I talk a lot about stress and how it’s probably not the best thing for you to have in your life.
That being said, stress is inevitable. You’re going to experience stress. Sometimes, stress is going to win.
What do you do? You can’t avoid it all together, so why bother, right?
Not at all! Yes, stress is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it gets to always win! The deal with stress is controlling it when you can and handling it when you have to.
Let’s talk science: The Nervous System
Your Nervous System is comprised of two parts: the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System.
The Sympathetic Nervous System is responsible for the “fight or flight” response to stress. Everything in this part of your nervous system is going to respond to help you combat stress. Think if you were going to be attacked by a bear. Your body is going to respond to help you either “fight” or flee from the bear, or “flight”. Your heart rate will rise to pump blood to your brain and muscles to enhance their function. Your pupils will dilate to improve your sight. Your body will release adrenaline and cortisol, which will dump out glucose helping you have the energy and the fuel to either fight or flee that bear. Your body will also slow down any nonessential process to save fuel for the important tasks at hand (muscles, lungs, energy). Digestion, via activity through the stomach and intestines will slow because the blood flow has been redirected to the lungs and muscles. This is how people, under times of extreme stress, perform seemingly “inhuman” tasks, such as lifting a car to free a child or again, fighting off a bear. Your brain sends out signals to help you manage acute stress, through the Sympathetic Nervous System.
On the other hand, the Parasympathetic Nervous System is responsible for the “rest and digest” response to stress, meaning this part of your nervous system is going to help counteract the actions taken during the fight or flight response (Sympathetic Nervous System). This is where you recover. Here, we see your body stimulates blood flow to the stomach and to the intestines, restoring digestion. Lungs are contracted. Heart rate slows. Pupils are constricted. Glucose release is inhibited. Cortisol and adrenaline are removed from the blood stream.
Both are needed in our lives. We need a stress response because as I mentioned earlier, stress is inevitable. Our bodies need a way to respond to perceived stress because this is how we protect ourselves and how our ancestors were able to protect themselves. However, we also need a way to recover from the stimulation caused by the stress, which is where the parasympathetic nervous system comes in. I’ll talk a bit more about why this is so crucial later on.
What is stress?
Stress is a physiological response to perceived “danger”. I put danger in quotations because now the definition of danger is a bit more all over the place.
When humans were evolving and our ancestors were living simpler lives, without technology, stress truly was a perceived danger. Whatever was causing stress was also threatening their way of living, which would threaten their survival. This could have been a predator (go back to the bear situation), a lack of food or resources, conflict with other groups, etc. These generally were the stresses experienced. Most of this stress was acute, meaning it happened and then it was over (based on how it was handled). Once either they beat the stress or the stress beat them, it was over and things went back to normal.
Now, stress is a bit more abstract and has become significantly more chronic-based rather than acute. That being said, it’s still a perceived danger.
Stresses we now experience in today’s world include: job stress, relationship stress, monetary stress, physical stress, blue light exposure, traffic jams, etc. Very few of these are actually life-threatening…at least immediately. When you sit and traffic and are late for work, your life isn’t threatened…but your way of life is. If you’re late for work, you could lose your job. If you lose your job, you can’t provide for yourself and your family. If you can’t do that, then you’re a failure and may lose a lot of your possessions (house, car, phone, and even your family). Unfortunately, a stress that is experienced now isn’t situational, or acute. It’s the opposite. It’s chronic stress, meaning something that generally is experienced every day, or frequently and regularly, with no reprieve.
Why is stress bad?
Acute stress isn’t bad. Again, it’s inevitable. If it was “bad”, I don’t think our bodies would have developed an intricate two-part system for both fighting the stress and then recovering from the fight.
Our bodies, though, didn’t develop these systems to fight chronic stress. Chronic stress is experienced almost daily, but unfortunately is perceived as acute stress…so the same response happens. When you’re sitting in traffic late for work, you’re stressed and your brain senses that stress. What your brain doesn’t sense, though, is whether that stress is due to a potential bear attack or you simply sitting in traffic pissed at that person who just cut you off. All it senses is stress, so it responds accordingly, through activity and stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Then you get to work and your boss is mad at you because something wasn’t done right, so you’re still stressed…more sympathetic nervous system activity. Then you go to eat your lunch, realize you left it at home and now have to skip lunch (fasting is a stress) or go buy lunch (but money is tight, so now this is a stress). Then you go to the gym (still a stress – even though it’s a good stress). Then you get home and your spouse or roommate didn’t empty the dishwasher like they said they would or didn’t take the dog out or feed the cat…hello stress response. Then you finally get some time to unwind in front of the TV, whose blue light is stimulating, so more sympathetic nervous system activity. Around 11-12, you get into bed for a good restful 5-6hr sleep…which isn’t nearly enough… so perceived as a stress, and you more sympathetic nervous system activity.
THIS ^^ is the problem. We go through our days with stress after stress after stress, which is just more sympathetic nervous system activity after more sympathetic nervous system activity. More cortisol is released on top of more cortisol.
And you never recover from it. This is the key. If you recovered after every stress you experienced and gave your parasympathetic nervous system a chance to shine, you wouldn’t have much of a problem. Unfortunately, this 1:1 ideal ratio (really should be a bit more on the parasympathetic side…but I’ll be more realistic) is rarely ever achieved and instead looks more like a 4:1 ratio, with 4x the activity going to the sympathetic nervous system.
Your body is meant to exist in homeostasis or in equilibrium and stress after stress puts your equilibrium out of whack.
When you experience stress and never recover from it, cortisol remains elevated. Your heart rate never slows. You constantly have restricted blood flow to the gut (why stressful events always lead to gut distress). Your sleep is terrible because cortisol inhibits melatonin release which keeps you asleep. Hunger and cravings are high because of cortisol and weight gain tends to happen easier. You’re constantly inflamed so losing weight and building muscle is more difficult. It’s basically like never turning your car off even when you’re at home asleep. Your car has a significantly reduced lifespan and function.
How to fight stress
Now you’re on board to removing, or at least just decreasing, the amount of stress you experience in a day in addition to trying some new stress-relieving activities. Here is all you need to know.
1. Get down to the root cause.
What is causing you the most stress. Is it your job? Your relationships? Social media? The gym? It doesn’t matter how many hours you meditate if you hate your job or are surrounded by negative, toxic people. Find the root cause and assess how you can realistically change it for the better. You may not be able to quit your job tomorrow, but how can you change your perception around your job? How can you go through your day less stressed? Maybe it’s deep breathing. Maybe it’s going outside for 5 minutes every other hour. Maybe it’s looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, understanding that this isn’t your end game, but it is a means to an end. Your job is supporting you and your family. Your job is letting you put money away into a savings to eventually leave it and go all in on something you’re more passionate in. Remember, stress is perceived. Change the perception and you change the stress.
2. Change your acute stress-response
The biggest reason you’re experiencing stress is because of your immediate response to that stress. I’ll keep saying it. Stress is perceived. You could have a stress response to anything. By now, I’ve probably seen just about all forms of stressors out there. Traffic. Family. Money. Donuts. Rest days.
Yes, you read that. Donuts and rest days have been big stressors for many of my clients. Telling someone to take a day off and NOT put themselves through the ringer could be a stressor if you let it. When someone tries to take a break and enjoy a sustainable, more flexible diet, for example by eating donuts, it can become a stress…and I usually get some email or text message from someone completely panicking and breaking down about their abject failure.
Those are two general ways, as you’ll see below, that I recommend relieving stress, but just the act of doing them isn’t enough. If you let yourself perceive an activity as stressful, then no matter how “stress-relieving” that activity is, it won’t actually provide any benefit.
The solution is to first start gaining the awareness of when you’re feeling stressed. Is your heart rate elevated? Are you jittery or shaky? You know how you feel when you’re stressed and generally what triggers a stress response. For me, running late, traffic, forgetting to eat, and sometimes people ;) are my big acute triggers.
The second step is simply to take 5-10 deep breaths and reframe your thought processes. When I am in traffic or running late, I sit there and breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth 5-10 times, whatever it takes to lower my heartrate and remove that stress. Then I ask myself “Am I in danger?” “Is this really the end of the world?” or “What is the worst that can happen?” So what if I’m late (usually I’m not! I just stress over the fact that I could be late!)
The third step is a bit more of a time commitment and is more “prehab” meaning rehab before it even happens. Journaling is one of the best things you can do to fight chronic stress and develop the skills to reframe a stressful event. Each day, write down something positive from the day before (or from an earlier time if you can’t think of anything). You can even take something negative and turn it into a positive. Write down (1) what it was, (2) why it was positive, and (3) what the lesson was. If you want to take it further, then jot how this improved your (1) physical self and (2) mindset (mental self). Then jot down 3 things you’re grateful for. What this does is it starts developing the neural connections in your brain to automatically reframe negative or stressful events.
3. Let your body recover
This is a big one. Most of us spend a ton of time at the gym, putting our bodies through the ringer. This is true whether you lift weights, do CrossFit, spin class, OrangeTheory, running, you name it. Anything that brings impact on your body and your joints, while elevating the heart rate is a stressor. Now it’s a necessary stressor and a really healthy one, but a stressor none the less, because it causes stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. It spikes cortisol, releases adrenaline, and does all the things previously mentioned. To combat the stress created from training, you need to (1) take rest days and (2) include recovery techniques. I’d probably recommend at least 2 rest days per week. Unless you’re a serious athlete, or following a smart and periodized training program, 6-7 days is overkill and honestly just creating too much stress and inflammation. Two, if not three, rest days is optimal. By rest days, I’m talking a true rest day…not a “rest from lifting day” or basically an active recovery day. Active recovery is great, believe me, but most examples of active recovery goes like this. “I do CrossFit 5 days out of the week, and on my rest days I run 30 minutes to an hour”. That’s just more training and more stress. If you want an active recovery, and enjoy active recovery, do it on one rest day or take an extra rest day so that you can have more active recovery. As I am training for my Ironman, my lifting days are going to be brought down from 5 to 3 so my body can handle the added cardio and stressful activity.
Now if you’re like me, if I take a rest day with zero movement, I feel worse the following day. It’s okay, and even encouraged to add in movement on your rest days but keep it very low-intensity movement. Go for a walk or conversational pace bike/row/swim (although don’t have a conversation while swimming). Do mobility work, foam rolling, or stretching. Do yoga…although a vinyasa flow or yin yoga, not hot yoga. Hot yoga is all sympathetic nervous system and is a stressor. The key here is to stimulate parasympathetic activity.
Nothing gets you more recovered and in parasympathetic mode than sleep. Getting adequate hours of sleep (>7 hours) is beneficial for stress management, cortisol reset, weight loss, bone and muscle health, and overall general health. During sleep, cortisol is going to be massively reduced, giving melatonin the opportunity to come in and promote repair and recovery from any and all damage while you were awake.
Studies have looked into the effects of sleep, and it’s astounding. People who sleep 4 hours are more likely to consume on average up to 600 calories more than people who sleep 8 hours due to the stress created from the lack of sleep and also just the general amount of time added in the day for you to eat food.
5. Change your diet
Remove sugar and processed foods. You do not have to completely remove it, completely but limit it to 10-15% of your diet. Include majority whole foods, which is anything that grew, ran, swam, or flew, so our high-quality protein sources, fruits, veggies, starches and whole grains. This increases your fiber and food quality, which is beneficial for gut health, a stressor when in dysbiosis. This increases your micronutrient profile, improving your health and optimizing every process in your body, a stress-relief, as well.
Eat enough food. Eating less than maintenance is a stressor. Fasting is a stressor. These create a cortisol response. Controlled fasting is okay. But simply forgetting to eat meals, going throughout a day without eating, not making up for the lack of calories is a stressor. The non-negotiable is eating greater than 10x your bodyweight, as this is the rough estimate of your BMR (basal metabolic rate – the number of calories you need simply for survival not factoring in any added non-exercise or exercise activity)
Add in carbs, especially after a workout and before