Of all of the nutrition, training and lifestyle advice I give to clients I truly believe that well applied stress management techniques are the most important and yield the greatest benefit in terms of overall health, body composition, energy levels and happiness.
The harsh reality is that even if your training and nutrition is absolutely on point high stress levels will prevent you from making progress with your health, fitness and body composition goals.
Most of you reading this will have heard all of this before. It is not breaking news. You will have experienced it first-hand. We have developed techniques over time to accommodate the increasing amounts of stress we are required to deal with as part of our personal lives and in our careers. These techniques facilitate stress. It has become the norm. The aim of this blog is to suggest a different path and give you some techniques for stress avoidance and stress management.
The ability to cope with large amounts of stress is often seen as a sign of strength and is well rewarded financially in our economy. Many people pile on the pressure willingly in the hope that this will push them further in their careers, and in many cases it does. However, I would argue that the ability to be extremely productive while setting up your daily work routine to minimize stress is the real skill and this is where the real strength lies – this requires prior planning, adherence to strong work habits and routines, systemization of your business practices and most of all appreciation of your down time and a realization that this in the long run will lead to a higher level of productivity. This ensures that you can be extremely productive but with low stress levels, avoiding many of the symptoms I will list below.
Failure to mitigate for the stress caused by high productivity will put you firmly on a path towards an early grave.
What is stress?
Stress occurs when internal and/or external demands exceed the adaptive response of the body.
Our bodies function at their best when we are balanced. Stress is a major disturbance to this balance. When the body loses balance then illness and disease will occur. You must fight to get this balance back and always stay conscious of protecting it.
At a biological level the stress is placed on your adrenal glands and because the adrenals affect pretty much every system in your body then stress manifests itself in a wide variety of weird and wonderful ways.
High blood pressure, inability to sleep or switch off properly, mood swings, fatigue, hives, eczema, irritability, headaches, dizziness, sugar and caffeine cravings, grinding of teeth, muscle spasms (especially in neck and back), heartburn, frequent colds, sweating, low libido, difficulty making decisions, difficulty communicating on an emotional level… the list goes on!
The end result of living in a high stress environment is an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism and autoimmunity. These are some of the most important health and emotional problems caused by stress.
From a fitness and body composition point of view it is important to note that stress also has the following effects;
Negatively affects blood sugar management leading to weight gain especially around the belly
Makes it very difficult to stick to a nutrition plan as you will crave sugars and the emotional eating benefits of regular snacks
Reduces your ability to burn fat for energy
Reduces testosterone and growth hormone levels – essential for men and women to burn fat and build/maintain muscle.
These are all well documented in scientific literature and the things listed above are far from an exhaustive list of the health problems that stress has been linked with. The evidence is there to suggest that stress contributes in some way to all modern, chronic disease!
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that there are many strategies that you can implement in order to firstly reduce the amount of stress you experience and secondly, to mitigate the effects of the stress which you cannot avoid.
It is impossible to completely eradicate your exposure to stress. Every living thing will experience stress in some form. In small, infrequent bursts it is actually good for us.
STEP 1 – MAKE STRESS MANAGEMENT A HIGH PRIORITY
Like everything else in life if you do not dedicate time and resources to it then nothign will change and you will not see any benefits.
STEP 2 – STRESS REDUCTION
Learn to say No – this is a very effective skill and you will be surprised how much it contributes to your overall happiness.
Establish boundaries with your time especially when it comes to work life and family life.
Value some down time which you can spend alone - put this in your diary and prioritize it the same way you would any other appointment. You may feel like this is wasted time but remind yourself that it will feed positively in to your productivity and ability to perform at other times.
Delegate – trust the people who work for you. Let them share the load.
Avoid the people that stress you out – people who take but never give. Anyone who projects constant negativity. Rise above the drama. Do not engage in negative conversation unless focused on a positive outcome.
Avoid pointless arguments and conflict, there is a place for discussion and debate and it should be enjoyable and not something you feel forced into. If you have to have those difficult conversations, then have them at a time and in a place where you feel most comfortable.
Avoid the places that stress you out as much as possible – change your working environment as much as possible. Hold meetings outside of the office, in a cafe, at the pub, in the park.
Engage in outdoor activities with family and friends. When was the last time you went out for a walk just for the sake of it?
Limit your exposure to negative news about things which you cannot control – the important stuff will still find you. You do not need an update on the state of the world every single hour of the day. Choose very carefully what news you are exposed to. Would you benefit from a temporary suspension of your social media interactions? Try it out and see how it feels.
Lay the smackdown on your to do list – will the world stop turning if you cross something off without doing it? What can be pushed back to another time? Is there some positive actions on there which you want to engage in and that you are going to enjoy, there should be.
STEP 3 – DEALING WITH UNAVOIDABLE STRESS
Reframe the issue – many situations are only as stressful as we paint them to be. Mindset is key. Is a traffic jam you can do nothing about a major problem or is it a chance to listen to your favourite podcast and learn something new? Is the gym something you have to fit into your schedule or somewhere you can go to switch off from the outside world and spend some time working on you.
Don’t be perfect – no one is perfect. It is great to have aims and to set yourself high standards but don’t tie your happiness to these targets. Don’t be your own worst critic – life is hard enough and will set you enough challenges – be your biggest cheerleader, this will produce better results.
Let go of striving for more – how much is enough? Do you already have enough? Striving for more of anything should be enjoyable not something which stresses you out. This goes for everything from money to relationships. Be grateful for what you have instead of focusing on not having ‘enough.’
Defuse conflicts with workmates, friends and family. See things from other people’s points of view, agree to disagree, leave negativity in the past. Lose the ego. Not everything is a threat. Not everything is personal. Everyone has their own aims and objectives - many of which will not fit in with your own.
Do not self-medicate – mood changers such as coffee, cigarettes, prescription or illegal drugs, gambling, impulse spending, over eating etc. are all very effective mood changers which can help to manage negative emotions including stress. Don’t be fooled. You are avoiding the problem and it will not go away. Meet your stress head on – find a way to eradicate it or deal with it and it will cease to be a problem.
Add enjoyment, fun, relaxation and happiness to your life at every available opportunity. Live your life instead of doing your best impression of a hamster in a wheel.