What was the research?
Research published this week investigated whether or not an eight-week programme of relaxation could reduce stress levels.1
In the study, 36 participants were exposed to stress. They were then offered a meal and then their physiological and psychological responses were assessed. These tests were done for a second time after the participants had completed various relaxation methods, including:
- Mindfulness meditation
- Face-to-face relaxation classes
- Muscle relaxation.
To measure the success of these methods, a control group was also included in the study.
What conclusions did the research make?
Researchers concluded that this eight-week programme could reduce overall stress levels, plus it could improve mindfulness.
As well as measuring the impact of relaxation methods on overall stress levels, researchers also intended to find out if these processes could influence our intake of unhealthy foods.
During a period of stress, we are more likely to seek lots of energy-dense foods. This may link to the fact that, in the past, stress was most likely to arise as a result of a physical threat, such as a ferocious animal or a famine. Therefore, the body would need lots of energy to flee the hungry tiger, for example, or to move to an area where crops were more plentiful.
Nowadays, you are unlikely to encounter anything bigger than a dog as you go about your day-to-day life but, unfortunately, the body's response to stress is the same. So, whether you are concerned about money worries, problems at work or something else entirely, you may find yourself eating more than usual.
The hormone cortisol, which is released during stress, can increase appetite and this may also explain why we end up eating more when under pressure. In addition, eating can be a means of coping with stress, or distracting yourself from it.
This particular study, however, concluded that an eight-week programme of relaxation was not enough to influence the physiological response to appetite during a period of stress.
Are there any problems with the research?
Although most participants took part in the relaxation methods assigned to them (compliance was around 80%), the small sample size does indicate some limitations to the study.
There is also no indication of what kind of stress participants were exposed to, or the severity of that stress. Therefore, it is difficult to know whether the study's results would apply to everyone.
It is also worth pointing out that relaxation methods are something an individual has to devote time and energy to and, when you are stressed, these things aren't always readily available. Therefore, it would be helpful to see how these treatments compare to other stress-relieving tips.
What can we do about stress eating?
This study suggests that relaxation methods may not help with the particular problem of stress eating so, if you think this could be an issue for you, what else can you do to address it?
- Plan healthy meals ahead of time – knowing what you are going to eat, and when, makes it less likely that you will make unhealthy food choices when stressed. Take a look at some of our recipes for guidance on how to cook healthy meals.
- Drink more water – hunger or cravings can sometimes be a sign of dehydration, so you may find it helpful to up your water intake. Read our top tips on how to increase your water intake for more information.
- Make healthy snacks – we may be more tempted to opt for comfort food when stressed but, if you can, have some healthy snacks in your store cupboard as an alternative. I like to keep some of our date free peanut butter bliss balls in a Tupperware box, ready for snacking!
Other tips to tackle stress
Whilst this research suggests that relaxation methods can help to tackle stress, this may not be an option for everyone. So, here are a few alternatives to help you deal with the problem:
- Try Stress Relief Daytime – this herbal remedy contains Valerian and Hops which can have a relaxing effect on the nervous system. This can help to relieve mild stress and anxiety.
- Talk – whatever the source of your stress, talking to others about the problem can help to relieve some anxiety.
- Exercise – this can release feel-good hormones known as endorphins which can boost your mood. Any kind of exercise will bring this benefit, though yoga is a particularly good option as it is also very relaxing.
- Make time for hobbies - whether it's a trip to the cinema or a walk round the park, it is really important to make time for yourself when you are stressed. This will provide a distraction from whatever it is that is worrying you.
- Take up new hobbies – setting yourself new goals and ambitions provides something to focus your mind on and work towards, plus it brings a sense of achievement when you meet your goals.
You can take a look at our page on stress management for more information and tips on what to do about stress.