Take care of the basics

We’d like to deal with every stressful situation with patience, charm and disarming wit, just like we see it done on television. But since we have no scriptwriter to feed us just the right lines (to say nothing of hair and makeup consultants, which — let’s be honest — would be helpful in any situation), sometimes our emotions run away with us. Tempers are lost, words are spoken and our emotional outburst, much like a nuclear blast, flattens everyone and everything within a few mile radius.

One key tool for being in control of our emotional state is to take care of the basics, like sleep, eating well and exercise. This wellness triumvirate not only improves physical health, but also helps form a baseline of emotional wellbeing. If we’ve slept well, not skipped meals and taken a brisk walk, our baseline emotional state is more likely to be calm and measured.

The beauty of sleeping

Now for some exhausting statistics: the latest National Sleep Foundation reports in its 2013 International Bedroom Poll that only 44% of Americans report getting a good night’s sleep every night or almost every night. More than half of us (53%) sleep less than 7 hours on work nights. (1) All of this lost sleep affects our moods, and not for the better.

Lack of sleep can cause more intense reactions to negative stimuli. In one study, participants were denied sleep overnight then shown emotionally provocative photos. Those who did not sleep the night before reacted more strongly to the unpleasant pictures than those who had adequate sleep. (2) Another study confirmed this conclusion, noting that participants who had not slept had exaggerated responses to situations that were mildly stressful.(3) Getting adequate sleep will help us to react, not overreact, when faced with stressful situations.

Carbs and chocolate for the win (Except for not too much. And eat lots of fish)

What we eat and how we eat also affect emotional wellbeing. Rule number one: don’t skip breakfast, unless you aren’t a big fan of energy and motivation — breakfast skippers have less of each. (4) Eating a good breakfast every day is also strongly associated with elevated, calmer moods. (5)

Research has shown that eating certain foods can affect mood as well. Chocolate, for example, which you may already use as an instant mood enhancer, contains tryptophan. Tryptophan is used by the body to produce serotonin, which is a mood regulator — the more serotonin, the better our mood. Carbohydrates have the same effect, pumping up the serotonin and consequently relaxing us (6,7). But before I get in trouble with Jen, our nutrition writer, carte blanche has not been granted to sit home eating bread and chocolate all day. Choose carbs carefully — whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes — and moderately consume chocolate, with all its extra fat and sugar.

While we are on the subject of extra sugar, eating too much of it has negative effects on brain function. An interesting study of rats showed that rats fed a high fructose diet exhibited anxiety (sticking to all the safe, enclosed portions of the maze) and depression (giving up sooner on a forced swim across a water tank). The high-fructose fed rats were found to have higher levels of stress hormones. (8)

Eating fish and other foods rich in Omega-3 fats (flaxseed, walnuts), on the other hand, is negatively associated with depression. (5) In fact, countries with very high consumption of fish (Japan and Korea) have a much lower rate of clinical depression compared with countries like the U.S. and Germany, which consume less fish. (14)

Exercise proven remedy for anxiety and depression

Exercise is one of the best tools for managing emotions (http://blog.teambetter.com/sweat-therapy/). Moderate exercise reduces anxiety sensitivity (9,10) and improves self-esteem and overall mental health indicators. It has been shown to reduce anxiety and is even an effective tool in treating clinical depression. (11)

Exercise, diet and sleep form a well-being triangle, with each component enabling the other. As we get more exercise, we sleep better (15) and make better diet choices (12). As we sleep better, we also make better food choices and are more likely to commit to exercise. (13) Eating well gives us more energy to fuel a workout and helps with better sleep. As we work on one point of the triangle, the others will naturally improve. The bonus? A better emotional baseline to deal with life’s little stressors.


  1. National Sleep Foundation 2013 International Bedroom Poll first to explore sleep differences among six countries. National Sleep Foundation website. Sept 3, 2013. Accessed Dec 9, 2016.
  2. Franzen PL, Siegle GJ, Buysse DJ. Relationships between affect,
    vigilance, and sleepiness following sleep deprivation
    . Journal of Sleep Research. 2008; 17(1):34-41.
  3. Minkel J and Dinges D. The effects of sleep deprivation on stress induced by performance demands. University of Pennsylvania Libraries. 2010.
  4. Briggs Goldberg K. The food and mood connection. University of Michigan Depression Center website. Accessed Dec 9, 2016.
  5. Magee E. How food affects your moods. WebMD website. Accessed Dec 8, 2016.
  6. Hopf s. You are what you eat: How food affects your mood. Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. 2010. Accessed Dec 7, 2016.
  7. How to eat right to reduce stress. Physicians committee for Responsible Medicine website. Accessed Dec 9, 2016.
  8. Let’s eat: How diet influences the brain. BrainFacts.org. May 15, 2015. Accessed Dec 9, 2016.
  9. Broman-Fulks JJ, Berman ME, Rabian BA, Webster MJ. Effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety sensitivity. Behavior Research and Therapy. 2004;42(2):125-136.
  10. De Moor MHM, Beem AL, Stubbe JH, Boomsma DI, De Geus EJC. Regular exercise, anxiety, depression and personality: A population-based study. Preventive Medicine. 2006;42:273-279.
  11. The role of exercise, nutrition and sleep in the battle against depression. Family Health Psychiatric & Counseling Center, Pc. website. Accessed Dec 9, 2016.
  12. Reynolds G. How exercise can help us eat less. The New York Times. Sep 11, 2013. Accessed Dec 9, 2016.
  13. Diet, exercise and sleep. Sleepfoundation.org. Accessed Dec 9, 2016.
  14. Gómez-Pinilla F. Brain foods: The effects of nutrients on brain function. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008;9(7):568-578.
  15. 2013 Sleep in America Poll. National Sleep Foundation Summary of Findings. Feb 20, 2013.
Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.

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