Beating Stress with Your Self-Care Super Powers: eat well, move well, sleep well

by Lynne Lafave, Department of Health and Physical Education

Professions like education, with heavy human interactions, are prone to experiencing stress and burnout (1). Our stress in post-secondary tends to peak just as we approach the end of term with pressures of marking and course finalization preparations. While we may practice good self-care during the year, in this time crunch portion of the term, these habits tend to give way to less supportive patterns. 

Health research indicates that under stress, we increase our consumption of unhealthy snacks, caffeine, and fast food coupled with less physical activity and increased sedentary time (2, 3). Due to academic demands, there is an increase of late nights and less sleep. These choices appear to be motivated by immediate gratification, or desperation, in our pursuit to manage the stress.  

So — are our instincts for comfort food, skipping the sweat, and late nights effective in soothing our stressors? Sadly, it appears that these instincts are not leading us in the right direction. Diets high in processed foods, fat, and sugar as well as physical inactivity combined with sedentary behaviour can contribute to psychological distress (3, 4). Additionally, poor sleep quality is associated with an increase in work-related stress (5). These all appear to contribute to a “vicious cycle” whereby our stress begets poor food, activity and sleep choice which then contributes to more stress.

What is a professor to do? Focus on the basics: eat well, move well, sleep well.

Diets rich in vegetables, berries, whole grains, and nuts are implicated in the reduction of depressive symptoms and improved cognitive function (6, 7). Engaging in physical activity is related to improved mood and a reduction in perceived stress often leading to sustained physical activity over multiple days, and continued positive affect (3). Quality sleep allows the brain to reset, enhancing cognitive functioning the following day (8).

Practical Tips

Eat well

  • Stay well hydrated. Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration, helps to keep you feeling alert and not drowsy. 
  • Avoid sugary foods and drinks. You may feel an initial quick boost of energy but it often will lead you to feel low energy as soon as one hour later. 
  • Pack your own healthy snacks. Make the healthy choice the easy choice. An apple, a small piece of cheese, or a small handful of nuts will leave you feeling better, longer. 

Move well

  • Move it Move it. Being active will enhance your sense of well-being and positive affect. 
  • Time it to get up and go. Set a timer and get up and move every 20 min to ‘break the cycle’ of inactivity. 

Sleep well

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Use your bed for sleep and not for eating, watching television, or grading. Train your brain that bedtime is sleep time.
  • Watch the caffeine. Drinking coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages can help you stay alert, but it impacts your sleep. Caffeine can stay in your system for 8 hours. Plan your bedtime and count backwards for the last coffee of the day.