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 way 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, and 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. 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 a bear, but the modern world provides different kinds of stress. It’s a low-level persistent stress caused by finances, awkward bosses, presidential elections, 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, and 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, low energy, poor recovery from exercise and a tendency to be irritable or aggressive along with some pretty negative effects on sleep and eating habits.
If you’re too stressed, your sleep will suffer, your training will suffer, you’ll eat less initially and then more over the long term, your recovery will be impaired and overall life is gonna suck.
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 to lose fat is a stress, in that your body perceives a calorie deficit 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.
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.
Short term increases in blood pressure allow for more energy to be available to working muscles, but long term it causes heart attacks.
Short term ‘edginess’ allows you to react quickly and ignore pain, long term it’s draining, it makes you irritable and it causes a negative outlook on life.
Short term stress reduces sex hormone production, as it’s no time to start procreating when you are being attacked by an elephant. Long term, this is obviously a bad thing.
Short term cortisol release allows for more glucose to be available to facilitate running away, long-term it can lead to muscle wastage.
And as for training?
The stress you place upon the body during a training session can be thought of as causing some of the adaptations to that training – aside from the microtrauma suffered by muscle proteins, metabolic and mechanical stress are some of the primary drivers for your body to start the growth process. 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.
There is even a weak correlation between the magnitude of cortisol present post-workout, and the adaptive response to that workout.
But if stress is constant, it can actually have the opposite effect. Life-stress has been shown to impair recovery from, and adaptation to training.
Being stressed isn’t something that just kind of sucks, it’ll cost you your gains, bro.Tweet
So in sum, no, 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 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
- 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. Stress eating, anyone?
- Excessive water retention due to cortisol’s ability to alter the hormones that control water balance – so you’ll look and feel bloated and sluggish – which can easily mask fat loss and compound the issue. You’re stressed because you’re dieting, which causes water retention, so you don’t look leaner, so you’re more stressed, so you hold more water, etc. Losing 1lbs of fat per week over 2 months can be masked by water retention really easily…
…But what should you do about it?
Here’s my top tips for managing your 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. You know all of the usual tricks – dark, cool room, switch off stimulating electronics etc – but remember you actually need to apply these things if you are to get anywhere. Start now.
- 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. I realise that it’s not always possible to stay on top of everything you have going on, though, I’ll get back to this in a second.
- 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. Coffee by itself shouldn’t be thought of as a direct problem, in my opinion, but a person who is chugging coffee all day in order to get everything done is a person who isn’t taking time out to relax, and that IS a potential problem.
- 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 45 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.
I tend to advise people periodise their year and their training around periods they know they will be the most stressed. If you have really busy periods at work, if you have kids to look after during the summer or if you are planning a project which is going to take up a ton of your mental energy, then plan to train a little less during this time. If you are hoping to make progress, but you are only able to maintain because life is getting in the way, then you have ‘failed’ and you’re only adding to the pressure. If you aim to maintain and you manage, then you’ve succeeded. Same result, totally different outcome.
- After training, try to spend at least 45 minutes relaxing in some way. I have no research to back this up, but I firmly believe that a short period of really chilling out after a hard workout (it doesn’t have to be immediately afterwards) can help you be mentally fresh for hitting the gym the following day. Napping, watching TV or chatting to someone over a beer seem like small prices to pay for a potential benefit, right?
- 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 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. It’s probably not a good idea to try to get into the best shape of your life and write your dissertation at the same time.
- Outsource where appropriate, and forget about things which 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 which 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 which 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 mentality 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.
This is an important point, so I’m going to repeat it. Stress management techniques are great, but they are plasters over the wound. The only way to ACTUALLY solve stress is to deal with the problem. Hate your job? Upskill and get a new one. Struggling with bills? Look at your budgeting, or possibly your income. Many of these solutions will not be quick fixes – it can take YEARS to train part-time to get a career which you love – but it’s doable for the majority of us, and just working towards something like that can make a difference to your stress levels all by itself.
- Consider meditation, or other similar activities which give you complete focus and single mindedness on something ‘else’. 10-15 minutes per day of meditating and focusing on nothing, or of colouring in (there are a range of adult mindfulness colouring books available), of painting, drawing or creating something may seem absurd to suggest, but they can have a profound affect on the way you feel and the amount of stress you experience day-to-day.
Stress is a major issue when it comes to health. It can effect your mental health by dragging you down and making it hard to concentrate, but as explained above the physical repercussions can be severe, too.
Recognise it, manage it, and deal with it.
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Stults-Kolehmainen MA, Bartholomew JB. “Psychological stress impairs short-term muscular recovery from resistance exercise.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Nov;44(11):2220-7. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31825f67a0.
Daniel W. D. West and Stuart M. Phillips. “Associations of exercise-induced hormone profiles and gains in strength and hypertrophy in a large cohort after weight training” Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Jul; 112(7): 2693–2702. Published online 2011 Nov 22. doi: 10.1007/s00421-011-2246-z
Schoenfeld, BJ. “The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training.” J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2857-72. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3.