We know that 21st century living can be stressful. While stress comes in different forms – long work hours, sick parents or children, financial worries or work deadlines – the effect on the body is the same.
In fact, even activities that are not stressful per se, activate our in-built stress response system - like watching your favourite sport's team, running about after your family, or playing video games. These daily activities can keep your system pumping out unhealthy stress hormones which, in the long run, can cause fatigue and other health issues.
I work a lot with stressed out people and find that many activities and hacks that people commonly employ to deal with their stress, can exacerbate the problem.
Here are the top 5 things people get wrong when trying to cope with stress:
1. High intensity exercise
Exercise that builds fitness is good for health. In fact, the fitter you are, the more resilient you are to stress. However, the act of exercising with high intensity is a stressor to the body. This is not a problem if your stress baseline is low, but for people who are experiencing high stress days, adding a high intensity workout can add fuel to the fire. In particular, vigorous exercise after 7pm can affect your sleep, further reducing your body’s capacity to restore overnight. This means waking up with a body battery that is not fully charged.
If you are experiencing ongoing levels of high stress or ‘busyness’, try to plan your workouts for earlier in the day, or choose moderate, restorative exercise like yoga, pilates or a brisk walk in nature.
Often the tool of choice to ‘take the edge off’ after a long day. Alcohol is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is a nervous system depressant, leading to a sense of relaxation. However, it is also a nervous system stimulant. Physiologically, this means that drinking alcohol keeps your nervous system activated, well into your sleep cycle.
My number one recommendation for building your resilience to stress, reducing fatigue and waking refreshed, is to cut unnecessary alcohol use during the week. If you are going to take a drink mid-week, try to keep it to one or two drinks, ideally before 8:30pm. This helps to reduce the chance of the alcohol impacting your body and brain recovery overnight.
Retreating or withdrawing into one’s self is a common behaviour when we are stressed. Studies show that people with chronic stress are less able to build positive relationships, collaborate or experience empathy. Many also find themselves withdrawn as they remain in ‘task mode’ in order get all the things done in a day.
While arguably there are benefits to remaining focused and blocking out distractions, it is a fact that our nervous systems can self-regulate (i.e. balance out stress) by engaging in social connection. This could be a chat at the water cooler, a phone call with a friend, or reading your children a bedtime story.
If you find yourself in ‘non-stop’ mode all day, you will benefit from taking some time to connect with others. In fact, it will increase your ability to make clear decisions and avoid the harmful effects of chronic stress.
4. Not prioritising sleep
A busy lifestyle can easily eat into our sleep time. Many people find themselves trying to squeeze in too much into a day. Trying to carve out more time to ‘do stuff’ inevitably leads to later bedtimes and reduced recovery overnight.
When we have deep restful sleep, the glymphatic system literally detoxes and washes out waste from the brain. If you are squeezing your sleep hours, impeding sleep with alcohol and stimulants, or activating your system in the evenings by checking work emails, you may not get enough deep sleep. This is like storing up your rubbish bags for weeks on end before removing them for disposal.
Committing to getting 8 hours of quality sleep a night can be one of the most profound things you can do for your health, and your ability to build resilience to stress. If you find yourself battling with insomnia, seek some support to help get you into balance.
5. Coffee and stimulants
Let me first admit that I love a good coffee! However, I see busy people often using it as a crutch. Whether it is because they are waking up tired from poor sleep, too busy to have breakfast or finding themselves hitting a wall mid-afternoon, coffee is often the go-to friend for the busy, stressed out person.
Sadly, coffee and other stimulants like energy drinks, keep your nervous system revved up (like a dose of petrol to a lit fire). Coffee can also be a culprit in blood sugar drops and mid-afternoon fatigue – so while you may get a short-lived perk, coffee will ultimately set you up on a vicious cycle of further stress and fatigue. My advice is to ensure you are eating proper meals and keep your coffee intake to one good cup a day, ideally before 2pm. That way your sleep won’t suffer and you will give your nervous system time to self-regulate throughout the day.
The good news is that your diet can help to mitigate the effects of stress and help your body to cope. If you are feeling worn down by long term stress, get in touch for a personalised lifestyle and nutrition-focused resilience programme: firstname.lastname@example.org