Stories of research, nutrition, and nature

Archive for the ‘stress’ Category

Somewhere that’s green

This and next week are finals weeks at Cornell and it shows. I went to Mann Library on Tuesday to work (because weather was really warm outside, 18 degrees Celsius, but the basement office heaters didn’t get the memo) and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so crowded. My student friends are also cramming for their exams and working day and night to finish their projects and papers. I’m not completely on the same boat, but I’m sailing on the side… trying to finish as much as I can and living in the present moment.

The environment isn’t entirely stressful, though. I was delighted to see this on Monday – fresh, green grass at the library lobby!

Indoor lawn

Later on I saw people lying on the grass, taking a break to relax. Similar green spot was also in the lobby of Olin Library. Picture might not tell, but it really changes the atmosphere in a small but meaningful way. The deed was done by students from the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis.

Perhaps the impact is big because there aren’t very many potted plants around usually. Outside it’s green (it still is, although now it’s finally snowed a little, the kind of snow that melts almost as soon as it hits the ground), but indoors it’s a bit bleak. Green, living, growing things (and I don’t mean slime mold) would lift moods and help people to feel more relaxed. Need more plants, and more skills to keep them alive.

On city level, vertical gardens and vertical forests are also splendid ideas. City planners, ahoy! Cooling the urban heat and absorbing air pollution will be neat benefits in addition to stress relief and provision of food.


Tale of stubbornness

There’s this girl who’s extremely pig-headed and has a tendency to push herself too hard, ignoring the warning signs of her mind and body. Who wants to be strong for others rather than admit that she might need help too.

But then there comes a time when even half a mile feels like crossing a desert, and a friendly workmate who happens to be driving past and offers a ride for the last few hundred yards feels like a life-savior. Perhaps the girl will learn that it’s okay to accept sincere offers for help, and ask for it too.

She is really grateful for all the friendliness, generosity and caring people have given her – not just during the past few weeks, but throughout her life. And she needs to tell that to them, face-to-face, in more words than just a “thank you”. She’s afraid that some people may have taken her stubbornness as ungratefulness, when she’s just wanted to not be a bother.


“I don’t want you to do anything that hurts.”

After two and a half weeks of limping on a hurting foot and generally not giving it enough rest, I finally had to hear it from a doctor to understand that pain is a signal that something’s not right. Good news: no plantar fascitis anymore. Bad news: stress fracture in the heel. At least that’s the current diagnosis, since stress fractures don’t show clearly in x-rays until they start healing. My bone had a certain unhealthy fluffiness in it.

CrutchesNo weight-bearing for the next 2-4 weeks, depending on how eagerly the bone starts to heal once I’m not stomping on it constantly. I’m on crutches the first time in my life. Well, I did want new experiences, right?

I worried about not being able to exercise, but hobbling with crutches is actually quite good upper-body training. I felt pretty exhausted after lugging myself around campus. Just hoping the weather stays pleasant.


My  experience is not at all unique, although stress fractures usually happen to real athletes and runners. The pattern is the same: too much exercise, not enough time to rest and adjust. Injury develops gradually and healing takes a long time; pain is the last thing to come and the first thing to go. If exercise continues despite the fracture, the bone may break so badly that it never fully recovers.

Come to think of it, the effects of physical and mental stress are pretty similar. Some amount of stress is good, but chronic stress and insufficient recovery from it lead to trouble. Stubborn overachievers who don’t let themselves rest and take it easy every once in a while may end up in the work disability statistics.

Stress and obesity

On the way to workI like walking to work every day, especially because I can see and hear something like this on the way. The sound of flowing water is music to my ears. Even though I didn’t actually grow up next to a river or a lake, I’ve always found that being close to water soothes my nerves, and swimming in a lake is one of the most relaxing things for me.

I’m not the only one who feels that way: exercising outdoors actually is better to mental well-being than indoor activity. More importantly, contact with nature enhances overall well-being and relieves stress.

Why is this relevant in terms of healthy eating? Well, for one, stress and obesity have a strong link. Stressed people not only tend to have unhealthier lifestyles (such as too much snacking and junk food, too little exercise), but their metabolic system also seems to respond to stress by starting to conserve more energy. And sleep deprivation, which usually goes hand in hand with stress, messes things up even more: it distorts hormonal balance and makes you want to eat more. The poor body is in the state of alert and tries to prepare for potential dangers ahead.

Simply put, not sleeping enough makes you stupid, slow and fat.

The good news is that getting enough sleep and learning to manage stress in a healthy way returns the body to its normal state, making it easier to lose those extra pounds. Everyone can learn to relax, focus on the present moment, and take time to do things that they truly want to do. One example of this is mindful eating: eating slowly and savoring the tastes, appreciating food and also its production and preparation processes.

Technology can support people in the initial steps of learning. For example, mobile intervention programs with 2-4 weeks duration can teach simple relaxation and mindfulness techniques, and provide tracking tools that increase users’ awareness of their behavior and its consequences. Kinda like a low-cost personal coach in your pocket.

So, that’s what I would like to do. Develop such interventions that motivate and help people get started, establish some new habits, and find their own way towards their good life. I don’t think that these kinds of applications should even aim for long-term usage,  except for periodical check-ups to see if users have fallen off the track and need some encouragement to pull themselves together again.