If there is one thing in the world that we all have too much of its stress. Whether it be your job, school, raising a family, or even drama from your best friend. We all deal with stress on a daily basis. As the years roll by and stress accumulates, we become numb to the effects it can have on our lives. We can even go so far as to be eerily proud of the amount of stress we deal with on a day to day basis. But regardless of the apparent status quo around stress, it is crucial that we understand how it affects our bodies if we want to live long and prosper. Without proper awareness of our stress, we could be opening ourselves up to serious consequences in terms of performance, and more importantly, our health.
Where Does our Stress Come From?
Some might argue that our ancestors encountered more severe forms of stress than we do in our modern day lives. After all, most of us don’t have to worry about foraging for our food or protecting ourselves from lions and bears. However, despite having sheltered ourselves from the major problems of the past, stressors present themselves in a myriad of other ways nowadays. What’s more is that these modern day stressors impact our nervous system in much the same way that getting chased by a predator did in the past.
Think of all the ways that stress creeps into your life: being stuck in a job that you hate or dealing with a boss who hates your guts, navigating a relationship with your significant other or perhaps dealing with the constant judgment and potential rejection that comes with dating, dealing with family issues that arise (naturally or unnecessarily) over the course of your lifetime, worrying about providing and caring for your family, and even the constant barrage of social media that can warp our sense of self-worth. It’s probably a safe bet that you have dealt with at least one (or many) of these stressors at various points in your life.
Now it is one thing to deal with stress intermittently as we live our lives. The problem is that many people are dealing with multiple forms of stress on a chronic basis. Imagine being chased by a bear constantly and never experiencing a break. This is what it feels like to our nervous system to live a modern day life. This constant flow of stress is a deviation from what our ancestors experienced in the past. They may have had predators to deal with, but their encounters with big stressors were intermittent. The continuous flow of stress we deal with today is foreign to our bodies and can wreak havoc on our physiology.
Impact of Stress on Our Health
Let’s take a second to explain the natural response that our body has when we encounter stress. Our brain has an alarm reaction which triggers a cascade of events including the release of cortisol and epinephrine (stress hormones). This actually helps our body to become more resistant to stress in the short term. So encountering stress is actually a healthy part of becoming more resilient. However, there must be a period of recovery in order for our body to become stronger. Without that period of recovery (as in chronic stress), our body actually enters a state of exhaustion which is where the real health problems can start to pile up.
Following chronic activation of the stress response, our biology actually begins to work against us. The stress hormones we would normally rely upon to protect us actually begin to damage our brain and body after chronic exposure. This is due, in part, to the relationship they have with inflammatory cytokines which are also released in higher quantities during stressful times. In combination, high stress hormones and elevated inflammation can inhibit normal enzyme, receptor, and even genetic activity. In response, our body must compensate for the altered activity of these components. Over time, issues such as insulin resistance, high blood glucose, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and even greater visceral fat deposition can occur. Carry this out over years and decades and you’ve set yourself up for a high risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and countless other chronic diseases.
The key here is to stop the progression of chronic stress before it starts to have an impact on our health. Being cognizant of our stress levels and practicing stress relieving techniques can help tremendously. Proper nutrition, getting adequate sleep, spending time with family and friends, and meditation are all great ways to keep stress at bay. Of course, our favorite stress relief technique would probably be working out. However, we have to strike a delicate balance between our stress levels and our workouts if we want to keep our performance up in the gym.
Impact of Stress on Performance
When it comes to our physiques and performance, the nervous system is king. If the nervous system isn’t happy, the body begins to operate less efficiently as can be seen by the poor health outcomes of chronic stress. While the health issues mentioned above may be a consequence of years of chronic stress, the impact of stress on our performance can be felt much sooner. Within weeks or even days of being overstressed, we can see things go south in the gym. Our strength takes a hit, aches and pains start to creep up, and our motivation to even workout starts to diminish.
This might sound a lot like overreaching, and in some ways they are one in the same. During a given training cycle, we often add a controlled amount of training stress in an attempt to overcompensate and adapt. This principle mirrors the stress response in that a controlled amount of stress actually results in more resilience when it is followed by a recovery period (i.e. deload). However, we tend to ignore the fact that training stress and life stress contribute to the same stress bucket. That means that a big stressful event that occurs during a given training cycle can actually start to overfill that stress bucket and put us into an overreached state. Continue to train through those stressful times and you set yourself up for, at best, some terrible workouts or, at worst, some serious injuries.
Just as it is important to deal with our stress for health reasons, we have to adapt our training in response to stress. Tracking our stress and performance over time can give us valuable information into how our body responds to life stress in terms of performance. We can then use this information to adjust our training in the days or weeks that follow a particularly stressful time in our lives. This doesn’t mean we won’t make progress or even move backwards. In fact, we may see great progress in the gym despite the troubling times. However, this could mean swallowing our pride and scaling back the volume and/or intensity of our training in favor of better recovery.
Stress can lurk in the background of our lives, going unnoticed until serious consequences arise. Left to its own devices, it can wreak havoc on both our health and our gains in the gym. However, proper awareness of our bodies and our spirits can give us insight into when and how stress is affecting us. Being cognizant of the events that occur in our lives and being honest with ourselves about how they are impacting us is key.
Monitoring our stress levels objectively can also help us to make better decisions about the way we train during particularly stressful times. Without smart programming, we can run ourselves into the ground leading to lackluster performance and possibly serious injury. Keeping an eye on how our body responds to stress over time gives us valuable information about the changes we need to make to our training. This can be done alone or perhaps more effectively with the help of a coach who can view this data objectively.
Either way, keeping the stress at bay is crucial if we want to continue leading healthy and productive lives both inside and outside of the gym.
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