(Sorry- this a long one!!)
I think everybody understands what stress feels like. It feels different for different people- personally I feel like running screaming for the hills when I'm stressed- which does happen a lot!!
The frantic pace of modern life, kids, family, work/life balance. Thats a LOT of balls to juggle, and getting some down time for yourself in amongst that is pretty hard. But what is stress in terms of what happens to our body? A bit of stress is normal and natural and can be really useful when we are pushing ourselves to do something new- work challenge, sports, exams, but too much or not being able to turn it off is a very different matter. The more Ive looked into stress- the hormones involved, the body effects etc the more I have come to realise that learning to unwind is probably one of the most important things I can do for my own health....
"Stress" is your bodys normal response to what it sees as a demand or threat. Our nervous system responds by flooding out stress hormones. The 2 main ones and the ones I will focus on are ADRENALIN and CORTISOL. (there are more involved- this is a pretty simplified overview!!)
Releasing these hormones is what is called our 'fight or flight' response: priming our body to take the necessary action by increasing heart rate, raising blood pressure, increasing breathing rate, tensing our muscles, enhancing our focus etc... This is all very useful in the short term (outrunning a threat, before the start of a race etc) but is very detrimental if these hormones are being continually released- this becomes CHRONIC STRESS.
Chronic stress is NOT healthy or helpful. It effects nearly every system in our body and can lead to serious health problems. Many common health problems can have their roots in stress.
- Weight problems (Ill come back to this one)
- Immunity problems
- Reproductive issues
- Insomnia/disturbed sleep
- Impaired memory
- Digestive problems
Not all stressors have to be negative ones either. Divorce, death/illness in the family, loss of a job are all obviously highly stressful scenarios. But so is getting married, having a baby and buying a house. Yet I don't think we would see these a negative situations? Also, we are all affected by different stressors. I personally feel sick at the thought of public speaking or performing on a stage- yet many others thrive on this. I find being around my horse one of the most relaxing things I can imagine, yet my husband finds it pretty stressful as he is convinced he will be kicked or trampled to death at any given moment!!!
Who could find that face threatening???!!!
Understanding your own personal triggers and your own tolerance levels to stress is the first step in managing and controlling things. I have leant- probably in the last 12-18 months that I actually have a very low tolerance to stress. This doesn't mean I cant deal with life, but I get get run down very quickly indeed- sore throats, insomnia and sluggish bowels are my usual main symptoms. I over respond to small intense levels of stress. I partly think this is because I have been chronically stressed for a long time- and now my body is primed to respond at the drop of a hat, or maybe i have just chosen to ignore the signs for too long and have only just started to sit up and take notice?
So back to my friend CORTISOL.... (or my arch enemy- more appropriately). Cortisol is a hormone produced by our adrenal glands. It is an essential hormone (well all of them are- or we wouldn't have them!!!) but too much isn't good! Effects of too much cortisol- especially over a long period of time include
- Increased weight gain (and stubborn to shift- my problem) around the face and abdomen
- mood swing and anxiety/depression
- high blood pressure
- reduced sex drive
- irregular periods
- muscle weakness
I started out investigating stress and cortisol due to my blooming wobbly belly that I seemingly cannot shift. As mentioned on previous posts I have tried every diet under the sun. More recently I am finding the weight just wont shift. So I started reading around the subject to try and understand why. Cortisol and stress is why I think.... and so I am trying to control the stress levels to see what results that has with the belly fat!! I used to find I felt AMAZING after a hard gym session/run/boxing whatever it is, but in the past couple of years I was just wiped out after the same classes and was constantly feeling like I had a cold/sinus infection etc. Now I know (and now seems so obvious) intense exercise is something my body (and a lot of bodies) see as a stress... Thats the whole point of intense training- to stress our body to improve muscle or cardio fitness. But the same hormone reactions apply... the body responds by releasing Adrenalin and Cortisol which leads to all the responses I talked about earlier.... Which started to make me change my exercise approach.
Its a tricky one to balance as I really enjoy being active. But I have stopped all gym work (partly as I have a shoulder/neck injury) and instead I ride my horse and I am trying to run a few times a week. I have also learnt that sometimes my body does NOT want me to run so I listen- I walk a bit but then go home and do some stretches or pilates instead. Other days it feels great, so I run. I have started doing some pilates and yoga at least 4 times a week and also some breathing exercises to try and help me wind down in the evening. And I haven't ballooned into a giant blimp- admittedly Im not Cindy Crawford either. I am as dis-satisfied with my body as ever I was doing HIIT sessions 3 times a week, plus boxing plus riding, but I don't ache all over like I used to, I have only had one cold this winter and I don't stress about missing a gym session!! I am definitely only at the beginning of the journey, but I feel I'm on the right path.
Listen to your body... don't fight what its trying to tell you. Have a think about the things that tend to trigger your stresses and try and learn to counter them in some way or other- gentle exercise, better sleep, a holiday.... do whatever you need to do. Stress is part of our everyday life for sure and so I think we all need to understand it and deal with it before things become chronic. I wish I had know more when I was younger, I would have done a few things different thats for sure!!!!