Ever feel stressed? Most of us do.
Stress is now the leading cause of time off work! Knocking other issues like back pain, colds, sickness/diarrhoea and hangovers into touch. It could be said that stress is a modern-day epidemic and I don’t think that calling it a serious issue is an exaggeration.
Now let’s make one thing clear, stress isn’t a bad thing all by itself. Stress is a part of normal life and it shouldn’t be avoided completely. Mentally, stress causes us to work harder or do more. Physically stress causes adaptations, but too much stress, over too long a period, with too few breaks, is a recipe for disaster.
But what actually happens during stress?
Stress is caused when you perceive yourself to be under threat, whether that threat is real or not.
(I can’t emphasise that point enough. Your mind cannot tell the difference between a real or imagined stressor. In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers Dr Robert M. Sapolski says; that “we have evolved to be so smart we can think ourselves sick.” Think about that for a moment).
This threat sets off a cascade of events which are triggered by a huge increase in the release of a number of chemicals in the body. Including adrenaline and the hormone cortisol. Historically this response was used to put us in a ‘fight or flight’ mode and prime us to survive attack – and it works well.
The chemicals released increase your heart rate and blood pressure to deliver more oxygen and nutrients to muscles, increase your focus upon the threat to the detriment of everything else, increase your sense of awareness and even reduce your ability to feel pain. Meanwhile, cortisol gets to work breaking down various tissues around your body in order to supply a greater amount of energy for all of the fighting or running you’re about to do.
All of this is great when you are being chased by an elephant! But the modern world provides different kinds of stress. It’s a low-level persistent stress caused by finances, awkward bosses, threats of terrorism, loud traffic, poor nutrition and family issues. These things are all background noise and the effect they have on stress is small, but it’s constant. It keeps those experiencing stress on high alert all of the time. Chronic stress leads to a raised heart rate and blood pressure, difficulty concentrating on things and a tendency to be irritable or aggressive. Along with a general feeling of hopelessness and some pretty negative effects on sleep.
What’s more, some of the things we do in order to make ourselves healthier are actually a source of stress. Exercise is a stress, with the amount of stress caused by an exercise bout being directly proportional to the duration and intensity of what you’re doing. Dieting is a stress, in that your body perceives a lack of calories to perform optimally as a threat and acts accordingly, and of course, resisting the temptation to skip the gym or order a takeaway requires willpower, which is also a stress, mentally.
Despite all of these stresses coming from different areas, they are all viewed in the same way by the body and they all cause the same fight or flight response. Which is a pretty bad thing when it’s happening all of the time.
To explain why, I’ll explain a little more about cortisol and what it does when it outstays its welcome. But before we do, an important note: Hormones are incredibly complex and work in a large interconnected system of checks and balances. Cortisol isn’t always bad. It’s important that we never take a hormone as a standalone thing out of context as it works in an interconnected system based on internal and external cues.
In fact – Cortisol is usually a good thing and the human body would be in a bad way without it. Cortisol is secreted from the adrenal glands which are little bean-sized glands located above (ad) your kidneys (renals). Cortisol should naturally be high in the morning as it is this hormone that actually wakes us up, and then during an exercise session it allows us to break down various tissues (including fat) to release energy.
Stress can actually be a really good thing when we use it in a deliberate manner. The stress you place upon the body during a training session (and subsequent cortisol release) actually directly causes some of the adaptations to training. Because you are placing your body in a perceived threatened state, provided you then allow yourself to relax and rest, you are able to adapt to that stress and become more accustomed to it. If you tell your body that it’s under threat because it has to lift heavy things, it gets stronger to protect itself.
Stress is no bad thing in small amounts – but due to all the stresses we put on ourselves on a daily basis including work stress, poor sleep patterns and intense training, we can end up with chronic elevation, possibly leading to:
Poor sleep patterns or an inability to sleep through the night (this is not always cortisol related so don’t take it as a standalone causative factor). This lack of sleep causes stress, which causes poor sleep, and so on.
Poor energy levels throughout the day and energy at night rather than in the morning, meaning more poor sleep, but also meaning you feel awful when you wake up
Susceptibility to mood swings and depressive bouts. Stress directly leads to depression in a lot of cases.
Low immune system as your body is too busy fighting other things, so you’ll pick up colds and things more easily.
Problems maintaining weight and losing weight. This one is complicated, but basically, stress makes you hungry.
Excessive water retention due to cortisol’s ability to alter the hormones that controls water balance – so you’ll look and feel bloated and sluggish.
All of these things are worse when you factor in one other thing, the world’s most popular psychoactive drug – caffeine. Caffeine directly puts you into this fight or flight mode, which is sometimes no bad thing. Before training it can improve your performance due to increased energy and reduced sensations of pain and fatigue, and a (ONE) morning coffee can help you get started for the day, but like anything – overuse becomes a negative.
Caffeine, in essence, allows us to battle through fatigue and keep on doing the things that make us exhausted. We can put up with stress and tiredness because chemicals are keeping us awake, but eventually this persistent over-reaching leads to burn out.
But what should you do about it?
Top tips for managing stress levels:
Sleep well, on a regular schedule. A lack of sleep is stressful with just one hour of lost sleep contributing to increased perceived stress, check out our blog on sleep HERE to get some more tips on how to sleep like a baby.
Utilise time management. Writing to do lists, organising your day and making sure you focus on one thing at a time rather than trying to do everything at once are all fantastic ways to be more productive. If you are more productive, you get more done, and the more you get done the more on top of everything you feel. Stay on top of the things which would ordinarily stress you out, and you don’t get stressed any more.
Moderate your caffeine intake. One coffee in the morning and then some caffeine before training if you choose to use it is enough. If you find yourself drinking cup after cup of coffee during the day, then you need to assess your overall lifestyle to work out why you depend on stimulants to get through your day. Usually this comes down to trying to do too much, and over time this will have consequences.
Treat exercise as a stress and act accordingly. As mentioned, training is a stress just as much as being short on cash is. It’s a different kind of stress, but it has the same basic effect. All forms of stress add up into the same ‘pool’ and once it becomes too much, you succumb to the negatives. In order for exercise to be effective, you need to be able to recover from the stress it causes, but if your body’s ability to recover from stress is being exhausted by assignment deadlines, childcare costs, working hours and the neighbor’s dog who keeps barking at 4am, then you aren’t going to be able to adapt from the training you’re doing, and the stress of trying might just tip you over the edge. If life is draining you, then cut back on training. There’s no shame in admitting you need to focus elsewhere, and dropping your usual 5 sessions per week to two 30 minute full body blasts. You’ll maintain your progress and free up some time to get the rest of your life in line. Of course, exercise releases ‘happy hormones’, too – and a lot of people are able to channel mental stress and release it during a training session. Depending on how you view exercise, and depending on how you feel after and before you train, this tip may or may not apply to you entirely.
As a further point along the same lines, treat your nutrition as a source of stress, too. Consuming a good amount of whole, balanced and health promoting foods, especially lean proteins places your body and mind in the best place possible. If your diet is nutrient sparse, if you have huge gaps in between meals or skip breakfast and/or lunch a lot, and even if you are intentionally eating in a calorie deficit to lose fat – you are adding extra stress. Improving your nutrition will take you a lot of the way, but it’s also worth baring in mind that (just like exercise) dieting for fat loss should be periodised to go along with life. If you have just been given a huge project at work with a very short timeframe, meaning you’ll be working your fingers to the bone and sleeping a lot less than usual, don’t feel bad about increasing your caloric intake to maintenance level until the stress subsides. You’ll do better with the task, and you’ll probably find your diet easier to stick to when you’re a little more relaxed anyway.
Outsource where appropriate, and forget about things that don’t matter. We often take on too much which isn’t our responsibility, and often things which fall outside of this responsibility aren’t even important to begin with. Social stress is something that we allow ourselves to experience because we allow someone else to have power over us – does it REALLY matter that someone disagrees with you on social media, or that someone at work has taken the shift that you wanted? Or could you just move on? Do you really need to worry about the fact that your friend is wasting her life by being lazy and unambitious, or is it her problem? Taking on all of these stresses gives us no benefits, but it allows more and more pressure to be placed on your shoulders – before you let it all crush you, think critically – Do you actually care, and if you do, should you?
Talk to people, and think differently. Whether this is a professional, a friend, a loved one or your dog, opening up and talking about stress is one of the most therapeutic things you can do. On top of this, try to view your stressors as challenges rather than tasks – this simple switch in mindset takes you from a negative place of being a victim and places you in the driver’s seat, ready for action. Just be aware that talking about it and thinking differently are only short-term solutions, and the only REAL way of reducing and managing stress is by following the other tips above, and dealing with it head on.
Stress is a major issue when it comes to health. It can affect your mental health by dragging you down and make it hard to concentrate, but as explained above the physical repercussions can be severe, too. Manage it, deal with it and face it. Only when you have dealt with your stress can you REALLY reach any physical goals that you may have. This means you may need to get critical, making a list of all the stressors in your life, and then making an action plan to deal with each one of them in the best way possible ONE at a time.
Some stressful areas of your lifestyle may take some time to resolve, a big one could be your job, you may find your job very stressful and long term like to make a career change, this is a long term plan and you can accept this but still make small weekly actions to aid in the career shift, whereas a lack of sleep can quite often be easily and quickly addressed in comparison.
So, take some time, make a list, make a plan, and conquer each one as and when you can to start to alleviate some of the pressure you feel. A low stress life is a happy life. And even if we can’t get that, better management of that stress is key.