It comes at us from all directions, in many different forms. We are constantly subjected to it physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes we have it under control. Sometimes it controls us.
At some point, we all learn to live with it. Yet, rarely do people know how to actually manage it.
What if I told you that stress may be the biggest obstacle standing between you and your health and fitness goals?
Stress, itself, is an inevitability. However, the amount of stress you place on your body and how you are able to handle it will ultimately determine whether you reach your peak in health and fitness, or end up a sick and dysfunctional mess.
More Than a Feeling
Stress is more than a feeling. It’s more than a mental thing. In general, stress is anything that disrupts the body’s homeostasis.
Yep, time for a high school science class review.
Homeostasis is essentially what keeps us alive. It is a regulatory process that maintains stable conditions within the body, keeping body functions, such as body temperature, blood pressure, or pH balance, within a certain range.
Why is this important?
Your body requires energy to regulate temperature, blood pressure, blood pH, and perform all of its other functions. If any of these levels surpass the specific range, the energy demands for your body to sustain those levels will be too high to survive.
So, how does the body maintain homeostasis under stress?
Back in the 1930’s an Austrian guy named Hans Selye, discovered that the body responds to all types of stress in a similar manner. The body’s effort to maintain homeostasis under all different stressors is known as the stress response. Selye discovered that the body responded the same to physical, mental, and emotional stress, and that they all have the same effect on the body.
This stress response is absolutely essential to our survival. This “fight or flight” response is what ensures we have enough energy to overcome a particular stressor.
It’s what kicks you into that extra gear when you’re being chased by a rabid bear. Or, more realistically, it’s what allows you to knock out a great training session in the gym.
However, we don’t just simply activate this response when we are under the physical stress of a hard workout or running away from a large, angry animal. Many of us activate this stress response far more frequently. When we are trying to meet a deadline at work, studying for an exam, or fighting with our significant others, we are often calling upon this stress response to get us through. In these instances, instead of saving us from that ravenous bear, this chronic activation of the stress response is slowly breaking us down.
How Stress is Affecting You
Anytime we subject ourselves to a particular stressor, our bodies will adapt to maintain homeostasis and minimize or avoid future stress. This process is known as allostasis. While, the term isn’t that important for you to remember, it is important for you to understand how allostasis affects your body, for better and for worse.
Our body’s response to stress is behind any gains or improvement in our performance or fitness.
Let’s use weight lifting as an example.
Obviously, lifting weights places a stress on your muscles, as well as your skeleton, connective tissue, and nervous system. The body’s first, short-term response is to release powerful hormones to provide energy to the working muscles and increase force production.
Without this response, you’ll end up with a complete weightlifting fail. Either your muscle cells would run out of energy, or worse, your muscle fibers, tendons, or ligaments could tear under the strain of the weight.
After your workout, the body has a second, long-term response. To avoid or minimize that same stress in the future, the body tries to increase protein synthesis to make your muscles bigger and stronger. This way, the next time you workout, that same weight will easier to lift, thus placing less stress on the body.
The Bad and The Ugly
While increasing strength and putting on a little muscle mass might be a desired response to stress for you, it is important to remember that your body really doesn’t care what you want. As harsh as that sounds, the body is truly only wired to maintain homeostasis and minimize stress in the short-term. It does not consider long-term repercussions.
On that note, let’s illustrate the bad side of stress using the adaptation of your body to high blood pressure.
You may very well know that stress plays a role in raising your blood pressure. This occurs whether you are placing your body under physical stress during a workout, or mental and emotional stress at other times throughout the day.
When people subject themselves to stressors throughout the day in the form of poor nutrition, mental stress, lack of sleep, etc, it results in chronically elevated blood pressure. The combination of chronically elevated blood pressure and levels of various stress hormones can have some devastating effects.
The body’s response is to make the walls of your blood vessels thicker and stronger to be able to handle the increased pressure. This makes the blood vessels more rigid and narrow, leaving them susceptible to the build-up of plaque. This, in time, can lead to atherosclerosis or cardiovascular disease.
To make matters worse, if blood pressure is elevated frequently, over-time the body may recognize this as the new norm. When this occurs, the hardened arteries and high blood pressures remain, even after the mental or emotion stress has subsided.
Let’s face the facts…
You are going to experience physical, mental, and emotional stress in some combination on a daily basis. It is inevitable.
On one hand you are going to experience stress meeting deadlines at work, cramming for an exam at school, or perhaps while dealing with family or relationship issues.
On the other hand, you may be subjecting yourself to physical stress, at the same time, by working out several times every week.
While the latter may seem better for your body than the former, it is important to understand that we cannot simply concern ourselves with the type of stress, but also the amount and frequency.
Even too much “good” stress can be harmful and break your body down overtime.
How then, if this is all inevitable, do we manage stress?
Well, unfortunately, it’s not a problem simply solved over night. It takes time and effort to learn how to manage the stress you experience in your everyday life.
This post will spearhead a series of posts to come in which we will address several way by which you can improve your ability to handle stress.
So, if you’re looking to improve performance, finally get the sexy look you’ve wanted, improve general health and wellness, or are simply stressed-out on a regular basis, check back for the posts to come!