If you’re a human, you have stress. Period. That’s it.
The problem is, we know we have it. No one is surprised to hear that they have stress in their lives. But we may not realize to what extent certain areas and aspects of our lives cause us stress. Then, at the same time, we may not recognize the effects it has or what we can do about it.
In this episode, we’re going to talk ALLLL about stress. Where it comes from, the effects that it can have on our lives and fitness goals, and what to do about it.
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What causes stress?
There are eight big categories that can contribute to stress in our lives. These include: social, financial, psycho-spiritual, mental, cultural, environmental, emotional, and physical.
But we don’t recognize all of these categories – We skip right to the big stressors: family, financial, and job. Without recognizing all of the other options, we fail to truly grasp the full allostatic load we are carrying. This is a term for all of the stress we’re holding and dealing with in our everyday lives.
The stress builds up. It stacks and stacks. Countless cycles incomplete and stored in our bodies for up to YEARS. This stress can wreak havoc on our body.
The effects of stress
There are four main categories where symptoms of unresolved stress can show up in our lives: physical, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional.
Physical is just as it sounds – the physical manifestations of stress. This can include aches and pains, nausea, dizziness, loss of sex drive, frequent colds or flu, digestive issues, autoimmune conditions, skin conditions, heart disease, reproductive issues, weight fluctuations, and sleep issues.
Behavioral includes changes to actions or behaviors within our lives. This may include eating more or less, excessive sleeping, not sleeping enough, withdrawal from others, procrastination, neglecting responsibilities, nervous habits (nail biting, picking skin, pacing, etc.), using drugs or alcohol to relax. As you can see there’s a HUGE range of behaviors that can be present here. Identifying these comes down to knowing yourself and your habits. It may take time and self-reflection to recognize these as responses to stress instead of normal daily habits.
Cognitive involves how we think and our brains. Specific thoughts include memory problems, inability to concentrate, poor judgement, focusing on the negative (THIS is a HUGE cognitive bias), anxious, racing thoughts, or constant worrying.
Finally, our emotions are often a response to stress. They can include depression, general unhappiness, anxiety, agitation, moodiness, irritability, anger, feeling overwhelmed, loneliness, and isolation from others. Often these emotions then manifest in behaviors such as emotional or stress eating.
Stress eating is one of the most common frustrations of people as they try to change their eating habits. They can have all of the knowledge, all of the information and the “what to do’s” but at the same time, our emotions run the show. When we’re overcome with them. When we aren’t in the practice of pausing. Of then noticing and naming those emotions, we cannot work with them. Instead, we’re constantly fighting against them in our pursuit of whatever our goals may be.
What can we do about the stress?
First, distinguish between the stress and the stressor.
Dealing with the stressor includes leaving work, putting the project away, getting out of the office from your annoying coworker, etc.
But after those stressful situations, the stress can remain in the body. Stress might be stored in the body. Even though we’re leaving or changing the situation, that stress is still there unless we do something about it.
However, we often neglect to complete this stress cycle. Often for three main reasons:
- It’s a chronic stressor. When there is chronic stress present, the ability to process this stress is lower than the amount of stress we’re experiencing. We simply cannot keep up and the stress builds up in the body.
- Social appropriateness can stop us in our tracks. Since it would be inappropriate to just walk around punching annoying people in the face, we don’t. We simply smile, nod, and move on with our day. But again, as a result, that stress remains in the body.
- Finally, we avoid it because it’s safer. Survival strategies often remove us from the stressful situation – outrunning a large animal, for example. But they don’t relieve the stress, they just postpone the need to complete the cycle.
As these stress cycles go incomplete, they build up in the body. We can recognize that we may be overdue to complete a few of these cycles in a few different ways:
- You notice yourself doing the same, apparently pointless thing over and over again or engaging in self-destructive behavior. Remember, procrastination was a big thing we talked about earlier!
- Your body feels out of whack. Digestive issues, skin presentations, and other habits can present as an overwhelming amount of stress.
- You notice any of the symptoms above and recognize them as signs of a stress response.
Here’s the thing. Completing the cycle isn’t a decision. We cannot simply “tell” ourselves to not be stressed. Completing the cycle is a shift within the body. One of my favorite lines from a book I read about this is: “You have to speak the language of stress.” The language of stress is not English, nor any other spoken language. The language of stress is ACTION.
Now, I’m going to talk about six ways that we can complete the stress cycle by speaking the language of stress and TAKING ACTION.
This is one of the most efficient ways to complete the stress cycle. But it’s important to distinguish that strength training IS stress and can contribute to our allostatic load. Sometimes the body cannot tell the difference.
But when we’re talking about completing the stress cycle, we’re usually referring to steady state, aerobic work between 20-60 minutes. This includes walking, biking, swimming, dancing around your living room, etc.
Another SUPER easy and “take-with-you-anywhere” option is breathing. This is the deep, slow breaths that we use to decompress and bring the body into a rest and digest state of being. To perform: inhale for 5s, hold for 5s, exhale for 10s, hold for 5s, and repeat.
POSITIVE SOCIAL INTERACTION
Positivity is HUGE. This doesn’t even have to be long. You can pay it forward with a coffee, engage in conversation with a grocery store clerk, etc. But make it POSITIVE. When we get stuck in a loop of negativity, that doesn’t help anyone.
Being affectionate can help complete the stress cycle. One example is the 20s hug. To perform this, may sure that you’re grounded on your own feet – not leaning with your weight on the person. But at the same time, engage in a long, equally compressive hug with another person that lasts about 20 seconds. In research, this has been shown to have similar affects to the deep breathing that I talked about before.
Okay so the saying “crying doesn’t solve anything” might not be totally true. You know those cheesy movies that all of the sudden you’re crying? No? Just me? Okay… Well, the reason we can sometimes be crying and not even realize why is because those movies perfectly guide us through the emotional cycle to completion. Thus the tears.
So, you’re not an athletic person? Totally fine! Any creative expression, art, singing, dancing, etc. can help to complete the stress cycle and relieve the stress from your body.
There you have it! All about stress. What it is, where we notice the effects, and what we can do about it. So, that brings me to our Em-powered action.
Take time to notice and name your emotions this week. As you experience a stressful situation, take a moment to step back and note how you’re feeling in that moment. What emotions are you experiencing? You can use an emotion wheel to help narrow in on your specific feeling or emotion in that moment.
As you notice, note the stressor, time of day, location, and any other notable details.
Over the course of a few days, you’ll compile a list.
Where are the similarities? Are there any trends, patterns, or repeating situations?
These points are where you’ll start to deal with the stressors. What steps can you take to alleviate the stress in that situation? If you can’t eliminate the stressor, schedule in time and a specific activity to deal with the stress after the fact and complete the cycle.
This is powerful work. But it is challenging work, I’m not going to lie to you. But it will yield a great return on investment in your life – both within health and fitness and outside of it.