Stress. It’s a term that can be thrown around flippantly but it’s something we all experience at different times.
We all strive for a “stress-free life” but, if truth be told, a little bit of stress isn’t always a bad thing; for example, deadline stress can be a useful source of motivation to get things done.
Some physical stress can be good for you. When you push yourself during a workout, it encourages your body to make positive adaptations to the physical stress, so you’ll become stronger and more resilient.
The real problem with stress is when it’s experienced long-term. This can have a detrimental effect on our bodies and our brains. And, from a fitness perspective, this can make it a lot harder to lose weight, or even to maintain a healthy weight.
Avoiding all stress is impossible but learning how to deal with it effectively, isn’t.
If you are someone who doesn’t cope well with stress, take a look at some of the physical consequences of stress and then I’ll give you some simple stress management strategies to help you handle whatever life throws at you.
The consequences of long-term stress on your health
Stress increases your cortisol levels
Stress is not just an emotional state, it’s a physical response that releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. When we’re stressed, extra cortisol is released by our adrenal glands. Prolonged stress leads to chronically elevated cortisol levels which can have a number of negative effects including poor sleep, weight gain, sugar cravings, poor gut health and a compromised immune system.
Stress impacts your digestive health
When stress activates our “fight or flights’ mode this can slow down our digestion. This is because blood is drawn away from our gut and instead towards our brain and muscles- preparing us for action but wreaking havoc on our digestive system.
Stress can impact the quality of your sleep (which is yet another physical stressor!)
When someone tells you not to ‘lose sleep’ over something, they’re talking about stress. There’s nothing worse than lying in bed, feeling worried and anxious. These feelings of stress and anxiety make it difficult to fall asleep and this can be a relentless cycle.
Stress can increase your cravings for junk food
As if avoiding junk food wasn’t hard enough, some studies have linked elevated cortisol levels studies to an increase in junk food cravings. Maybe that’s why you’re more likely to go for a cupcake than a carrot when you’re on a tight deadline!
Stress can cause weight gain… even if you aren’t eating more!
Even if you somehow manage to hold onto your willpower (good on you!) and avoided the junk food cravings, you might not be out of the weight-gain woods yet.
Why? Prolonged periods of stress means your body has an increased level of cortisol and insulin levels for extended periods of time. When this happens your body changes how it burns and stores energy. Instead of your body burning most of your blood glucose as energy, as it normally would, the increased cortisol and insulin levels triggers your body to store that glucose…. as fat! What’s worse, it usually stores the extra fat right in our lower abdomen. That’s right, long-term stress can create belly fat, even if we aren’t eating any more than we usually do!
So now that we’ve covered the why, let’s look at some simple stress-relieving strategies to get back on track to good health.
De-stress tip 1: Exercise!
Exercise releases those feel-good endorphins we so desperately need, and physical activity can also serve as a distraction from the everyday stresses of life.
I love to head to the gym for a solid workout or I’ll take Hendrix for a walk when I need some ‘mess’ time, fresh air and to only think about the task at hand. I always feel energised after a workout and it’s a great opportunity for my mind to reset.
De-stress tip 2: Practice mindfulness
As someone who is always “go, go, go’, ensuring I take at least five minutes out of my day to commit to my mindfulness practice is not just important, it’s necessary. This was a gradual process and certainly not something that came naturally to me so don’t worry if it seems a little strange at first. Whether it’s yoga, listening to a podcast or using a mindfulness app, taking time to switch off is something I make part of my daily routine because I know it is important for my overall wellbeing.
De-stress tip 3: Go tech-free
I always tell my 28ers that technology can be your best friend, or your worst enemy. If you find yourself feeling stressed about the number of emails in your inbox or what other people are getting up to on social media – it’s time to switch off and reset.
De-stress tip 4: Nourish your body
Drinking enough water, eating fresh, quality foods full of antioxidants can also have a huge impact on your mental wellbeing, not just your physical.
Never underestimate the power of feeding your body the right fuel and avoiding things that produce physiological stress, such as cigarettes and alcohol. Your body (and your mind) will thank you for it.
Stress might be unavoidable, but it is manageable. It’s important to learn how to keep it in check so you never feel overwhelmed or that you can’t cope. Find some strategies that work for you and make them a regular part of your lifestyle. And if you still need help, always reach out to someone for support.