We all use the words “I’m stressed”, probably a little too frequently as far as our health is concerned, but what really is stress?
Whilst the word “stress” conjures up mental images of a beetroot-faced stockbroker screaming into a telephone while throwing staplers at co-workers and yanking at his necktie, or a mother driving the kids to school with one hand on the steering wheel and the other frantically delivering unorthodox karate chops to the terrorist children in the backseat… there are in fact many different types of stress, in fact too many to cover in this literary masterpiece.
This article will, however, hopefully shed some light on just two of the more common types of stress, and offer some insight into how these affect your body. I’ll be focusing on physical stress from exercise and physiological stress caused by your life! With a little action on your part, there are always ways to minimise our exposure to stress if we consciously decide to take control. Let’s first put this into context, and briefly explain the difference between acute vs chronic stress.
This refers to limited exposure or short duration of physiological response.
Exercise: Whilst training you are placing your body under acute stress. This is awesome! And often, the more stress you subject it to, the better the adaptations during periods of recovery.
Psychological: Think of shopping in Causeway Bay on a Saturday lunchtime… stressed already? This is acute psychological stress, as you will move heaven and hell to flee this situation as fast as possible.
This is referring to prolonged exposure, long physiological response, and often compounded by various stress-factors all working against you.
Exercise: If you fail to plan training properly, or consistently do the exact same intense workouts with very limited recovery, the levels of oxidative stress that build in the body can become toxic.
Psychological: If you are married to the wrong person, questioning your place in the universe, whilst working a job you don’t like and experiencing some financial difficulties – safe to say that these factors compounding would be a textbook example of chronic psychological stress.
What is it?
Commonly we would refer to oxidative stress, or nervous system stress when thinking about stress induced from physical exercise. Acute exposure to both types of stress is something very healthy, the only way we keep our bodies strong and healthy is to consistently subject it to a stress of some kind. This result is adaptation – but ONLY when we have sufficient recovery.
The danger of ignoring it
You can get fatter, slower, and unhealthier… Continued exposure to oxidative stress will increase the levels of free radicals in the body dramatically. This causes toxicity issues, disease, and inability to utilise fat stores efficiently. Continued exposure to nervous system stress will lead to poor recovery, diminished performance and possibly adrenal fatigue. Pretty much zero benefit and a whole lot of bad stuff, in a chronic environment.
How to manage it
Schedule your exercise so that there are varied intensities, varied movements and focus on allowing time to repair and regenerate.
What is it?
Of course, this is the most common form of stress that we tend to refer to. It is that un-definable feeling of rapid anxiety or frustration, elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and perhaps dark fantasies of random acts of uncontrolled violence…
The metabolic and neural changes that occur in this environment are startling. In an acute setting, they are very beneficial; in fact it has been an integral backbone of human survival and evolution for 200,000 years… In ancient Siberia, being stressed about a sabre-tooth tiger about to eat you or a marauding tribe was definitely a good thing! We can focus on the threat, deal with it, and move on… But of course the reality in our modern society is that most of us do not deal in these acute settings. In fact, we spend our entire existence in this perpetual symphony of higher and lower stress levels – compounding the harmful effects exponentially = chronic psychological stress.
The simple fact is the level of stressful situations we are subjected to is unprecedented in human history, and our inability to manage it is one of the leading causes of death and disease.
The danger of ignoring it
Seriously, it would be easier to list the problems it won’t cause than the problems it will. It won’t affect your dancing ability or the rate at which your toenails grow, but that’s about it! Cancer, mental illness, digestive concerns, auto-immune, coronary disease, metabolic disorders… these are all amplified by stress as much or even more than any other factor.
How to manage it
While I could never articulate it as well as most self-help authors or a distinguished psychologist or even philosopher, I will happily quote someone who is. “The truth is that stress doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about these circumstances” Andrew Bernstein.
Perspective is the ultimate tool in your arsenal. Accepting that some things are controllable and others are not, being grateful and focused on the positive components of your life, and reminding yourself that a good chunk of the world’s population are probably facing much more immense challenges then the frustrated conversation that’s in your head.
Combine this with meditation, yoga, relaxing walks… anything that calms you and can distract the mind from its often toxic affects on the body. This psychological process will result in immediate physiological benefits!
Take away points:
- Understanding various forms of stress, while trying to minimise your exposure and maximise your coping mechanisms, is without doubt one of the most beneficial undertakings you could possibly do for your health.
- Physiological and Psychological stress are intimately entwined. The elevation of either immediately affects the other.
- Be okay with acute stress, it is part of life and often a healthy thing. Chronic stress on the other hand, is arguably the leading.