Leading Personal Trainer and Sports Science expert Tom MacCormick (www.tommaccormick.com) outlines top tips for understanding and managing stress.
Stress is inevitable, but your ability to deal with it will go a long way to determining how you look, feel and perform. Stress avoidance isn’t possible and as I’ll explain some stress is actually beneficial. That’s why stress management is so important. If you learn how to manage stress effectively your life will be better.
Managing your stress levels can have a significant impact upon your health, well-being, energy, and happiness. Controlling stress can aid your digestion, mood, mental acuity, and productivity. It can even help you to lose fat and gain muscle.
Despite its massive impact upon your quality of life, I bet you put little thought into how you manage stress. Let’s fix that and by extension, fix many of the issues that hold you back from reaching your potential.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is like the body’s control system. The ANS regulates the involuntary functions of the human body. The stuff that happens without you having to consciously think about it. For example, breathing and digestion.
The ANS is comprised of two branches. The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic is commonly known as “rest and digest” mode while the sympathetic is often referred to as “fight or flight” mode. These two separate branches work in a “see-saw” like fashion. When one of them is upregulated, the other is inhibited.
Unfortunately, your body cannot differentiate between different types of stress. When the sympathetic nervous system is upregulated, it cannot tell the difference between the stress of a life-threatening event, your boss yelling at you, or the killer workout you just crushed. The sympathetic nervous system will be in overdrive with all of these. That’s fine. It is the correct physiological response. The key is managing the total time you spend in this state and how quickly you can calm down and transition back to a parasympathetic dominant state.
Unfortunately, the reality of modern life dictates that most of us spend far too much time in a sympathetic state. The non-stop barrage of minor stressors we encounter on a daily basis add up. This accumulation of acute stress becomes chronic stress and means many of us live mostly in a sympathetic state. This has dire consequences for our health and well-being.
Take Control of Your Stress
The good news is you can take control of the situation. If you manage stress well, you will spend most of our time in a parasympathetic state. There is an ever-growing body of research conducted on various stress management strategies that work. I’ll outline the most powerful of these below. If you implement these strategies you will be well on your way to a fitter, happier, healthier version of yourself.
But First – Understand Some Stress Can Be Good
Stress can be both good and bad. "Good stress," or what psychologists refer to as "eustress," is the type of stress we feel when we are excited. For example, the rush of a roller-coaster ride, the anticipation of a first date, a scary movie or your first day at your dream job. Exercise is another example of a good stress to the body. As a personal trainer, I am obviously biased, but I think we can all agree that, if properly dosed exercise is certainly good for you.
“Bad stress” comes in two forms. Acute and chronic.
Acute stress triggers the body's stress response, but the triggers and emotions could not be described as positive, happy or exciting. In general, acute stress isn’t that problematic. The stress response is fleeting and the body quickly returns to its pre-stress state. In fact, the body’s fight or flight stress response is a self-preservation strategy. In times of acute stress this response might just save your life.
Chronic stress, however, is another story. It occurs when we repeatedly face stressors that accumulate to create a significant burden. When suffering with chronic stress it is common to feel overwhelmed by this stress. Obviously, this is bad and takes a significant toll on your mood, motivation, happiness and long-term health. Being bullied, in an abusive relationship, or having a bad boss are all examples of situations that can cause chronic stress.
Key Point – Some stress is good for you. Embrace that fact and incorporate good stress into your life. Use the stress management strategies below to manage your exposure and response to bad stress.
Let Your Heart Guide You
An excellent proxy for your stress levels and parasympathetic versus sympathetic dominance is your waking heart rate. Monitoring this will give you useful data to assess your general stress status and to identify when stress levels spike upwards.
Significant increases or decreases in your waking heart rate can indicate when you are experiencing higher periods of stress. I suggest you purchase a good heart rate monitor to assess this.
Heart rate variability (the time difference between each heartbeat) is an emerging area of the stress management sphere. It has gained popularity with many elite athletes and sports teams to gauge their recovery from and readiness for training. If you want to take your stress management to the next level, then I’d recommend downloading an HRV app to work alongside your heart rate monitor. Doing so can provide invaluable data about your stress on a given day and trends in your stress load over several weeks or months.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Having a morning routine to start your day gets you off on the right foot and sets the scene for the rest of the day. It allows you to run the day rather than the day running you.
Personally, I am a proponent of the Miracle Morning Routine. I do the express version which takes less than 15 minutes. It has 6 steps. These are:
There are various apps available which guide you through the process. They are all based on the same template outlined by the Miracle Morning creator Hal Elrod.
When I stick to this routine (even when I’d rather hit snooze) I have much more productive days and feel I’m running my day. When I don’t follow this routine, I feel the day is running me. This results in my priority tasks getting hijacked and I feel like I am constantly playing catch-up.
Meditation is a great way to combat stress. There is an enormous amount of research on its beneficial effects.
If, like me, you’re a guy that enjoys lifting weights, you might feel somewhat resistant to meditation. It might sound a bit too woo-woo, or emotionally aware when contrasted with your outwardly alpha image. Get over yourself and your alpha ideals! You will thank me for it. And if you’re not prepared to tell your pals you meditate, simply give it another name. Something like, sitting in silence, breath work, mindfulness, or whatever you’re comfortable with. The benefits far outweigh any concerns you have about your mates thinking you’ve gone soft.
I haven’t had any coaching or been on any meditation retreats, but I have found a way to get the benefits. You can too. Simply sit quietly and focus on your breath for a couple of minutes. If your mind wanders, don’t berate yourself. It will happen. Just bring your focus back to your breathing. Try to slow your breathing rate down and do some “belly breathing”. To do this take deep breaths in through the nose, aim to fill your belly with air and then slowly exhale out through your mouth.
Another great breathing technique is box breathing, also known as four-square breathing. It involves exhaling on a four count, holding your lungs empty for a four-count, inhaling at the same pace, and holding air in your lungs for a count of four. Then exhaling and beginning the pattern anew at the same speed. Doing this will instantly relax you.
If you require some more guidance, then there are various guided mediation apps available that will talk you through meditation step by step. Personally, I have used the Headspace app and think it is great. I have done some of their 5-10 minute guided meditations and it certainly chills me out. Trust me a few minutes every day will have a remarkable effect on managing your stress levels.
Your Number 1 Recovery Tool: Sleep
Sleep is your number one recovery tool. It is when your body repairs and restores itself and when it rids itself of neurotoxins. If you struggle to sleep, you will struggle to recover and you will fail to manage stress.
The One Thing
Being “mindful” or “present” is all the rage these days. There is a good reason for that. We live in an ever-connected, yet hyper-distracted world. The sheer volume of inputs competing for our attention is mind-boggling.
Living in this constantly distracted state is stressful and gives us all some of the symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD). Try to fix this by focusing fully on one task or experience at a time. Then, aim to be “present” within that situation. Fully immerse yourself in the sounds, smells, sensations, visuals, and taste of whatever you are doing. Whether that be on date night, watching your kids football practice, hanging out with friends, or planning that crucial presentation for your boss. Being fully “in the moment” will make you more productive, efficient, and effective at whatever you are doing. This will help to improve your mood and filter out external and irrelevant potential stressors.
Being on Your Smart Phone Isn’t That Smart
Following on from that advice about being present in the moment I have another vital piece of advice to share… Step away from your phone – no, not this very second – keep reading this incredibly interesting article ;). Then step away from your phone.
We are all prisoners of our phones.
Waiting for a train, or in-line at a checkout? What do you instinctively do now? Reach into your pocket for your phone. This wasn’t the case as recently as 10 to 12 years ago. We would have to wait. Occupied only by our thoughts or perhaps the conversation struck up with a stranger waiting alongside us (conversations with real people, in-person – now that does sound weird in the “new normal”!).
We’ve lost the art of patience, waiting, and thinking. Boredom is a thing of the past. There is always a notification, something on social media, YouTube, or Netflix to entertain us. We are constantly plugged into the matrix and unable to extract ourselves from it.
There are many positives to smartphones (don’t get me wrong smartphones are incredible). The downside is we have become slaves to them. They actually increase our stress and anxiety and help to push us towards a sympathetic state.
Try to take some time away from them. A digital detox of sorts. Switching off/into flight mode can relieve stress and anxiety. It can also allow you to achieve the mindfulness and presence that I discussed earlier.
This isn’t easy. Smartphones are addictive! I struggle with it but, I am aware that when I have work to do, or I’m out with the family I am less stressed, more productive, and happier when the phone is out of sight. This applies to those that I am with too. Start small and build up. Some ideas to begin to control your phone usage are:
- Don’t check it for the first 30 mins of your day
- When doing important work, switch it on airplane mode and set a timer for how long the work task should take. Don’t look at your phone until the time is up.
- No smartphones at meal times.
- Put you phone down, in another room when at home so you’re not distracted by it
- Watching TV with your wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend/friends/family/cat/dog etc.? Have the phone out of sight. Enjoy doing what you are doing and the fact you are not distracted by the phone
- Establish “no go” zones. Whether it be physical (e.g. not in the bedroom) or time zones (e.g. no phone use for the first hour after I get home from work) this rule will improve the quality of your relationships with significant others
- Lead by example on this. If you would like to be less distracted when spending time with your partner begin by deliberately being less distracted yourself. Then, in time when you suggest they do the same they are more likely to respect and value your opinion. Trying to enforce it on them before you have achieved it is likely to be met with resistance.
What a Relief
I am confident the above tips on managing stress will useful and provide you with some relief from the stressed-out existence you currently lead. If you can use just some of these to manage your stress then you will be a healthier, happier, more productive, and focused person. These steps will help you to thrive and support a higher quality of life and wellness.