“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James
I’ve never heard anyone say “Man, I just love stress so much, don’t you?” But if you look at some of the numbers out there, you would think we’re all downright chummy with being stressed out. For example, a 2013 survey of American workers found that over 75% were stressed about something work-related.
And that’s just office-related stress. That number doesn’t even account for all the other variables that can cause stress – bills, school, babies who won’t sleep through the night, rude Starbucks baristas. In fact, I think it’s safe to say the majority of us are dealing with some kind of stress at this very moment. I’ll admit it right now. I’m stressed about getting this article in on time.
The question is, is that necessarily bad news? Are there any rainbows and sunshine here? How can we work with stress and keep it at bay?
Know Your Enemy
“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight
a hundred battles without disaster.” – Sun Tzu
The first step in overcoming any obstacle is to look at it and see how it can hurt you if you let it. So, let’s have a look at stress and see why we should be concerned about it to begin with.
1. Stress Affects Your Workouts
If you work out regularly and are stressed out regularly, there’s good news and bad news for you. The good news is, exercise can help manage stress. The bad news is, being stressed out to begin with makes it harder for your body to deal with the additional, well, stress of working out.
Both life and perceived stress significantly reduced muscle force production and feelings of energy, and life stress further worsened feelings of fatigue and soreness. But recovery wasn’t just better without stress, it also occurred several times faster. This information is critical for athletes.
Regardless of the type of stress they were experiencing, the subjects who were stressed had much slower recovery times over a 96-hour period. That’s a long time.
2. Stress Messes Up Your Eating Habits
If you’re trying to dial in your diet, stress can literally stop you in your tracks. Nutrition expert Kevin Cann described the vicious cycle of eating and stress in his article, How Stress Makes You Crave Food and Store Fat:
Stress is often seen as one solitary event, but in reality, most of us are under chronic stress and have chronically high levels of glucocorticoids in our blood driving our sugar cravings and even leading to overeating. The glucocorticoids actually reduce our cells’ sensitivity to leptin. Leptin is one of our major energy homeostatic hormones. It communicates with our cells how much fat to store and when to stop eating. When we develop resistance to leptin we do not know when to stop eating.
A lot of times, people are told to eat when they’re hungry. If you’re chronically stressed, your body might be getting that message more frequently than it would under less stressful conditions. So if you’re on a diet and not seeing results, consider your stress levels before you consider changing your diet or increasing your exercise frequency.
3. Stress Makes Your Hormones Wacky
Stress does all these things because it affects your hormones and throws off your body’s messenger system. In addition to its effects on leptin production, stress affects cortisol levels. Coach and nurse practitioner Vanessa Bennington elaborated on the effects of high cortisol levels on adrenal health in her article, The Ups and Downs of Cortisol: What You Need to Know:
The hypothalamus, when it senses a stressor, produces CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone), which then stimulates the anterior pituitary gland to produce ACTH, which then stimulates the adrenal gland to produce cortisol. When cortisol levels get high the message is sent to the hypothalamus and the anterior pituitary that, “Hey guys, we’re kind of overloaded here. Time to shut it down for a while.”
Now, it is thought that when cortisol levels are too high for too long this feedback mechanism gets a little screwy. I like to think of it like insulin resistance. If we pound cupcakes and candy day in and day out for too long we become insulin resistant and we then need medicine, or a major diet overhaul, to get our blood glucose under control. The same seems to apply to cortisol and adrenal health. We let stress get the best of us for too long and our bodies just can’t handle it anymore. Cortisol production may go through the roof, your body may not make enough, or you may make a ton of it at night when you’re trying to sleep and nothing in the morning. Ugh.
Stress Is Individual
So now we know a bit about our enemy, but keep in mind, as Sun Tzu aptly notes, you also need to know yourself in order to defeat your opponent. Your body’s response to stress might not look the same as your family member’s or friend’s reaction.
For example, in his article, When Stress and Genitals Collide, coach Jeff Barnett described a study that looked at how stress affects you during a workout. The study also investigated the difference between male and female responses to stress, and the findings were interesting. “As the researchers dealt out more and more stress, the men became increasingly gung-ho, and the women became increasingly timid.” This study provided some insight into the different ways men and women handle stress, both in the gym and in life.
How to Conquer the Enemy
“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” – Abraham Lincoln
Stress is a formidable enemy, but only if you see it as an unmoving mass you have to hurl off your shoulders. Perhaps the best way to destroy stress is by acknowledging it, shaking its hand, and taking it out to coffee to chat about how you two are going to get a long most amiably. How do you do that? Coach Jonathan Precel has some great pointers about how to go about it in his article, How to Turn Stress Into a Strength:
- Look on the bright side of life. Studies show that optimists tend to have a more positive reaction to stressful situations, which ties into the aforementioned example. While pessimists are busy demonizing cortisol, blaming it for an early death, optimists recognize it as the “get up and go hormone,” channelling its power for good.6
- Be mindful of yourself, and your surroundings. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that practicing mindfulness training, and in particular working on your breathing patterns, can decrease stress and bring you back into the moment, instead of where you were, tumbling with your inner stress demons.7
- Compartmentalize your life. Home is home, work is work, and the gym is the gym. Keep them separate. Learn to switch gears depending on where you are. Avoid bringing your work home, keep your mobile phone in your gym locker, and if you find you are stressing over macros at home, simplify it.
- Auto-regulate your training. There’s no point in trying to smash a new deadlift record on four hours of sleep. Continue to rip the bar off the ground, but once your speed drops and start to struggle, then move on.
An Unseen Enemy
“The unseen enemy is always the most fearsome.” – George R.R. Martin
Stress can be a platform for growth, just like anything else in life. The tricky thing about stress is that it’s often intangible. You might not know it’s a problem until it’s out of control. To keep stress at bay, the best trick is to tune into your own thoughts and feelings regularly throughout the day.
Stress might be one of the clearest examples of the crossover between mental and physical health. So be conscious of physical manifestations of stress, too, like tightness in the shoulders, neck, and jaw. Yoga expert Bethany Eanes has some excellent advice for dealing with stress at one of the most fundamental physical levels: breathing. Bethany explained how diaphragmatic breathing can alleviate stress in her article, How to Breathe for Efficiency, Longevity, and Stress Relief:
If you’re looking for a simple, cost-free way to reduce stress, look no further than diaphragmatic breathing. When we breathe this way, we can lower our heart rate and, eventually, our blood pressure. These are two key signals to the brain that everything is okay.2 In fact, slow breathing itself signals the brain that we are just fine, causing the brain to release less stress hormones from our endocrine system. This gives the body a chance to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, essentially stepping in and reversing the effects of the stress hormones already present in the body.
Stress is your body’s message to step back and reconnect with what’s most fundamental – in work, in the gym, and in life. Take a step back, breathe deeply, and you might find what you thought was a rock of burden is actually just a stepping stone.
We all experience stress, and we all deal in different ways. How do you manage your stress?
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.