Why is stress management important? What affect is it having on you and your training? These are questions that I come across all the time in my 6 years of running UNIT 22 and, knowing first-hand how stress affects me and my training, I thought it would be a good time to share that with you.
Stress is often considered one of those things that we just live with as part of modern day life, which is partly true. We do live more stressful lives than our ancestors in certain ways, although many of those early human stressors (like finding food and survival) have been taken out of the equation and replaced with psychological stressors like pressure at work, in education, or even at home.
The stress response in the human body is very complex and involves many neurological and hormonal connections that create a physiological response by your body trying to cope with the stressor (stimulus). Going back thousands of years, we had stressors that threatened our lives, either the prospect of being eaten by another animal or trying to find or hunt for food. These stressors would only last for a short time before disappearing i.e. we escape from the horrible animal trying to eat us and then the body would return to normal, known as homeostasis.
Homeostasis is the state of equilibrium, or balance, that your body is constantly trying to maintain, because everything works at its best at a certain temperature or pH or glucose level etc., etc. If homeostasis is threatened, the body initiates a response to maintain that balanced level. For example, if you sit in a sauna, your body temperature will start to rise, which your brain doesn’t like, so it causes increased blood flow to your skin to radiate heat and also increased rate of sweating to cause evaporation of water to dissipate heat away from the body and maintain that magic range of between 36.5-37.5 degrees.
A stress response is actually a good thing, because it means you are recognising something as a threat and initiating processes by which you can get rid of that threat and maintain homeostasis. However, being in a prolonged state of stress from different areas of life can cause problems, which we’ll discuss shortly. These days a lot of the stressors that cause a stress response in the human body tend to hang around for longer and the stress response to maintain homeostasis becomes prolonged and this is where stress develops a bad name.
Many stressors in our lives these days are psychological, which means we perceive them as a threat and don’t have a coping strategy in our brains to eliminate the threat before our body initiates a physiological response.
Here’s a bit of science – our frontal cortex (in the brain) processes a thought that it perceives as a threat and then sends a signal to an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then sends a signal to the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys, and they release adrenaline and noradrenaline into our bloodstream. This is the first stage of our “Fight or Flight Response” and is the primal stress response of all animals. It’s basically getting the body ready for action after perceiving something as a threat. This stage causes increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, increased blood glucose levels, increased blood flow to muscles and general alertness to allow the body to respond quickly.
Next, the hypothalamus sends a hormonal signal to the pituitary gland, which then releases a host of hormones that target different organs and tissues to create the next stage of the stress response which can be maintained until the threat is gone. This stage results in a release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal glands, the best known of which is cortisol, as well as thyroid hormones and anti-diuretic hormones.
This surge of hormones through the body causes some big changes in your physiology, such as increased blood pressure due to the anti-diuretic hormone, suppressed appetite and immune function from cortisol and increased blood glucose from adrenaline and cortisol. If the stressor that has caused this response from our body continues, for example pressure at work or a stressful personal financial situation, then our brains will continue to generate this neurological and hormonal stimulus to try to eliminate or cope with the stressor and maintain homeostasis. This could potentially lead us to a state of chronic stress, which doesn’t do us any favours when it comes to living life or training.
A state of stress obviously causes those factors we’ve discussed above, which then have a knock-on effect on other mechanisms in the body. Blood sugar control takes a hit because our body is constantly fighting against the effects of adrenaline and cortisol calling for increased blood glucose, which isn’t being used to run away from a deadly animal, so insulin is released to absorb the glucose. Blood that is higher in glucose is thicker and harder to pump around the body, so our hearts have to work harder, which they’re already doing because of the initial hormonal stress response from adrenaline and noradrenaline. Plus, the constant battle of blood glucose levels and insulin makes us more susceptible to insulin resistance. Adrenaline has also been shown to inhibit the release of insulin, which makes our blood glucose and stress problem worse.
Higher levels of cortisol have been shown to effect sleep patterns, which will obviously have a detrimental effect on our recovery and mental state. When we wake up in the morning we have a large spike of cortisol which drops off throughout the day and is at its lowest at night and when we go to sleep. If we are in a stressed state, increased circulating cortisol will fool the body into thinking that we need to stay awake for something and therefore our sleep patterns will be effected. Sleep is hugely beneficial for us physiologically and psychologically as it allows our body tissues to repair and recover and our brain to process thoughts and repair as well. If this is interrupted, then we are not happy humans.
The stressed state can also have a knock-on effect on the sex hormones testosterone, oestrogen, progesterone and luteinising hormone, which have a huge effect on the sperm count in men and inconsistent menstrual cycles in women. We’ll discuss this further in a separate article coming soon.
All of this sounds pretty serious (and it can be if we let stress get the better of us) but being able to cope with stress by having strategies for relief will help us hugely. What we don’t want is to reach a state of tissue fatigue, essentially where the body doesn’t respond to the hormonal stimulus due to insensitivity and things start to shut off or don’t work efficiently and we find it harder to maintain that state of homeostasis. This eventually leads to dysfunction and disease.
So, what can you do about it and how will it affect your training? Well, finding some sort of coping strategy for your stressful situation is important, which will help your body overcome the sustained response to that stressful situation. Coping strategies will be different for everyone and it would take a whole article to give examples of what you could try, plus it’s sometimes a case of trial and error, to see what works and what doesn’t.
One thing that has been proven to work is exercising! (YAY!) Your body will see exercise as you either fighting or running away from the situation that is causing you stress (the fight or flight response we discussed earlier). The physiology of this is complicated, but essentially it will reset that stress response/cascade due to the hormones and physiological mechanisms we discussed earlier in this article and bring your body back down to that lovely calm state of homeostasis.
There’s also the mental aspect of doing some exercise when you’re stressed, which distracts you from the stressor and allows you to think about something completely different while you’re exercising.
Another important factor in exercising, certainly in a class environment like UNIT 22, is the social aspect of stress management. Coming to the gym and being away from the environment that causes you stress, not having to think about it for an hour or so and also perhaps talking to people about what is stressing you out can help you understand it more and develop strategies to cope with (or eliminate) the stress. The power of being able to talk to someone about what’s stressing you out is huge and that’s often something that you’ll find in the middle of a class being away from the stressor having made sense of the situation with your peers.
What effect is stress going to have on your training? Even though exercising is going to help you cope with stress, the stress can have an effect on your training if it’s been going on for a while. I’ve had the following conversation with so many people at the gym over the years and it always results in the same conclusion:
Member: “I feel like my training has hit a bit of plateau recently. I haven’t hit any PBs and I just feel tired all the time.”
Me: “How come? Are you still enjoying training?”
Member: “Yes, but I’m not enjoying it as much as before.”
Me: “Is there anything going on at home or at work that might be stressing you out?”
Member: “Hmmm, well I have just got a new job and I’m working quite long hours to get my foot in the door, which is quite stressful.”
“I hate my job and I don’t want to be there anymore, but I’m struggling to find something else. I suppose I’m stressing out about that?”
That realisation on somebody’s face when they workout that their training has been affected by what’s going on elsewhere in their lives is awesome to watch, because they knew it but they didn’t want to accept it.
All we’ve discussed above is going to put your body systems under more pressure to just stay alive and maintain that magic homeostasis, so it’s no wonder your training might not be feeling great while you’re going through a stressful time. So many of us put extra pressure on ourselves to be better in the gym; to lift that extra kilo on a back squat, or do that extra pull-up in a workout, but that extra pressure is giving us extra stress which we definitely don’t need at that point if we’re already stressed.
If you are feeling stressed, all you need to do is come into the gym and do what you need to do to get rid of that stress on that day. That’s going to make you feel better about the initial stress that you felt, without putting extra pressure on yourself to “perform”.
In conclusion, MOVEMENT IS MEDICINE and we deal in movement!
If you have any questions about this article or your training, speak to Greg or one of the other UNIT 22 Coaching Team.