There will be times where stress starts to take its toll…it is unavoidable. Your health foundation can be rock solid, you can do all the right stress mitigation practices, but sometimes you are going to find yourself stressed to an unhealthy level. This is an unfortunate fact of our modern society.
What can you do in these situations?
Lots of people turn to the wrong things like alcohol, drugs, food, excessive exercise, or anger. We try to relieve stress with the tools we have at our disposal and have worked in the past.
One way to avoid turning to these behaviors and habits that we know are bad for us and destroy our health foundation is to find alternative tools, ones that are not so detrimental to our goals.
Just because we have these tools does not mean it’s an excuse to not address the stress and try to eliminate it or mitigate in other ways. Instead these are things we should use “in case of emergency”. When you are in the moment and stress is really bringing you down these are things you can use to help lower your stress so you can make it through.
Let’s dive in and learn some new techniques!
This is number one on the list because it’s quick, easy, and you can do it anytime, anywhere, with no special tools. Your breath has a very big impact on your stress physiology and can work in both good and bad ways.
If we think about what happens when we experience an acute stressor, like coming across a snake for example (assuming you are afraid of them), your breathing rate will accelerate. As we learned this is part of the fight or flight response meant to keep you alive. You might notice this also happens when you are very stressed out, you may all of a sudden realize you are breathing really rapidly or you are breathing through your mouth. In fact, people who breathe through their mouth constantly have been found to have higher stress hormones .
To calm the stress response we can try and manipulate our breathing in a way that decreases our stress response. There are a couple of things we can do.
First, if you are breathing through your mouth, close your mouth and breathe through your nose. This sends a signal to the body that you are OK, you are not preparing for a fight or preparing to run away from a threat and that it can calm down.
The next thing you want to do is slow your breathing down. With your mouth closed count your breaths. I like to count 4 seconds in 4 seconds out, nice and slowly.
With your breath under control the next thing you can do is extend your exhale. Longer exhales than inhales have been shown to make changes in your physiology that help slow down the stress response . If you are breathing 4 second in and 4 seconds out, try extending your exhale to 6 seconds, this should induce a more relaxation response.
Finally there is one last breathing technique that has been proven to relieve stress, it is called the physiological sigh. This breathing technique is actually something humans and animals do naturally sometimes and the reason it works so well is that it removes a lot of carbon dioxide from our bodies which our bodies view as a good thing. This technique is kind of hard to describe in words so it is better to watch a video about it. In the video below Dr. Andrew Huberman describes the technique and demonstrates how to do it as well
You might also recall that another thing that happens when we experience an acute stress is that our vision narrows and becomes extremely focused. This makes sense as we need to focus on the thing that could potentially harm us, it is the most important thing at the moment.
This also means that when we are not in a life and death situation, but we are very stressed that if we try to widen our field of vision it can help relax us.
So when you are working hard on that upcoming work project and you are very focused on the computer screen in front of you, it will beneficial to get up once you are finished and stop staring at the computer and instead go stare out a window, or better yet, get outside and try to walk while staring off into the distance (not at your phone!).
This leads us to the next intervention to help relieve stress. This one may be less accessible depending on the situation you are in at the moment but it is still very accessible for most.
Get outside in nature…without your phone….without your headphones…just you and nature that’s it.
Turns out the mechanism for the stress relieving benefits of nature has to do with the signals received by our senses . Rather than me tell you how this diagram sums it up nicely.
Now I know some of you are going to be wondering about how long and how frequently you need to spend time in nature to get the benefits.
Some research suggests that just 120 minutes a week is enough to see the benefits. If you split that up across the week that’s around 17 minutes a day, not a whole lot . You can obviously divide it up however you want.
Ultimately though whatever you can do is going to be OK. If you can only get 15 minutes 3 times a week, fine, that’s better than nothing and will most likely help improve your stress.
I sound like a broken record here, but don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough, do what you can and work to get better over time.
Do you have that one person in your life that you know you can turn to and vent and get things off your chest? When you do, how much better do you feel?
We should all have at least one person that we can turn to and spend time with that brings us back to our center. Whether you vent to the person about your stressors or just sit down and talk about the weather, spending time with the people you care about can be a huge stress relief.
This is one of the reasons I focus on making sure my clients have strong social connections because when they do they have a community they can turn to when they need help, whether that is with stress or something completely different.
Numerous studies have been done that show people exhibit less signs of stress when they go through a stressful situation with social support vs without social support . From an ancestral perspective this makes sense. If we were part of a tribe our chance of survival was much greater than if we were on our own. So if you are experiencing a time of heightened stress, spending time with your tribe…your social connections…tells your body it’s not alone and that there are others there to support you and it will lessen the stress response.
When we are under a lot of stress, our default mode of operation is to not make a lot of time for ourselves. While this might seem like a good idea, pushing through the stress in order to come out the other side as quickly as possible, it is in all likelihood not the right approach.
Taking care of yourself will not only help relieve some of the stress you are feeling at that given moment but helps you show up the next day more refreshed and in a better place to tackle the stressors again (if you need to). Once you make it through to the other side you will be in a better spot than if you didn’t take any time for yourself…in other words your foundation will be intact and your goals still achievable!
Self care can mean a lot of different things to different people. Maybe it is getting a massage, spending time in the sauna, doing a puzzle, reading a book, watching the sunrise or sunset, meditation, yoga, tai chi, or other gentle forms of exercise/movement. We all have activities that we know help us chill out…this is the time to incorporate one or more of them into your daily routine.
Self care also involves treating your body right. Now is not the time to eat foods you know you don’t tolerate, nor is it the time to pull an all-nighter, nor is it the time to do punishing workouts. You should be consuming nourishing foods and give your body the fuel it needs, no fasting, no macronutrient restrictions, eat enough whole natural foods…your body needs fuel!
Don’t think that just because you have a lot on your plate it means you need to stay up all night getting things done and be slamming a ton of caffeine late into the night to do it. You will have to pay this debt at some point and it may come back to bite you in a crash and burn scenario. If anything, you need to drink less caffeine and get more sleep.
It’s also not the time to be doing punishing workouts. Maybe back off on Crossfit for this period of time and instead go for an easy run or bike. Don’t be trying to PR your deadlift or squat and instead back off the weights and do 2-3 sets of 5-8 reps instead at 50% of your max.
The general message here is there is no need to add additional stress to an already stressed out body, treat yourself kindly and your body will thank you later!
I know a lot of people are also going to ask about supplements.
Let me say this upfront, while it’s easy to take a supplement, in the case of stress it is just putting a bandaid on the problem. Yes all the things we are talking about above do nothing to address the stress and remove it, but they are all practices that we should probably be incorporating into our life anyways. Supplements are a different level of intervention than changing your lifestyle, so they need to be used with caution.
Ashwagandha is by far the most popular supplement on the market for relieving stress. According to Examine.com
“Ashwagandha is best known for its anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and stress-relieving effects. It also seems to reduce cortisol levels, and this effect is supported by a number of studies. In addition, a growing body of evidence supports the efficacy of ashwagandha for improving total sleep time and sleep quality in people with and without insomnia.”
Given the evidence behind ashwagandha it seems like it can certainly help with stress relief and facilitate getting better sleep which will also help combat stress.
L-theanine is an amino acid in tea that may also appear to help with stress relief. Again from Examine.com…
“After consumption, L-theanine can cross the blood-brain barrier and affect brain activity by promoting increased alpha-waves, a pattern of brain activity associated with a more relaxed state. The tendency of L-theanine to increase alpha waves may explain its stress and anxiety reducing effects.”
Melatonin is another supplement, but it is mostly known for its sleep enhancing effects.
Getting the proper amount of sleep is important all the time, but is especially important when under a large amount of stress. Lack of sleep is just another stressor piled on to an already stressed body, not good! The tricky part is that stress also causes sleep disruptions, when stress is high many of us find ourselves laying in bed ruminating about whatever is causing us stress . Melatonin can be helpful in getting better sleep even when we are under a lot of stress. Again I refer you to check out the Examine.com page for all the information about melatonin supplementation.
I also advise you to talk to your doctor before ingesting any kind of supplement. They can advise you on the proper dosage protocol.
This is not an exhaustive list of stress management and stress relieving techniques, these are just the ones that have a good amount of evidence. As always research should be used to inform “mesearch”. Treat these techniques as things to explore yourself. Some might work better than others, but you won’t know until you try. In general the best piece of advice I can give is if you know something relaxes you it’s going to be good for managing your stress.
Once you find the techniques that work best for you and you learn to perform your stress audit then you are on your way to building up your health and fitness foundation and preventing it from crumbling down taking your goals with it!
For our next series of posts on building up your health and fitness foundation we are going to talk about recovery. To be the first to know when the recovery related post goes live be sure to sign up for my newsletter using the form below and I will email you as soon as it is available!
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