Stress is something that’s not going away. We all experience stress every day, whether it’s from work, our families, our relationships, emergencies, crisis or just life itself. (Plus, these past two years dealing with the pandemic haven’t been a walk in the park for anyone.)
We live fast paced and busy lives. Often, we keep our plates so full and agendas so packed that we don’t take time to care for ourselves. We begin to feel overwhelmed, and these feelings only escalate and continue – causing chronic (long-term) stress.
Does this sound familiar?
Unfortunately, many of us do a poor job of handling our stress. If that’s you, don’t beat yourself up. Join the club! Again, since it’s so prevalent in our lives, it’s a challenge (ahem, impossible?) to get rid of it.
Plus, if you’re pursuing a body composition goal like weight loss, fat loss or muscle gain, chronic stress may be what’s holding you back. If you’ve been doing everything right in the gym and kitchen, but still aren’t seeing results – take a step back and examine your stress. It’s likely that something’s off internally – like your cortisol (stress hormone) and other hormone levels.
We totally understand - stress reduction is easier said than done. Your best option, however, is to learn to manage your stress.
Harmful Effects of Chronic Stress
Chronic stress poses a negative effect on your mental, physical and emotional health.
Mentally, it can perpetuate anxiety, depression and other cognitive disorders. It can also leave you with brain fog, so you have trouble thinking straight and making decisions. Productivity also decreases, along with motivation.
Emotionally, it can lead to irritability, anger, sadness and feeling “down.” Being overwhelmed may turn into feelings of hopelessness, which can lead to extreme agitation, a racing mind, plenty of tears and the desire to socially isolate.
Physically, stress wreaks HAVOC on your body.
Exposure to stress releases cortisol. We need cortisol in case we have to respond to a stressful situation, so it’s essential for us to survive and thrive.
Cortisol is released by your adrenal glands, which causes your body to enter its “fight or flight” state – along with prompting a release of adrenaline as well. Adrenaline (also called norepinephrine) elevates your heart rate, raises your blood pressure and boosts your energy supplies by commanding your liver to release more glucose. This means that more glucose is available in your bloodstream to be converted into energy.
For example, if you found yourself being chased by a tiger, your body’s sudden release of cortisol, followed by adrenaline, will trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response so you can run away and get yourself to safety.
But when your cortisol is chronically elevated, your body thinks it’s being chased by a tiger at all hours of the day. That’s exhausting – and not ideal for your health.
Other Ways Chronic Stress Affects Your Body
If you’re not sure if you’ve been experiencing the effects of chronic stress, keep reading. Here are a few more not-so-fun outcomes caused by chronically elevated cortisol:
- Insulin levels will rise to combat high blood glucose levels. However, if your blood sugar levels are chronically high as well, your body may enter a state of insulin resistance. This means that glucose will continue to float around in your blood stream and, being unused for energy, may be stored as fat.
- Much of this fat storage targets your belly. Someone with a “stress” belly will have a round abdomen that is hard to the touch. This is a dangerous place to store fat, too - it increases your risk for chronic disease.
- Ghrelin (hunger hormone) rises along with cortisol. On the other hand, leptin (satiety hormone) is suppressed. Ever wonder why you tend to binge eat when you’re stressed? Since your blood sugar levels are out of whack, you’re likely craving high-carb, high-sugar, high-fat and processed foods.
- A normal cortisol response curve is high in the morning, drops off in the afternoon and stays low at night. (That’s why you feel the urge to take a nap or drink a lot of coffee around 2 p.m. in the afternoon!) Since your cortisol spikes in the morning, it wakes you up. As it drops low at night, you’re able to fall asleep. If your cortisol remains elevated, it’s difficult to fall (and stay) asleep at night.
- Chronic stress causes your body to feel fatigued and ache all over. Since you’re stuck in a “fight or flight” response, your muscles remain tensed and tight. And, since your heart rate and blood pressure are elevated all day, you may experience that “wired but tired” feeling – your body wants to rest, but your brain doesn’t.
- Cortisol produces an immune response, which leads to chronic inflammation throughout your body. You may also be more prone to skin breakouts like rashes and acne.
- It wreaks havoc on your sex hormones – specifically estrogen. Ladies, you may experience irregular menstruation and a decreased sex drive. Guys, you might find yourself storing fat in places you’d rather not (like on your belly, triceps and chest) and also experience a decreased sex drive.
Yikes - chronically elevated cortisol is something none of us want. In a nutshell, the bad news is that if we’re having trouble managing our stress levels, our bodies will adapt by perpetuating that specific hormonal response.
But we don’t mean to say all this to stress you out further! There’s good news ahead.
Strategies to Manage Stress
There are several strategies to help you figure out how to manage your stress. You’ll find one, or more, of the following seven suggestions doable.
Passive and Active Recovery
Incorporate some rest (passive recovery) and active recovery techniques into your life. Teach yourself to meditate, take a yoga or Pilates class or spend time doing some active recovery – foam roll, stretch, take a walk, go for a jog, pedal the trails or hop in the pool.
Booking a massage is also an excellent way to relieve muscle tightness caused by stress! Plus, it doubles as a form of active recovery.
The hardest thing is making time for it in busy schedules. Pencil it into your weekly planner or input it in your smartphone calendar. The trick is this: if it’s in your schedule, you have time for it! Shoot for rest and recovery at least once a week – you’ll thank yourself a few months down the road.
You may not be sleeping because you’re stressed, and your body and brain is stressed because you’re not sleeping. It’s a vicious cycle. You’re also tired, crabby, irritable and having trouble thinking straight.
Getting seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night seems impossible at times! But it’s one of the simplest ways to reduce your stress and improve your overall well-being.
Check out the infographic below for simple tricks to help you improve your sleep habits.
Movement is medicine! It doesn’t matter if you take classes, hit the gym on your own, do cardio outside or simply go for a walk every day. Any form of exercise is a healthy way to manage stress.
All those endorphins help boost your mood and getting a good sweat in can help stave off any guilt or shame.
There’s something to keep in mind, though. Working out naturally raises your cortisol levels because exercise poses stress on our bodies. Though it’s a good form of stress, our bodies can’t tell the difference between what’s good and bad. So, if you already have chronically high cortisol levels, too much exercise can keep them elevated.
Have you ever noticed you’ve felt puffy, bloated and sore for longer than usual after going really hard in the gym for a few days?
That’s from inflammation caused by sky-high cortisol. To combat this effect, take some rest and recovery days. Otherwise, overtraining and excess exercise can cause you to experience chronic inflammation, which slows down, stalls or even regresses your transformation efforts.
Too much of ANYTHING (even a good thing) can become a bad thing.
Manage Your Time
Poor time management is a huge stressor, from procrastinating on important tasks, taking too much time to complete certain things to pushing deadlines.
Many of us pack our days full of activities and struggle to finish all of them. Many of us also struggle setting limits and saying no! Whether it’s at work, with family commitments or our kids’ activities, we have this belief that we must say yes to everything that’s asked of us.
There is only so much you can handle during the day. It’ll take some trial and error, but learn your limits and, most importantly, stick to them.
Adopt Hobbies You Love
Make time for your hobbies! If you don’t have one, find one. There are so many things to try and doing or learning something new is a great way to enrich your life. It’ll also give you something to look forward to, boost your mood and help take your mind off that stressful situation you’re working through.
Instead of spending a Saturday on the couch scrolling through social media, take a day trip and go sightseeing. Grab the latest novel by an author you enjoy reading, update your playlists, listen to a new podcast or join that weekend softball league you’ve been eyeing. The possibilities are endless!
One of the best ways to relieve stress is to seek social support. Simply put, spend time with people you enjoy being around!
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if your stress is getting out of hand. Stress has enormous negative effects on our mental and emotional health, and therapists, counselors and other mental health professionals are specially trained as an unbiased, neutral source to help us face and work through stressful situations and issues.
All of us need help at times. You can’t move forward if you’re stuck or just spinning your wheels!
If you think stress is holding you back from achieving your body composition and healthy lifestyle goals, schedule your complimentary nutrition consultation today.