Welcome back to this series exploring the foundations of wellness. If you've not yet read the introduction post, I'd encourage you to first do so, and then come back here for a deep dive into stress.
The first tier into the foundation of feeling and being your best lies with stress and how you cope with it.
Stress is becoming more and more of phenomenon and it has almost become a badge of honour - "oh no I am just way too busy" is like giving yourself a pat on the back.
We're all about more - more likes, more followers, more work, more party, more this, more that, but when it comes to stress we should focus on less.
We talk about mindfulness, meditation, yoga, but at the same time we're all striving to do, do, do when what we really need is to rest, rest, rest.moreBasically Stressed
There are two acronyms you need to know to understand stress - GAS and NUTS.
GAS refers to the General Adaption Syndrome theory developed by Dr Hans Seyle, credited as the first person to identify stress as an influence on our health.
GAS outlines three stages we may go through when faced with stress, the first being the Alarm stage.
Our body has identified a stressor, and is now preparing to either “fight, fly or freeze” from it. Our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is triggered and releases norepinephrine, making us more alert and focused, drives up the heart rate and blood pressure, and makes glucose more readily available for the muscles to take in. Norepinephrine also makes us feel anxious and restless, restricts blood flow to body systems deemed necessary like the digestion and immune system, and inhibits the bladder from being emptied.
If stress continues, we enter the Resistance stage. The body adapts to the stressful situation and starts to bring back normal function, but is ready to turn the SNS back on at any given notice. Illness isn’t that far away when we’ve gone through a stressful time due to this.
Most of us tend to stay in these first two stages and then manage to find a little bit more peace and balance, however more and more of us are ending up in the third stage - Exhaustion. This is the stage at which stress is a chronic feature, our immune system is basically ineffective and we’re at a much greater risk of cardiovascular diseases and other major life blocks than the average person.
NUTS refers to what classifies something as a stressor and stands for Novelty, Unpredictable, Threat to Ego, and Sense of Control. Remember, a stressor doesn’t have to be a negative thing.
Novelty: Something new - learning a new language or having to understand a new accounting system at work.
Unpredictable: Something we can’t foresee - a surprise visit from family or a loved one being diagnosed with cancer.
Threat to Ego: Being questioned - A child asking something you can’t explain on or a coworker questioning your methods.
Sense of Control: Being put in a situation we can’t control - Your friend spending more time with their new boyfriend or a traffic jam on your way to an important meeting.
Given that our bodies’ react in the same way to a phone notification as to seeing a wild sabre tooth tiger, and also taking all of the aforementioned things into mind, it’s no wonder so many of us feel stressed out at the end of the day!
How stress manifests itself in the body
Stress is sneaky and many times you may mistake it for the flu, allergies or some other illness in your body. It’s really hard to pinpoint exactly how it shows up but the following are some that you may experience.
Physically: Muscle ache and tension, tight jaw, grinding teeth, sleep problems, racing heart beat or palpations, headaches, stomach problems, and chest pains.
Psychologically: Being more forgetful, brain fog, feeling irritable or moody, depression, feeling overwhelmed or out of control, increased or lowered appetite, lowered sex drive, low self esteem, as well as self doubt.
Stress may also be the reason why you can’t shift that last little bit of stubborn belly fat. As you may recall, when we’re in the Alarm stage glucose, our body’s preferred energy source, is released and made available for the muscles. However for most of us today we end up not using this extra fuel source as while we may feel like running away from that important work deadline, we usually don’t have a physical response to stress but rather sit down and keep on working.
The body is then confused and choses to store this glucose as fat in a place where it can most easily access it should the time come that this glucose is needed. Where could that highly accessible place be? Well, your stomach.
Coping badly with it.
Most of us have two preferred ways to deal with stress - sweating it out or drinking it away.
The thing is neither of those are going to help. They may even make things worse.
Let’s begin with drinking. At the end of a long and stressful day a glass of wine may seem like the only thing that can make it better. However wine is not going to make your body less stressed, if anything it will make it more stressed!
As you’re aware, wine contains alcohol which is essentially a poison to the body. When you take a sip of your first glass your body goes on high alert and shifts attention to rid yourself from this toxin as quickly as possible and you’ve now created an internal environment of stress.
When you then stumble to bed your body is so focused on getting rid of the alcohol instead of repairing the effects that stress has had on you all day that there’s no chance of you waking up feeling refreshed the next morning.
Yes, you may initially experience some calming from alcohol, but remember that it is a depressant which will keep on aggravating those same anxiety feelings that stress is already triggering.
What about hitting up the gym then? Isn’t the best thing to finally let that fight or flight come out?
Not necessarily. When we do any high intensity exercise we’re still putting our body through stress, whether that’s by sprinting or lifting heavy weights. You’re only keeping the momentum going. Yes you may feel good from it - there’s a lot of good research to back that up - but when you’ve been stressed for a long time it may be best to put the weights on the bench for a while.
So what can you do to deal with it?
Work in the good stuff and remove the bad stuff.
A great trick is to remove as many stressors as possible and there’s one thing that seems to be a great source of stress for us all - smart phones.
Whether it’s from FOMO, comparisons to people who seem to be leading perfect lives or just the constant stream of notifications, our phones are truly one of the greatest stressors that we carry around.
Try to remove as many of the notifications that you can (do you really need to know the instance that your jelly splash hearts have been refilled?). Perhaps you can even manage to only be notified of a Facebook comment once you log on to the app?
Know that you’re worth does not diminish because someone else has posted a beautiful picture from a tropical beach and are sporting a six pack and a Maaji bikini. Allow yourself to admire the pictures without letting them affect self view.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can multitask either. If you’ve got a deadline, put your phone in another room, and focus on the work at hand.
Turning your phone on silent or upside down doesn’t work as you’ll constantly be thinking of what you may be missing out on. Channel the focus of your stress to something good and get your work done.
Also try to switch off from your phone in the evenings. The blue light from your screen will trick your body into thinking that it’s still day time, and will stop the natural production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for restful sleep.
Start to prioritise exercise that promotes regeneration over heavy workouts that break down the body. When I work with a client I will have them go through a questionnaire to evaluate their stress and from there design a programme that will be lower in intensity depending on how stressed they are. Please note that lower intensity does not mean it’s less effective.
When we’re stressed we want to focus on “working in” rather than “working out”, as Paul Chek, a holistic exercise and wellness expert, defines it. Work ins do not elevate the heart or breathing rate, improves digestion and turns on the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which is responsible for regeneration.
Deep breathing is a great way to get a quick stress relief as it instantly triggers the PNS and switches off the SNS.
Start to value rest - realise that your “gains” are made in between workouts and not during them.
Try to mix in workouts like yoga, pilates, walking and meditation when you’re going through periods of high stress and leave the HIIT sessions for another day. A lighter volume weight training session can be good too if you feel you need to hit some kind of iron as this triggers the release of endorphins.
Fight it from the inside
Be aware that the foods you eat can make things worse too. Your body will crave easy access fast carbs, but this will create an ongoing evil spiral of insulin and cortisol triggering each other on. Instead look to create meals of healthy fats and protein working in some complex carbs here and there.
Also eliminate any foods that are triggering inflammation (caffeine, fried and fatty foods, refined sugars, possibly meat, dairy and gluten) and load up on those filled with antioxidants as well as pre- and probiotics.
Supplements can also help to alleviate some of the stress but this shouldn’t be your main line of defence. You can never out supplement an uncontrolled stress response, but the following could help*:
Vitamin B complex
Calcium and Magnesium
Siberian ginseng (not to be confused with Korean ginseng)
* Please speak to a registered nutritionist/dietitian or naturopath before adding any supplements in as they can be contraindicated for certain groups of people or affect certain medications.
Start to prioritise you
When it comes to stress the most important thing is to realise that it’s not a natural state for you to be in. We aren’t made to cope with it long term.
Start evaluating all areas of your life to identify what the cause of it is. - you may feel like you have no reason to be stressed, but there’s often more to it than what meets the eye.
If work is stressing you, what about it is? Is it that looming deadline, and if so, what about it? Are you finding there’s too much pressure on you or is it the fear of not being able to complete it that is causing you anxiety? Maybe it’s a coworker that you do not get on with, or the fear of being critiqued by your boss.
Is the stress coming from home? Do you feel you don’t have enough support, or maybe you don’t feel connected to your partner or children? Are you overwhelmed with responsibility?
Maybe you’re even the cause for the stress? Are you filled with self doubt? Are you putting too much responsibility on yourself? Do you have this constant feeling of things that you “should” be doing?
Sit down and take your time to find the why - a common theory is that you have to ask “why” five times to get to the real reasons behind something.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help either. Therapy is not and should not be viewed as a last resort. You go to the doctor for a cold, so why should you not seek treatment for something that is psychological and ultimately will affect the rest of your body?
There are great online resources now too that are very affordable. I have tried and can recommend BetterHelp, an app that offers online counselling and therapy. You select the things that you’d like help with and the app matches you up with one of their many therapists that best suits you. From there you can message them and even book a live session with them - whatever suits you most.
Of course traditional therapy is great too, and can be a welcomed break in your daily schedule. Make sure to do your research first and don’t be disheartened if you don’t find it useful at first. There’s so many different therapies out there that it’s worth trying a couple of different ones.
If you’d like more information about any of the things mentioned or if you'd like to work with me to get your wellness in order, you can always email me. I’ll also list some useful websites to seek help and find out more about stress.
Next time we’ll climb up the Wellness Hierarchy and address how sleep, and more importantly, lack of it affects our sense of wellbeing.
Great websites to learn more about and combat stress:
If you want to go deeper: