Your body is hard-wired to react to stress in ways that are meant to protect you in a life-or-death situation. A couple million years ago, this was absolutely necessary. Our ancestors primarily dealt with immediate threats, such as a saber tooth tiger looking to you as their next meal.
When the danger passed, we were safe to return to baseline and go about our business. In the modern world, we're not fighting off saber tooth tigers—but that doesn’t mean that we don’t face dangers; they’re just more subtle and constant. Unfortunately, our body still recognizes and treats these events as attacks. Imagine facing a single massive threats... pretty scary right? Now imagine facing a million, tiny, little, persistent threats all day, every day. Pretty sure I'd prefer the former! But this is how we live our lives.
The release of cortisol, our primary stress hormone, causes a number of changes that help to protect us in the face of a threat. It mobilizes energy (in the form of glucose) and increases heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, muscle tension and the availability of substances that repair tissue. It also temporarily alters the immune system and suppresses our digestive and reproductive systems, as these functions are not necessary for immediate survival (e.g., running from that tiger).
Short term, the changes we experience in response to stress are adaptive for survival. One-off surges in cortisol calm inflammation, enhance memory, focus and decision-making, and efficiently rev up metabolism to replenish our energy reserves(1). However, if we experience repeated and consistent stress over many weeks (we’ll talk about different types of stressors later), we can alter our inherent sensitivity to stress and our body's response.
Frequent stress impairs the ability of the hypothalamus to turn off our stress response, resulting in an accumulation of stress hormones that wear and tear on the brain and body. While our bodies are extremely adaptable and can continue to function under very high levels of stress for a prolonged period of time, we do so at the expense of other regulatory functions.
Our immune system, digestive system and reproductive system become chronically downregulated and may shut down completely. Unfortunately, this is usually a subtle, slow build and we often don’t notice that something is wrong until we are experiencing a number of uncomfortable symptoms, many of which you rarely associate with stress.
- You have trouble falling or staying asleep
- You wake up multiple times at night to relieve yourself (Barring certain medical conditions, you should not be waking up more than once or twice on a bad night. When you sleep, you release specific hormones to turn down bodily functions so you can make it through the night undisturbed)
- NEEDING coffee to get out of bed or get going
- Fatigue, regardless of how well you may sleep
- Brain fog, trouble concentrating, forgetfulness
- Light-headedness, dizziness, afternoon headaches
- Sleepiness mid-afternoon (around 2-4 p.m.) or at unusual times (shift workers, etc)
- Chronic inflammation, achy joints, water retention, puffiness
- High or low blood sugar, insulin resistance
- Anxiety (especially around bedtime, middle of the night or upon waking)
- Depression, lack of motivation, burnout
- Consistently feeling trashed after you work out regardless of intensity
- Low or no sex drive
- Irregular periods or amenorrhea (periods stop all together)
- Constantly getting sick, random increases in allergy or asthma symptoms
- Unexplained weight gain or inability to lose weight (despite “doing all the right things”)
- Bloating, gas, cramps, diarrhea or constipation
- Lack of appetite
I’m willing to bet that most of you have experienced at least one or two of these symptoms in the last month. They may be common, but that does not mean that they are normal or healthy. Our culture and society treat these symptoms and "just things we deal with" and throw medications at them. Do not accept them as everyday parts of life!
Your body is great at telling you that it needs some support, and you are fully capable of providing that support. The biggest issue is that we've lost our ability to hear our body's communication. But let's not pretend we can avoid stress altogether... it is a part of life in this world of ours. You are never going to magically wake up and be rid of everything difficult, so the first step is to be able to identify unnecessary stress triggers and learn how to keep them in check.
The easiest way to conceptualize your body’s limit is through the bucket analogy.
Imagine you have a bucket, which represents your body. Every time you experience a stressful event, water is poured into the bucket. All buckets have room to hold some water, but if the water continues to pour in, the bucket will overflow.
This is the breaking point, and as the water level inches towards the top, we begin to experience symptoms of chronic stress just like the bucket would experience the pressure of being close to overflow. Unlike other buckets, ours has a relief valve at the bottom which represents coping techniques and things we can do to reduce the effects of our stressors. The more quickly and frequently we can open the valve, the easier it is to keep the water at an optimal level.
Now we need to look at what is filling the bucket, where is the water coming from? If you take away just one point from this post, let it be this: Stress isn’t limited to daily demands, like taking on a huge workload, deadlines, relationships, money, etc. Stress comes in all shapes, sizes and forms, and our bodies are constantly bombarded with things that trigger a stress response, adding water to our bucket, drop by drop.
Here are some common “sneaky” sources of stress:
- Positive or exciting life events
- Lack of sleep or disrupted sleep
- Mental or emotional stress
- Gut imbalances or chronic infections
- Food sensitivities
- Environmental toxins
The single most effective way to empty that stress bucket is...
Stress and sleep are intimately connected and can sometimes have a complicated relationship (i.e., stress disrupts sleep and poor sleep causes stress).
Here’s how you can start to take control of some of these other triggers.
Mental or emotional stress is one of the primary factors that traps you in a hyper stressed state. But with practice, you can control it. Emotional stress can be caused by a number of factors such as overextending yourself, pressure to be the best, comparing yourself to others, ruminating and worrying, lack of purpose, unresolved trauma or isolation, holding in your feelings. For now, we’re going to focus on one specific behavior: negative self-talk.
Did you know that the way you talk to yourself can elicit a stress response similar to what you may experience if you were to run into a bear(2,3)? How crazy is that! Negative self-talk refers to your inner critic (“I am an idiot.” “I can’t do this,” “I always mess up.” “I have no self-control,” “everyone hates me.” “this is my fault.”) but this dialogue can take on several forms beyond the voices in your head—perfectionism, filtering, mind-reading, self-guessing, personalizing/blaming, catastrophizing—and often mimics the voice of a parent, friend or partner that has hurt our feelings.
You can start to turn this around by simply noticing what you are saying to yourself and labeling the thought as negative or positive. This will give you an idea of when and how often you are doing it and give you a chance to stop the thought process.
If you recognize that you are consistently negative in specific situations, like at work, initiate a short movement break during that time to stop the cycle. Stand up, stretch and BREATHE, or step outside for a 10-minute walk. Pay attention to the sky, the people walking by, the trees … whatever is around you; just don’t bring those thoughts outside with you. Picture yourself actually slamming the door closed on them. This will give your nervous system a break.
When you run into negative thoughts, especially ones that keep coming up, ask yourself "is it true?". “I’m so stupid”... but are you REALLY? For every negative thought you have about yourself, see if you can actually find back up that it's true. And if that doesn't work, think of someone in your life that you love and respect, then ask yourself if that person would have you in their life if this thought were indeed true. Sometimes it's hard to break the cycle without thinking of how another would view us, but in this instance we're not basing our worth on what someone else thinks of us. Instead we are using our respect for that person and their feelings for us to help us see our own worth.
Finally, challenge yourself to add a positive thought to counter the negative one, and do so in the third-person (you, he, she). This might sound weird, but research has shown that speaking to yourself in the third person provides some psychological distance from the experience, which helps you to regulate your emotions(4). So, if you are stuck on thinking “I’m fat,” immediately replace it with something that you like about yourself, like “you are strong.” Each time you do this, a little water leaves your bucket.
Anything that knocks your body out of homeostasis (your individual equilibrium or balance) is considered a stressor. When you eat a poor diet high in processed foods, sodium, saturated fats and sugar, you can overload your organ systems (such as your liver or kidney) that work to filter out things you don’t need. All of your organ systems work together, so if the liver and kidney cannot efficiently do their jobs, everything else struggles, too. You can’t achieve homeostasis, and your body starts to sound the alarm to protect itself.
It’s also important to understand that everything you eat sends your body information. Each molecule of food contributes to a unique set of instructions about which hormones to make and release, which proteins are expressed and if the body needs genes to turn on or off. If your diet is unbalanced, the messages your body receives may be confused or lost altogether.
In balance, hormonal signaling in your brain and body should be tightly regulated. But if you consistently experience huge swings in your hormone levels in response to the foods you eat, that regulation is thrown out of whack. This type of stress is like a leaky faucet dripping into your bucket. At first, the slow drops aren’t much of a concern, but after a while, if the faucet hasn’t been fixed, the accumulation of water can cause significant damage.
Additionally, chronically under-eating, especially restricting calories below your basal metabolic rate as we see in many diet plans, will also elevate cortisol levels(5). When you are not eating enough, your body may not have enough resources to carry on basic functions. This puts your body in crisis-mode. But because humans are extremely resilient, your brain activates a stress response to slow down your metabolism and to keep your body going on adrenaline and cortisol.
Your diet can be your worst enemy or your biggest ally. Remember that cortisol causes changes to your appetite by making you more intensely crave carbs and sugar (to quickly replenish energy). But if you don’t really need that energy (because you aren’t fighting a predator), those foods will lead to huge blood-sugar spikes and crashes, perpetuating your stressed state.
You can learn to acknowledge that your body is trying to protect you and to provide it with the nutrients to support your organs, gut and brain. Do this by eating balanced, whole food meals of healthy fats, complex carbs and high-quality protein. Stress also creates greater physiological demands, increasing your need for specific nutrients like vitamin B, vitamin C, selenium and mageniusm(6).
Include lots of vegetables and build meals that include lots of different colors (3-5 is a good goal). The different nutrients in vegetables give them their characteristic colors, so this strategy helps to ensure you are providing your body with lots of resources.
In general, your workouts should leave you feeling energized. Sure, immediately after you finish something tough you may need 10-20 minutes to recover, but if you are regularly hitting a wall mid-workout or leaving the gym feeling like you need a nap to function, you are overloading your system.
This one is a hard pill to swallow. Many of us use exercise as a form of stress relief and that's not necessarily a bad thing. However, it’s important to understand that intense exercise in itself elicits a large stress response from the body. We experience many benefits from the adaptations in response to that stress (a boost in energy, mood, metabolism), and a healthy body can easily return normal function afterward. However, if your bucket is getting full, a high-intensity workout can be enough to push you over the edge.
If you are struggling to get through or recover from your workouts, think about taking more days to rest between your workouts and opt for lower-intensity exercise such as strength training and incorporate things like yoga, walking or hiking. You can still enjoy your CrossFit workout, but consider taking the intensity down several notches—scale the rep scheme, reduce the weight, or think about just moving your body instead of pushing your limits. This might require you to LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR (which also will help empty your bucket), but your body will thank you in the long run.
Finding the Balance
Just because you aren’t on the verge of a mental breakdown doesn’t mean that you’re not stressed out. If you’ve been living in high stress for a while, you may even feel like you are handling it well or that you aren’t that stressed at all. Remember, we normalize feeling stressed in this society! Keep in mind that if you get to the point of feeling overwhelmed, your bucket is already overflowing.
The key here is first learning to listen to your body and its cues, then to find balance and flexibility in your lifestyle to keep stress at a manageable level. If you take on more stress in one area (like a new project at work), you should anticipate reducing it somewhere else (drop the intensity of your workouts). You just have to recognize when water is pouring in and know how and when to reach for that relief valve.
- McEwen B. S. (2005). Stressed or stressed out: what is the difference?. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN, 30(5), 315–318.
- Maydych V. (2019). The Interplay Between Stress, Inflammation, and Emotional Attention: Relevance for Depression. Frontiers in neuroscience, 13, 384.
- Tod D, Hardy J, Oliver E. (2011) Effects of self-talk: a systematic review. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 33(5):666-87.
- Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, 304-324.
- Tomiyama AJ, Mann T, Vinas D, Hunger JM, Dejager J, Taylor SE. (2010). Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine, 72(4):357-64.
- Singh K. (2016). Nutrient and Stress Management. Journal of Nutrition and Food Sciences, 6:4 doi: 10.4172/2155-9600.1000528
Inspiration provided by Dr. Courtney King at locomationfit.com.