Stress. We have all heard about it and experienced it in one form or another. It’s that pressure you feel when you have to get something done in half the time it actually takes to do it. Your heart beat increases and you get super quick to snap at people. It’s pretty easy to pinpoint a stressful situation. Or is it…? What about the stress from an intense gym session, or the stress of being in a bad relationship? What about the stress with finances, the kind brought on by having enough to live, but not enough to feel secure? These types of stress aren’t as easy to recognize. They tend to eat away at you slowly, building up over time. The problem is, no matter what the stress is, to your body, it is all the same. The stress of dieting is the same as financial stress, which is the same as stress from a traumatic experience. Your body feels it is in danger, so it reacts the only primal way it knows how-to keep you alive and stop any unnecessary functions. Your body also doesn’t want you reproducing in times of danger, so hormone disruptions start to happen. This is great when stress is short lived. Your body protects itself during the stressful situation, and once the stress goes away, your body goes back to normal. But what happens when the stress doesn’t go away? In today’s world, stress is EVERYWHERE. It’s constant, so your body doesn’t get a chance to go back to normal. This is where things fall apart, and stress related disease start to emerge. Now before you get even more stressed thinking how you are doomed to health issues, let me give you some good news. There is a lot of ways to balance and combat stress, minimizing its damage. First things first, you have to understand what you are fighting before you can beat it.
What is stress exactly?
Stress is defined as “any pressure or tension applied to a material object”. That means that anything that puts a strain on you, whether its small or large, is stress. There are three main types of stress:
This encompasses things that drain you emotionally. There are extreme situations like a loss of a loved one or a job, but there are also less extreme things. The main things that fall under this category are relationships (friend and romantic), financial stress, and things that don’t align with what makes you happy, like a job that you hate. Basically, anything that chips away at your happiness is emotional stress. This is the hardest one to recognize, because it can be a person you love that causes this stress, or it can be little things that build up over time. If you are a positive person, and your partner does a lot of things right, but is very negative all the time, that will put a stress on you. You will have to exert more energy to keep yourself positive when around them, therefore causing stress to you. Same thing goes for a job that you hate and go to every day. You have to try that much harder to combat those negative feelings, in order to stay in a positive mood throughout the day. Little by little, the little stress adds up to big stress.
This type of stress deals with projects or situations that must be done in a timely fashion. You see this illustrated a lot in the work place when employees are overworked. They have too much on their plate, ending the days mentally exhausted. You also see this with parents that are trying to juggle too much. Being a great parent is a stressful job!
This is anything that puts stress on your physical body. This covers obvious things like trauma to the body from an accident, but it also covers not so obvious things like working out, dieting and food intolerances. In all situations, the body is taxed, and feels that is it being threatened. Physical stress can be beneficial, due to the body being able to come back stronger. In fact, the whole concept of weightlifting is based off this-you stress the body with weights enough to tear it down, then allow it to recover so you are stronger. The problem lies when there is no time to recover due to no rest days, or the physical ailment is chronic as is the case with untreated food intolerances.
To your body, all three of these types of stress are the same. All your body knows is that you filled up your stress bucket a little more. Unfortunately, stress can be found everywhere, and if you are going to do anything in life at all, you are going to run into it. Even in situations that we perceive as good, like getting a promotion at work, can come with stress. So, if stress causes health problems, does that mean you shouldn’t go for the promotion, stay out of the gym, jump out of a relationship at the first sign of stress? Absolutely not. What it means is that you need to take inventory of what stresses you have, and then balance them.
What does “balance” even mean?
Life is constantly changing, which means what we could handle at one point, might not be what we can handle right now, because the total stressors changed. I may be able to do high intensity workouts 5 days a week when having a non-stressful job, no financial stress and I am sleeping until 1pm every day. However, you throw a financial burden into the mix, or drop my sleep from 10 hours to 5 hours, all of a sudden, I may only be able to handle two high intensity days, before I feel the negative effects of being overworked. It’s because everyone has a max level of stress their body can handle, and no matter if stress comes from good (like a workout) or bad (financial burden), stress is stress, and it adds to your stress total. The key is to be aware of the changes in your stress loads and minimize the areas you can control. If you are going through a tough time at work (mental stress), make sure you are getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and not overdoing it in the gym, so you lessen your physical stress. Fitness competitors do this when they prep for shows. Since the body is going to be under a tremendous amount of physical stress, they concentrate on controlling the mental and emotional stressors during those 12-14 weeks of prep. When one area’s stress creeps up, you try to lower another area.
What else can help?
Let’s face it, there are times when there is no way in hell anything is getting balanced. For those times, there are things you can do to help minimize the effects of stress:
There are a few herbs that can help strengthen your body’s ability to handle stress. Two of my favorites are Rhodiola and Ashwagandha. Gaia Herbs makes a great product called Stress Response
that combines the two herbs.
Relaxation Practices: There are activities that stimulate your para-sympathetic nervous system (relaxation response). This helps the body repair from having the sympathetic nervous system stimulated all day (fight or flight). A few of my favorite ones are:
- -Going for a walk (not on a treadmill, but a relaxing walk outside)
- -Legs up a wall (you literally lay on your back with your legs up a wall)
Belly Breathing: Breathing with your belly relaxes your nervous system, where a chest breathing stimulates a stress response. Next time you feel yourself stressed, try simply taking a few deep breathes through your nose into your belly and see how the body responds. The effect is almost immediate.
Making Time for Having Fun: This is the hardest thing to do during times of high stress, but it is the most important. No person can be serious and stressed 24/7. They will eventually crack. It is so important to provide yourself a break and a time to restore. It is also very important to be fully present during this time. Watching a movie with your partner while being on your phone answering emails does not count. That’s fake relaxing and you might as well have just kept working. Commit to fully powering down.
With all that said, I hope you are more aware of your current stress load, and more confident in how to manage it all. The key is to avoid burnout all together, not wait for things to come to a head. Balancing is a skill that takes practice, you won’t nail it right away. So even if you are only a little more balanced at the beginning, that is a step in the right direction :