Combatting Anger, Tension, and Stress with the Food You Eat

At first glance, you may read this title as a total skeptic. How can food feed, or in this case, heal your emotions?

When experiencing anger, tension or stress, we often identify an outside source as the cause of our pain. I’m angry because I got cut off in traffic. I’m stressed out because the demands at my job are too high and too much is being asked of me. I feel tense because my mother is ill, a good friend of mine just died, and I’m trying to simultaneously keep a smile on my face at work while being a good parent and keeping food on the table.

All of these circumstances are situations that can often result in the emotional states of anger, tension, stress, or a combination of many other emotions. It’s not like we can predict when life is going to throw us these awful curve balls, so how can diet really truly affect the way we respond to challenging situations?

If you’re new to my writing, I want to start by acknowledging that I’m approaching this topic from a wholly Eastern perspective: Ayurveda is a philosophical system of medicine and science that looks at the world from a holistic perspective. Something that is holistic is characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole. This means that what you eat can affect your body’s inner chemistry and micro-biome, and that your inner environment affects how you receive information, process that information, and react or respond to it.

At some point in your life you have likely experienced extreme fatigue due to an insufficient amount of sleep. I think it’s fair to say that all of us understand the many potential side effects that insufficient sleep can have on our ability to think creatively, to perform, to feel energetic, and even our mood. When we say that someone has “woken up on the wrong side of the bed” we are essentially making at least two claims: first, that this person has slept poorly. Either the quality of the sleep or the quantity of sleep were not enough so that secondly, she or he is now in a bad mood. Intuitively, we understand that quality and quantity of sleep can affect an individual’s mood, and that getting “good” rest can result in improved mood while “poor” rest can have a negative impact.

So why is it that we don’t recognize the link between our food choices and emotions? As an Ayurvedic Nutrition Counselor and chef, over the years I’ve observed that many of us use food as an escapist experience. We might do so by becoming extreme foodies, fantasizing about the incredible ingredients, preparation, or uniqueness of our meal, over-emphasizing everything we eat and always finding an opportunity to eat more and more healthy or indulgent or distinctive meals. We also might do so by disengaging from the process of eating, forgetting to eat, not cooking or food shopping for ourselves, reading or browsing the internet or watching TV while we eat, or even not adding enough flavor and excitement into our meals.

You might read this and think, oh that’s not me, or possibly, of course other people do! Why else would obesity be such a problem in this country? But I invite you to take a moment and pause, connect to your breath and really think about the WAY that you eat:

At what moment do you decide you’re hungry? When do you decide that you’re going to stop what you’re doing and find some food. When you are finding or choosing your food, what is your energy like, what is your attitude like? Do you more often choose food that someone else has prepared, or do you prepare it yourself? Is it difficult for you to make a decision? Does this decision leave you feeling frustrated and angry about your lack of choices or access to a satisfying meal?

Asking yourself some of these questions can reveal possible imbalances in your relationship to food. And when we use food–one of a few basic mechanisms absolutely essential to survival–as an escapist mechanism, we limit our innate ability to feel grounded, steady, and level-headed. Then, when shit hits the fan, our deep reserves of strength are completely maxed out and we respond to challenges with stress, tension, or extreme anger.

Ayurveda teaches that all substances, vegetables, fruits, seeds, legumes, meats, oils, rocks, dirt, sky, light (the list goes on forever) are made up of 5 basic elements. These 5 elements work together to create balance; however, when one or more elements dominates it can throw the whole system off.

Challenging, stressful, anger-inducing situations often increase the element of fire. Summertime can also increase these reactions, as the added heat from the sun, the increased length of the day directly influences the way your body handles the element of fire. The more fire in the body, the more difficult it is to feel grounded and steady when numerous challenges are thrown your way. However, Ayurveda offers a simple solution, and it’s not to fight fire with fire.

LIKE ALWAYS ATTRACTS LIKE, BUT OPPOSITES CREATE BALANCE.

To balance stress, tension, and anger inducing situations, Ayurveda recommends choosing foods that are cooling and hydrating in nature, and avoiding foods that will increase an already stressed out, fiery inner environment.

Foods to avoid or minimize are spicy, hot foods, greasy or fried foods, sour foods, extremely cold foods, excess consumption of sugars, alcohol, caffeine, eating too late or not eating on a schedule.

To create balance, you can choose foods that instinctively quench your thirst, cool your down, without having to be frozen or iced. According to Ayurveda, the elemental makeup of these foods is particularly helpful for cooling the body down, keeping the tendency to get overheated at bay, so that you can cruise through oncoming stress with a cool head.

Sweet fruits, whole grains like quinoa, rice, oats, and buckwheat, freshwater fish, lean protein like chicken or turkey, fresh herbs like cilantro, mint, or dill, smoothies made with bitter greens like kale or spinach and almond milk, are all great choices to cool and nourish your inner environment.

Some of the best foods to focus on are the produce that grows in season in the area that you live. In the summertime in particular, many have access to summer squashes like zucchini or yellow squash, salad greens like lettuces, spinach and bok choy, fennel, carrots, and beets, and one of my absolute favorites, cucumbers! Enjoy my recipe below for Cucumber Avocado Soup with Red Quinoa, a quick and easy recipe that uses ingredients to help balance excess fire in the body. Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Cucumber Avocado Soup with Red Quinoa

Total time: 30 minutes

Serves: 4 as an appetizer

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup cooked red quinoa
  • 1 pound of organic cucumber, coarsely chopped (if not organic, peel the outer skin from the cucumber)
  • 1 large or 2 small ripe avocados
  • ½ cup almond or soy plain yogurt
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • white pepper
  • 4 tsp olive oil
  • ½ cup water, if needed
  • a big handful of fresh lovage, or a mixture of herbs including mint, marjoram, parsley, dill, basil, or sorrel
  • grated zest and juice of 1 lemon or 2 limes
  • several fresh plump sprigs of purslane (substitute watercress if purslane is unavailable, or you can use snipped chives)

Steps:

  1. In a blender, put the cucumbers, yogurt, avocado, salt, and herbs and puree until green, smooth, and flecked. If the soup seems too thick, stir in water as needed to thin to a good consistency.
  2. Stir in the olive oil, the citrus zest and juice, then taste for salt and season with pepper. Chill well.
  3. Ladle the soup into 4 bowls.
  4. Divide the red quinoa amongst them and place a dollop of yogurt in the center, with a few sprigs of purslane to garnish. Drizzle a few drops of oil over each serving.

This recipe was created by Hannah Gruber.
Photo thanks to Roxxe NYC Photography

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