and make exercise more fun. And be sure to find something that works for you. Do not like walking or running? Join a volleyball league, or take a dance class. Just be sure to do something, because exercise is one of the most valuable relapse prevention tools there is.
Diet and health play an important role in managing stress levels, and since stress is one of the leading triggers for relapse, keeping healthy through diet and exercise should be a top priority in your relapse prevention plan.