The Dirty Little Secret Stealing Your Health, Stress
In today’s fast paced quick fix shiny object society, it safe to say that people are simply stressed the hell out. Between hours of aimlessly scrolling through social media feeds, main lining stimulates and spiking caffeine to just “get through” the days, and punishing themselves in the gym with a “more is always better” mentality trying to make up for poor diet and lifestyle choices, it’s no surprise that we are sicker, fatter, and more chronically stressed out than ever before in human history.
Did I mention that the average person is also attempting to do ALL of this while chronically sleep deprived?
See, the thing about stress which makes it all too easy to sweep under the rug and act like it’s NOT a monumental problem cursing our physical, mental, psychological and emotional health is that other than having your doctor tell you that your blood pressure is sky high and you should start taking meds before your heart gives out, stress is somewhat silent.
Silent until that chronic stress filled powder keg finally explodes.
Stress comes in many forms, and the body doesn’t necessarily know how to differentiate between different sources of stress, creating a cumulative stress load on the system with additive properties that can not only become detrimental to performance, but also health and wellness.
If your goal is to live a high performance life where you look, feel and function your very best, you better get your stress load under control. But instead of just sitting around red lining your stress in hopes to make it to your next beach vacation without a catastrophic blowout (professionally, personally, physically…) it’s time you start making some simple daily steps in the positive direction for reducing your stress load and combating the ill effects of our now common chronically stressed out society.
This article will be your roadmap for down regulating your system, learning to utilize simple yet effective tools to manage stress, and do it on a daily basis in as little as a few minutes a day. But before I get into the top 20 most effective ways to reduce stress, we must appreciate why stress is such a big deal, because if you ask me, it’s the #1 thing plaguing our health and wellness today.
Why Stress Is So Detrimental To Our Health?
Contrary to popular belief, stress actually boosts calorie burning via constant low-level activation of fight-or-flight pathways. It is not at all uncommon for people to gain weight when chronically stressed, but this is generally due to stress-induced excess eating or water retention from stress hormones. Stress hormones (cortisol in particular) can serious hinder weight loss attempts.
Stress is a change in our physiological state in response to what our bodies deem to be a dangerous situation. Our body is regulated by the autonomic nervous system, and this system is always on. Its job is to balances our physiology between calm and stressful states of being.
We have two distinct branches of the autonomic nervous system:
Parasympathetic State: This is when we are calm, at rest, and digesting and assimilating the nutrients from our food. This is where we recover and grow, and as you might have guessed, is the preferred state of being when it comes to fat loss.
Sympathetic State: This is our fight or flight response, which is when we are in a state of high stress. Not all stress is bad. The problem is when we are in heightened states of stress for too long. Stress is crucial for our bodies to disrupt homeostasis, which is what allows us to adapt, grow muscle, and lose body fat. We do not want to live in a sympathetic state. We want to enter into it when we train, then immediately get out and return to a parasympathetic state post workout, as we begin the rest and recovery process.
In today’s world, the issue is we spend far too much time in a sympathetic state. Now what defines stress is – anything and everything – it all depends on you!
So, what could be causing you stress? Examples include:
Lack of sleep
High caffeine intakes and energy drinks
Poor body image
Poor quality food
Smoking and alcohol
When we stress our body perceives it as danger. Now the human brain has not evolved too far from our days as hunters and gatherers. Back then, we may have been attacked by a tiger, entering us into a sympathetic state. We had a choice, fight or flight. Fight, or run as fast away as possible!
In the world we live in today our stress is vastly different. It’s less physical, and much more emotional. Every day we encounter small stresses from our partners, colleagues, boss, social media, environment, Dr. Rusin’s highly intense screams before an exercise, and every time, the body believes we are in danger.
Most people including myself use exercise as a stress reliever but it is quite the opposite actually while we exercise we are causing huge amount of stress to our body which is a good thing if we can properly recover and grow form it.
But what do we usually see going on? If we take a look at the trending hit intensity fitness classes (not naming names here) added to a highly stressed individual to a super high intensity one hour session. This individual will feel great after that workout because they think they got the crap kicked out of them, they are sweaty and feel good about themselves but watch this same individual, always be tired and never able to lose weight.
So, what can we do about it?
It makes it sound so easy, “Just get your body into a parasympathetic state” and you’ll reduce stress and better manage performance and recovery, right? Sure, the rest and recover parasympathetic side of the CNS is where we want to be living. This involves calming and stress mitigation activities and this is why I created this guide, to give you options to reach such state.
Two Sides of the CNS: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic
Let’s get a little geekier. Sympathetic and parasympathetic refer to your nervous system. Biologically speaking, your body runs on nerves. The nerves send signals throughout your body using the nervous system as a whole, which connects to the brain.
Biologists have studied the possibility of “hacking your brain” to gain better health. Some might call this mindfulness and others refer to it as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the technical term used to explain how you can retrain your brain to think more positively, even teach it new tricks. Someone who suffers a brain injury can help their mind create new neurons, which allows the creation of new pathways for messages to be sent from the brain to the rest of the body. If speech is interrupted, neuroplasticity techniques can be used to create new pathways to improve speech.
Hacking your brain is about the same thing. You are going to use your mind and your nervous system to help your body recover from training, stress from work, stress from relationships, and other stress issues.
As you already know, the sympathetic nervous system is an automatic response system we understand as our flight or fight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite, where your body is at rest and in the “digest” stage. While your sympathetic nervous system reacts to stress when there is a threat or injury, the parasympathetic nervous system helps control your body’s functions when at rest. Your muscles relax, and your heart rate goes to a resting phase.
Top 20 Ways To Reduce Stress and Enhance Recovery
The following 20 tools and methods can help your body return to a parasympathetic state, to overcome the flight or fight factors you experience during stress. While this is not an exhaustive list, these are the most instantly applicable ways to combat stress and recover and perform stronger than ever.
#1 Sleeping Is The Foundation of Recovery
To build a solid recovery process, you must start with the foundations. No matter how dialed in your training program and execution may be, or how structured your nutritional strategies are, each of these two factors become highly dependent on your lifestyle, especially as it pertains to the amount of stress in your life.
You cannot out train or out eat poor sleep habits coupled with a lifestyle of constant physical and emotional stress. These place a heavy strain on the CNS (Central Nervous System) over extended periods of time.
Sleep is defined as a natural periodic state of rest for the mind and body, in which the eyes are closed, and consciousness is lost so that there is a decrease in bodily movement and responsiveness to external stimuli. When we sleep well, we wake up feeling refreshed and alert for our daily activities.
Sleep affects how we look, feel and perform on a regular basis, and can have a significant impact on our overall quality of life. Also, it allows your body time to heal. If you go without this valuable necessity in your life, your healing process is interrupted. The body is designed in such a way that you will always heal from your wounds after a period of sleep.
#2 Parasympathetic Breathing Post Workout
So how do we recover faster to train harder and more frequently? Sure, nutrition, hydration, and stress all play a role, but what about the time it takes us to shift from a sympathetic based CNS response in training to a parasympathetic based response that allows the recovery process to start doing its work?
That intermediary period between your last set and the time where your CNS comes down off the sympathetic bender it’s been on in the gym needs to be minimized. One of the most effective methods to do that is by using recovery breathing as the last “exercise” of the day before you leave the gym.
How To Do It
Recovery breathing is about the position and setup. The passive positioning of the arms and legs help with centralized drainage of lymphatic fluid. The spine remains in a relatively neutral position to reduce the threat-response to the body. You basically get your body as comfortable as possible for the goal of reversing the CNS response from training.
Try to find a quiet area of the gym away from music or noise.
Lay on your back with your head resting on the ground.
Elevate your legs to above heart level with knees slightly bent.
Elevate your arms overhead.
Close your eyes and relax the body.
From this position, you should be able to relax every single muscle in your body to allow a fully passive response to take place. From here, focus on only one single movement: your breathe. Stay here for 5-10 minutes and walk out recharged.
Tempo of Breath
Inhale 3-4 seconds
Hold 2-3 seconds
Exhale 6-8 seconds
#3 Sauna and Steam Room
Saunas and steam rooms offer similar detoxification and energy for your body. Steam rooms use heat and moisture, while some saunas are meant to be a dry heat. Both will help you relax and recover.
The use of ice has been debunked and does not help to recover faster from injuries but heat is well known to help with some physical conditions. Heat is also known to help relieve cramps and relax your muscles. To aid in your recovery after significant stress or extensive training, using a sauna or steam room will provide relaxed muscles, help with any cramping, and potentially reduce injury time. Although most studies done on sauna come from regular dry heat saunas but infra-red sauna that utilize red light is coming out with some tremendous benefits.
Enhanced detoxification (particularly useful prior to a weight cut)
Heat Shock Protein (HSP) Activation
Reduced Protein Degradation
Greater Muscle Regrowth following immobilization
Greater Muscle Retention during immobilization
Increased Growth Hormone
Increased Insulin Sensitivity
Anti-depression (Red light sauna)