work stress

Ok, so stress is killing me. What do I do?

Ok, so in the first part of the article we reviewed all the ways stress can negatively effect your health, body composition, etc.. So, now you’re probably asking yourself how the h-e-double hockey sticks am I supposed combat this stress short of quitting my job and moving to an island in the middle of the Pacific ocean? (Man…. that does sound nice doesn’t it? Sigh….). Well, let’s talk about that. First let’s identify where the stress is coming from. Some of you may be in for a few surprises. Then will talk about some ways to reduce stress.

work stress

Psychological Stress

Well, duh right?! Yes, impending work assignments, financial problems, and just a busy schedule in general will cause undo stress especially if this type of stress is chronic, unrelenting, and from multiple sources. I think most of us just try to do way too much. Technology was supposed to make things easier, quicker, more efficient… and it has. However, we’ve taken the extra time and crammed it full of more work, more afters-school activities for our kids, more, more, more. Technology has also made it nearly (nearly, I say) impossible to leave work at work. We’re constantly “on” when we are constantly accessible via email, cell phone, etc. And let’s not forget all the family and relationship stress that can be factored in; that’s a whole other can of worms. Suffice it to say modern day life is a a land mine of psychological stress bombs and we’re going to have to learn how to tip toe our way through our daily lives so we don’t “blow up” so to speak. So here are some tips to reduce psychological stress:

  1. Schedule Less: Nope, I am not going to tell you to be better with time management or to get a planner and designate a time for  everything . That accomplishes nothing more than adding more stress for most of us. If you can’t organize your day in that big ole computer attached to your neck called your brain you’re probably doing too much. Keep the activities that make you feel good and that you enjoy and ditch the rest. Stop feeling “bad” about not going to every charity function, social club, or invitation to dinner that comes your way. Oh, and your kids need a hectic schedule even less than you do. Having multiple after school activities every day of the week is far too much for them to handle (And it’s shitty for them developmentally!- Chuck) and it only adds to your list of things to get done in the day. Let them be kids. Pick one or two activities they love (this is important!) and teach them stress management early on.
  2. Get comfortable saying “No”: This ties into the ” schedule less” category  but I think this concept deserves a little more attention. Many of us are raised to be people pleasers, especially us ladies. I’m very guilty of this. I want everyone to be happy. I want everyone to like me. I want to be everyone’s hero, super girl, their Number 1 go-to-girl. Guess what. It isn’t worth it after a while. You’re miserable  and either have no time to do the things you love or you have so much on your plate you can’t do anything well and end up disappointed in yourself because you couldn’t handle it all. So, if you don’t have time, feel obligated, or simply do not want to do something get comfortable saying no. You don’t have to be rude but you also don’t have to offer a ton of excuses or reasons why you can’t. A simple “I already have plans.” or “I don’t think I can do that right now.” is fine. If it’s your boss asking you to take on another task I’d say “I don’t think I can give that the attention it deserves given my work load right now,” and ask for them to prioritize tasks for you. Remember, this is your health and your happiness we’re talking about. A lifetime of being the yes girl or boy doesn’t make for a very happy life nor a life spent doing the things YOU deem important.
  3. Take time to relax: Very few of make time for relaxing. When’s the last time you just “did nothing” or had an afternoon when that was the “agenda?” If you don’t know off the top of your head, it has been far too long. Your body and your brain both need time to decompress and just rest (Not to mention your endocrine system!). So take the time to do nothing or yo do something just for fun. Take a walk with your spouse, play with your kids, cook a meal together. Lay around! My family used to come home from church every Sunday and we all took a nap. Don’t feel lazy. Enjoy it knowing your body appreciates it and NEEDS this to function optimally. Also, yoga, meditation, and taking care of our spiritual selves is important for stress reduction. If you need help “getting out of your head” try a yoga class. There’s something pretty magical about doing yoga. I always feel incredibly relaxed and just in a better mood when I leave. I’ll admit I need to do more of this type activity. Hubby and I are actually planning our next training cycle with “yoga days” built in. If yoga isn’t your thing find some kind of activity that is. For some people going to church offers a kind of support, community, and a belief system that gives them peace of mind. Whatever it is, find the activity that helps you unwind and leaves you feeling refreshed and do it regularly.

saying no

Illness and Trauma

So being sick obviously taxes the body. But for the most part our bodies can handle the occasional tummy virus or flu bug. In fact, our immune system works exceptionally well if we let it get a little “exercise” (Pssst… Hey, you!  Yeah, you wiping down every visible surface with antibacterial wipes. You don’t need to sanitize everything!). But, when one is chronically ill, chronically in pain, or when major trauma occurs (think major motor vehicle accident, major burns, major surgery) the stress response is triggered. Also, being chronically stressed makes you more susceptible to major illnesses, as we learned in the first part of this article. While it’s a little unrealistic for me to say, “Don’t get cancer”, I do think it is important to:

a) avoid trauma when possible (aka don’t be stupid and do ridiculous and risky things. K?)

b) Manage stress so that your immune system doesn’t become unnecessarily compromised and

c) If you do have an acute or  chronic disease which is within your control, make sure you treat it. Think dental cavities, Type I and II Diabetes, skin infections, etc. Don’t let things get out of hand.

Sleep Deprivation

Most of us are rarely getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night. I know when I was younger I got by on 4-5 hours per night regularly. My naieve 20 something self thought that I was doing myself a favor by burning more calories staying up later and getting more done at the same time. Boy was I wrong. Sleep deprivation reduces glucose tolerance and triggers increased cortisol production and the sympathetic nervous system.  Studies show that chronic sleep deprivation (defined as 6 hours or less per night over the course of 14 days) causes cognitive performance deficits equal to 48 hours of complete sleep deprivation. So, not sleeping enough triggers the stress response which we know causes a whole host of problems including glucose tolerance problems, neurotransmitter irregularities, GI disturbances, thyroid problems, etc., etc. etc. AND it makes you stupid! So, if you think you need to get to work early and stay up late to “get ahead” think again. And obviously I was sadly mistaken when I thought I was “burning more calories”. If anything I was making it even harder for me to lose weight.  So let’s talk about making sure we get enough sleep and improving the quality of our sleep:

Mimic natural sunlight exposure as much as possible

Most of us spend a ton of time indoors. We don’t get outside into natural sunlight for hours as our ancestors did and when we do we’re usually covered up in clothes and sunscreen from tip to toe. If you live in Florida, like Chuck and I, or somewhere similar the summer months can mean temperatures that are extreme and it’s sometimes dangerous to get outside. You’re asking yourself, “What does sunshine have to do with sleep, crazy woman?”. Well, it turns out when we humans don’t get an adequate amount of sunlight all kinds of things get wonky. Besides the benefits of Vitamin D production, which is involved in calcium metabolism and optimum immune function, our bodies produce more serotonin and melatonin when we’re exposed to sunlight! Say what? Yep. It’s been found that skin cells have receptors for both serotonin and melatonin and when we’re exposed to enough sunlight we tend to produce more seratonin. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that improves mood and anxiety. People with Seasonal Affective Disorder become depressed because of decreased sunlight exposure during the winter which lowers serotonin levels. Most of us have probably heard of melatonin, but if not, it’s the hormone that induces sleepiness and is produced by the pineal gland. Guess what melatonin’s precursor is? Serotonin! So, if you’re not getting enough sunlight, not only are you probably feeling a little depressed, you probably aren’t producing as much melatonin as you should and probably aren’t sleeping very well. Also, if you’re exposed to too much artificial, bright light after the natural setting of the sun then you aren’t allowing the pineal gland to produce melatonin because melatonin production is inhibited by bright light and induced by darkness. So, make sure you are getting some exposure to sunlight daily (avoiding burning of course). If you can workout outside, do it. If you can take your lunch break outdoors, fantastic. If you find that it’s nearly impossible to get outside during the day on a regular basis you might consider using full spectrum light bulbs which mimic natural sun exposure. Also, making sure to dim lights and using the computer or watching T.V. close to bedtime would be ideal for melatonin production. However, if you’re like me, all the work on my own projects (like this blog) are either done of the weekends or at night after I get some from work and working out. So, the next best thing to do is download the Flux program for your computer. The program naturally adjusts the lighting display on your computer to mimic a more natural light depending on the time of day. Oh and keep your bedroom COMPLETELY dark. No little electronic lights or alarm clock lights. No night lights. Nada. “How do I make sure I wake up on time?,” you ask? Well, ideally you would wake up without an alarm clock if you get into a good circadian rhythm and routine. However, if you are worried you’ll oversleep and your boss just won’t understand your attempt to adopt a more natural sleep-wake cycle try using a light based alarm clock . I can’t seem to find one of these alarm clocks without a display that turns completely off but most of them dim. I would suggest covering the display with a piece of duct tape to ensure complete darkness.

Food/GI “Stress”

Ok, so diet and GI health is a HUGE (I think the biggest) controllable factor in our general health. If you are eating foods that are causing GI distress, inflammation, fat gain, insulin resistance, then you are causing your body an incredible amount of stress. The simple solution is to avoid eating foods that cause inflammation and eat an appropriate amount of food for your activity level. We believe the best way to do this is to eat a paleolithic or primal diet. Eating this way eliminates the foods that cause inflammation and stress that can reek havoc on your adrenals as well as the rest of your body. We aren’t 100% paleo but 85-95% of the time we are and we feel and look better because of it.

Physical Stress/Exercise

Exercise is generally a good thing. It  increases insulin sensitivity, lowers body fat and increases lean mass (i.e. helps us look good nekkid), increases testosterone and growth hormone levels, etc. etc. But, when we take working out to extremes and do too much too often we can a lot of problems. You’ve probably heard the term “overtraining” and maybe you’ve even experienced it. Signs andsymptoms of overtraining include: chronic fatigue, depression, irritability, decreased strength and general athletic performance, insomnia, increased resting heart rate, decreased immune function, among other various symptoms. Some women will stop getting their cycles, men may have problems with libido or erectile dysfunction.

The problems associated with too much exercise are much like the symptoms caused by psychological stress, insufficient sleep, and eating and inflammatory diet because in a sense it IS the same thing.

The source of the stress is just different. BUT before you use this as an excuse to stop working out altogether let’s talk about what constitutes too much exercise. The type and amount of training that causes one to become physiological stress or overtraining  is not well defined. Very intense workouts too often, too much work volume in general, and/or very long workouts have all been implicated as causing overtraining. It is likely dependant on the athlete, their nutrition, their sleep and recovery work, and the other stressors in their lives that dictate how much and what kind of training is too much. Regardless, when exercise is “enjoyed” in amounts too great to adequately recover from, testosterone and growth hormone levels decrease and  the stress/cortisol response is kickstarted. So, in order to decrease the risk of overtraining and exercise related adrenal problems one must KNOW thyself and LISTEN to one’s bodies and follow training program designed by SMART trainers. So, that means balancing short hard and very intense workouts (think heavy metcons under 12 minutes) with slightly longer, lighter or bodyweight workouts.

Limit long, moderate to low intensity workouts like runs as the training benefits are small and outweighed by the risk of overtraining and overuse injury.

Throw some lifting only and skill days in the mix and make sure to do your recovery work (foam rolling, stretching, yoga). And take rest days. In my opinion, you need at least one complete rest day per week. NO, an “active rest day” doesn’t cut it. Freaking take a break! If you honestly feel like working out everyday of the week you are probably not at any risk of overtraining because your workouts aren’t intense enough to cause enough stress to cause problems. And if you’re following someone else’s programming learn to look at it critically. Is it loaded with long chippers and grinding beatdowns without any heavy, short metcons? Always think about power output when looking at metabolic workout pieces. Or is it all about the short heavy days without any recovery or lighter days planned?

If you find the program unbalanced bring it up, ask questions, plan your own workouts, or find another gym.

Source (among many others):
Plasma cortisol, androstenedione, testosterone and luteinizing hormone in running exercise of different intensities
1980, Vol. 40, No. 5 , Pages 403-409 (doi:10.3109/00365518009101862)
K. Kuoppasalmi1H. Näveri1M. Härkönen1 and H. Adlercreutz1

1Department of Clinical Chemistry, University of Helsinki, Meilahti Hospital, Helsinki, Finland
Correspondence: H. Adlercreutz, Department of Clinical Chemistry, University of Helsinki, Meilahti Hospital, SF-00290, Helsinki 29, Finland

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