Perfer et obdura; dolor hic tibi proderit olim (Be patient and tough; some day this pain will be useful to you)
There are two different types of people in the world. Those who want to know and those who want to believe. - Nietzsche
Everyone feels stressed from time to time. Some people, though, say that they feel very stressed most of the time. While stress isn’t always bad and can even be helpful, too much stress can affect ones well-being negatively.
What causes stress?
Stress comes up when one feels like the demands of a situation or event are too much to manage. It can come up with everyday situations, such as:
Managing demands at work or school
Dealing with unfair treatment
Managing long-term health problems
Stress can also come up in response to a specific event or situation. Both positive and negative life events can be stressful, especially those that involve major changes to regular routines. Here are some examples:
Changes in a relationship
Changes in housing arrangements
The death of a family member or friend
Changes in your job or other source of income
As stress is based on the way one sees and reacts to a situation or event, the events or situations that cause stress are different for different people.
How one feels when issues come up can also affect the way one experiences stress. If one feels well and confident in one’s ability to manage challenges, a problem may not seem very stressful. However, if one already feels stressed or overwhelmed, the same problem may add to ones existing stress and feel overwhelming.
Strategies for getting control of stress
Purposeful rest and recovery. It’s an important part of the fitness equation. Yet it’s often neglected. Building in restful, parasympathetic activities will help keep stress in its place. The best time to relax is when one doesn’t have time for it. While it’s true that the best time to relax is when one doesn’t have time for it, it’s also true that most people have a mistaken view of relaxation. For example, some consider a vacation a relaxing endeavor. Unfortunately, these vacations are too few and far between and many times these vacations are filled with things to do and activities to stay busy. Everyone wants to maximize their time away, so the time on vacation is actually very stressful for most people. So, are we really resting at all?
The ideal way to rest is this: build in daily recovery time. Interestingly, athletes tend to do this best. Even though they train very hard, and with very high volume, they also tend to schedule regular, daily naps and other forms of rest in order to promote recovery. They also make sure to “cycle” their stress (training) so that they never burn out. Take note, the rested athlete is a successful athlete.
The physiology of stress and relaxation
So, why does one want to build in daily rest time? In order to understand this, one needs to know how the brain functions. One way to categorize brain function is to break it down into the following two categories:
Sympathetic activity – which is often called “fight or flight” activity
Parasympathetic activity – which is often called “rest and digest” activity.
As one can imagine, most people tend to be too “sympathetic.” Sympathetic activation comes about due to jobs, homes, bills, relationships and myriad other stressors that cause one to switch into a fight or flight state. But whatever it is, chronic sympathetic activity leads to high levels of circulating cortisol and adrenaline, both produced by adrenal glands (located adjacent to the kidneys).
When stress is chronically high and the adrenal glands continue to pump cortisol and adrenaline, “non-critical” functions are inhibited – things like digestion, liver metabolism and detoxification, cellular repair, immune function, and reproduction. In short, vital functions are being bypassed to assist with stress management.
In essence, through several physiological interactions:
Poor blood sugar management and insulin resistance
Depression, sleep disruption, and carbohydrate craving
Decreased thyroid conversion and a reduced metabolism
Altered sex hormone activity
Amino acid loss from skeletal muscle
The net result of all of these is hormonal havoc, reproductive dysfunction, muscle loss, and fat gain. This is not something one should pursue, but what many don’t understand is that it doesn’t stop there. With all this cortisol and adrenaline pumping out, eventually the adrenal glands begin to slow production of cortisol and adrenaline. Until chronic fatigue sets in.
There are certain things you can control and certain things you can’t control, and you must know the difference. - Epictetus
Promoting rest and recovery
So, what can one do to prevent this cascade of negative, stress-related outcomes? The key is balance. One will never be able to reduce all stress. The job, the bills, the workouts, the relationships, etc. Hopefully they’re all sticking around. And, truth be told, a certain amount of stress is actually beneficial. So, instead of focusing on the sympathetic side of the equation, one needs to focus on the parasympathetic side. In other words one needs to engage in more activities that help create a parasympathetic state.
So, what types of activities help one achieve a restful state of relaxation and recovery? Luckily, there are all sorts of activities that can help with this.
Yoga and Pilates
Popularized in the last few years, certain types of yoga and Pilates are very parasympathetic.
This type of activity is also a huge help with rest and recovery. Meditation can be an excellent parasympathetic stimulus.
Spa treatments often help achieve that deep parasympathetic state.
A daily 15 to 30 min walk can do wonders for ones stress management.
This can also help in stress relief. Sauna use is one of the best ways for someone to relax, destress, and increase life span. Sauna is my personal favorite way to achieve an ideal state of relaxation.
Reading in a quiet spot 30 minutes.
Drinking warm tea and staring out at the sunset.
Music and Wine
Drinking a glass of red wine and listening to music before bed.
Bath and Candles
Lighting candles and having an Epson salts bath.
Others also use other forms of drugs to achieve a desirable state of relaxation such as high level athletes smoking marijuana to achieve this relaxing, parasympathetic state. Now, this isn’t something I necessarily recommend. But in talking to thousands of athletes over the years, I’ve noticed a trend. Many male strength and power athletes tend to turn to small amounts of marijuana for recovery purposes. Granted, there are other/better ways to achieve a parasympathetic state.
It’s all about the state
Just keep in mind the activity one chooses doesn’t matter. It’s the state one achieves. One person could achieve a deep parasympathetic state while relaxing in an epson salts bath. While another might simply sip scotch and listen to Miles Davis. Again, it’s the state, not the activity.
So, one should choose the activities that can help oneself get 30 minutes of quiet, restful, worry-free parasympathetic activity each day. That’s the way to get control of stress.
He who is not satisfied with a little, is satisfied with nothing - Epicurus
Sure, there are supplements that can help. And a variety of supplement companies that’ll be happy to separate one from one’s money. But the truth is, choosing a stress-reducing supplement isn’t the best way to tackle stress-related lifestyle problems. One has to begin with the strategies above. Then, if necessary, one can think about supplementing.
Nutrition and exercise also play an important role in the stress equation. Eating a protein heavy diet with minimal processed foods and following a mixed-exercise plan is a great start. By doing so not only can one help prevent stress outbreaks, one can actually better deal with stress if it does attack.
In terms of what to do, on the exercise end:
Zone 2 cardio
Hypertrophic (8-12 reps) Weight Training
In the end, remember this. Rest and recovery are as important as what one is doing in the gym, what one is doing in the kitchen, and what one is doing with ones supplementation. So, make sure that one is getting some parasympathetic action every day.
I appreciate how you wrote in depth on the science behind stress and finding balance. I always - sort of - knew balance was key, but it all makes sense now! Good read, thank you!