Stress is a fickle thing: without any, we’re apathetic, unproductive, and incapable of reaching peak performance.
Too much stress on the other hand results in anxiety, overwhelm, and – again – the inability to reach peak performance.
It can help to visualize stress as a bell curve like the one below.
*Image Credit: Delphis.org.uk
As more stress (or “pressure”) is applied, performance increases – to a point.
If stress increases beyond a certain threshold, performance actually begins to plummet and, if that stress is sustained for an extended period of time or if it reaches critical mass, we run the risk of burning out.
One of the biggest challenges for most people is that we are extremely poor judges of where we currently are on this curve. Typically we believe we’re continuing on an upward trajectory towards peak performance, not realizing that we may have already overshot the peak and are now tumbling down the other side of the metaphorical mountain of performance.
Delphis (a not-for-profit in the field of workplace mental wellness) refers to this as “the Zone of Delusion.” According to Delphis, “the Zone of Delusion is where we falsely believe our performance will improve if we keep working harder. Rather than getting better and better, our performance decreases with too much pressure. We lose focus; we frantically multitask; make mistakes. The quality of our work suffers as a result.”
Beyond the psychological implications of excess stress, it also has the potential to create physical challenges.
High levels of stress can throw off your hormonal balance causing a whole host of issues:
- It increases ghrelin (the hormone that makes you hungry) and suppresses leptin (the hormone that helps you feel full) resulting in feeling hungrier than you should, and making it harder for you to feel satisfied from the food that you eat.
- It tells your body to store body fat through a mechanism called “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activation”, which is a mouthful, to say the least.
- It makes you want to seek out “rewards” in the form of dopamine. This often results in cravings for sugar, fatty foods, alcohol, drugs, etc.
You may be convinced that too much stress is not good for your body, and you may be wondering what you can do to manage stress.
A 2013 article published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness journal stated that “Exercise can be an effective component of a stress management program, and all types of exercise can be beneficial for stress management.”
It went on to say that “there have been consistent findings that people report feeling calmer after a 20- to 30-minute bout of aerobic exercise, and the calming effect can last for several hours after exercise.”
Now, you may be wondering exactly how it is that exercise provides this stress relief. While the research into what specific physiological mechanisms provide this relieve, The Mayo Clinic posits the following:
- “It pumps up your endorphins. Physical activity may help bump up the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. Although this function is often referred to as a runner’s high, any aerobic activity, such as a rousing game of tennis or a nature hike, can contribute to this same feeling.
- It reduces the negative effects of stress. Exercise can provide stress relief for your body while imitating effects of stress, such as the flight or fight response, and helping your body and its systems practice working together through those effects. This can also lead to positive effects in your body—including your cardiovascular, digestive and immune systems—by helping protect your body from harmful effects of stress.
- It’s meditation in motion. After a fast-paced game of racquetball, a long walk or run, or several laps in the pool, you may often find that you’ve forgotten the day’s irritations and concentrated only on your body’s movements.
As you begin to regularly shed your daily tensions through movement and physical activity, you may find that this focus on a single task, and the resulting energy and optimism, can help you stay calm, clear and focused in everything you do.
- It improves your mood. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence, improve your mood, help you relax, and lower symptoms of mild depression and anxiety. Exercise can also improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by stress, depression and anxiety. All of these exercise benefits can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body and your life.”
Given what the research is suggesting, the answer seems clear, right? Just exercise more!
Not so fast.
Unfortunately, exercise CAN end up being another form of stress for your body to cope with, further compounding the challenges you’re already struggling to handle.
While exercise is capable of providing a great deal of stress relief, it’s important to get the dose correct. Too little and the positive effects will be negligible. Too much and you end up further compounding the negative effects of stress.
So how on earth do we find the sweet-spot?!
There are a few ways:
- You can evaluate the impact of a particular workout by asking yourself how you feel afterwards. If the primary goal is stress relief, your workout should leave you feeling lighter and more energized than when you started. If you feel exhausted and “beatdown” you are compounding more stress on top of your existing stress. The limiting factor about this approach is that it only evaluates if one specific workout has had a positive or negative effect and it is primarily subjective in nature.
- Use a daily check-in or a stress journal: every day, rate your perceived level of stress on a scale from 1 to 10 with “1” being the most chilled out or “zen” you’ve ever felt and “10” being “I’m ready to scream at the top of my lungs and rip my own hair out.” This is a good place to start but it’s completely subjective… It requires you to be pretty in-tune with your own stress levels which, unfortunately, many people are not. On the plus-side, it helps you to evaluate your stress levels as a trend, rather than in isolation.
- You can go high-tech and track your Heart Rate Variability (HRV.) There are more and more wearables that track HRV now including Oura Rings, Whoop Bands, Coros watches, etc. You can also use a chest strap or finger sensor paired with an app like HRV Elite and simply take a daily reading rather than the continuous monitoring of a wearable. The advantage of this approach is that it is OBJECTIVE in nature. You’re dealing with hard data, rather than just how you’re “feeling” on a daily basis. HRV data can also provide an early indication if you’re coming down with a virus of some kind – information we’ve come to really value over the past couple of years.
Whichever option you choose, there’s always one “shortcut” that will help ensure your training is in-line with your goals: get yourself a coach who understands the effects of stress on the body and what types of specific strategies can be implemented to help reduce your stress levels over time. Our Professional Training Coaches and Beyond Nutrition Coaches can help put you on the fast track to lower stress.
Blog credit: Sean Allt