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©2019 by Herbivore Health

The Effect of Stress on the Body - Exercise Series

Updated: Feb 23


What do I mean by stress?


We’ve all been there – stressed to insanity, right? A common cause of this is work! We get super stressed over a deadline which is unattainable or a presentation we’ve got to do on a subject we feel we aren’t expert enough in. This is one of the most common and noticeable types of stress – but there are many, many other sources of stress which you may not even notice or think about.


We have grief stress – yes, you’ll notice this one. For me, this is one of the worst stresses. When you lose a companion, human or animal, you end up in an extreme state of stress for a sustained period of time. You might start getting headaches, and obviously our mental health is very much affected. Unfortunately, this stress can’t be avoided. There are ways to try and reduce the impact, some of which I’ll go into later in the section of how to overcome stress.


As I said though there are other, less noticeable, forms of stress. These might be caused by social anxiety, catastrophising, physical demands, intense periods of using your brain (I remember when doing my economics degree, there were many, many moments my brain hurt after doing some maths problems). Although you might not identify these as stress at the time, they do all affect the body by causing it to secrete stress hormones - namely adrenaline and cortisol!


What is a stress hormone and why should you care?


Well, the body is trying to help you out by releasing these stress hormones - they make you more alert, ready your muscles for a fight and quicken your breath to get you prepared for physical exertion. That’s because our body still sometimes thinks we’re in the caveman era when the stresses of life would largely be being killed by another human, or being killed by an animal, or maybe even being killed by falling rock – who knows. Most of the time then though, when you got stressed, it was for things which needed very immediate responses.


Now, however, we’re constantly put under stress due to social pressures, work pressures, home life pressures, money pressures – far too many pressures. Not so often is the stress now caused by a lion running at you or an alpha trying to fight you for your territory (unless you’re at a football match – then for some reason people often revert back to their Neanderthal selves).


So, what do the stress hormones actually do? As I said above – they activate your fight or flight response in the short term – but the long term impact is what we should be a little more cautious of. Being at an elevated stress level increases your chance of having a heart attack or a stroke, increases your resting heart rate, increases your blood pressure and increases your liver’s production of glucose, potentially leading to you retaining fat. Not only this, but by keeping your body in a constant state of stress, weakens your immune system in the long run. Any of you fitness enthusiasts out there like me will know a common cold or the flu can completely knock you off your exercise and healthy eating game for weeks!


So basically – you should care not only because it can cause a number of diseases, but also because it can stop you from doing the things that often prevent these diseases (like exercise and healthy eating) – a double whammy – Ouch!


It also may make you stress eat! When you’re feeling stressed, you’ll probably eat more just to try and make yourself feel better. For some – it has the opposite effect and you lose your entire appetite – but that’s not healthy either. Very rarely does stress make you think ok so I’m gonna eat lots of healthy foods in the right proportions, right?


Ok, so you’ve scared us now – what can we do to stop this from happening?!


Sorry – my intention wasn’t to fear monger, my intention is instead to help you. Which is why I’m going to give some very real practicable tips for you to implement straight away.


Avoidance


One of the best ways to stop the stress from having such an effect on your life is by preventing it in the first place. Yes, there are stresses which are unavoidable, but take a look at what stresses you have in your life and WHY. Maybe start to revaluate whether you need to have these stresses. Are you having money stresses because you keep spending the money you do have on things which aren’t necessary or aren’t bringing you joy in life? Ask yourself about your purchases and whether they are a) Essential – if not then move onto ask yourself b) does it truly bring you joy? If again, the answer is no, then why do you buy it?


Whilst this is just one example, you can apply avoidance to a lot of situations. You’ll probably be doing things which stress you out – just out of habit. For example, I read in a business book recently (I think it was the 4 hour work-week) that you shouldn’t read the news or watch the news. Take a week off of the news. I’ve done it. I took the news app off my phone – which was giving me grave updates about terrible things I couldn’t prevent or do anything about – the news is fear mongering, simple as that. Do you know what’s happened since I stopped reading the news? Nothing has happened in the news which has affected me directly – and the big news items I still hear just through people talking about it! The result? I’m not now worried about the horrible news stories which happen outside of my life. I’m not now spending my day reading how tragic things have happened to families or about how humans are the worst. I know these things happen – what benefit does it make to read about the specific stories? Only depression and stress!


Change your mindset


Yeah – I know – not simple. The mind is a complicated thing, and there’s no quick fix for this, but there are steps you can take to help prevent yourself from assuming the worst has happened to your family member when they don’t reply for one hour, or when one thing hasn’t gone your way – proceeding to you thinking EVERYTHING isn’t going your way.


So, what are some steps to do this? Use statistics. What actually IS the likelihood the thing you’re stressing about is going to happen. How likely REALLY is it that you’ll get fired for not performing a presentation correctly, or for making one mistake? How many of your colleagues have been fired for mistakes – zero to none right? Stop thinking you’re going to be that one statistic and start looking at all the good things which have happened in the day. Use past experiences to reflect on the likelihood of the things you’re stressing about happening?


Take a step back and think what’s the outcome if the thing you’re stressing about happens? I’ve often stressed about losing my job – now I see it as an opportunity. If I lost my salaried job, I would seize the opportunity to spend more time working on this business. Even before this business though – I think OK if I got fired from my accounting job – would that be the worst thing in the world? I would likely be able to get another accounting job relatively soon, failing that, I could apply to other jobs, failing that I have friends and family who would lend me a sofa to sleep on. Some people unfortunately don’t have a support network and I really do feel for you, but for the majority of you, I imagine you have contingencies which you could fall back on if many of the stresses happen.


Stop worrying about things out of your control. I’ve taken a much more “so what approach”. I take the approach if I notice myself worrying about something going through the motions above – what’s the likelihood of the event happening, what’s the worst that happens if that happens, what’s the benefits if it doesn’t happen? And also, what does it achieve you worrying about something. Things will happen in life. Things out of your control will throw up crap in your face and punch you in the private parts. You can’t prevent this, so just go with it and deal with it IF it happens. Don’t try dealing with 100 things before they happen!


Exercise


Yes – exercise does increase stress in the short term, and over-exercising can cause chronic stress. However, if you are doing a moderate amount of exercise each week, then the benefits of the exercise will counteract some of the chronic stress in your life. Your risk of heart disease will lower, your risk of diabetes will lower, your risk of stroke will lower. The difference between exercise stress and your other stresses? Exercise stress is just for that short period of time, then your body goes back to normal quite quickly after. The other stresses in life, however, hang over us constantly, causing our stress levels to be chronically elevated and the hormones to be constantly secreted at an elevated level.


Exercise will not only reduce the negative physical aspects of stress, it will also provide you with a time to reflect and take you away from many of the sources of stress. When you’re really working out hard, you often don’t have to think about money or life pressures. If you’re doing a moderate jog however, sometimes it will play on your mind – but it allows you to think about the problems with clarity. It will give you the time to reflect on the stresses and how to avoid them, reduce them etc etc.


Eat Healthily


For similar reasons to exercise, eating healthily will reduce your chances of getting some of the diseases I mentioned before - but not only this, it will actually allow you to focus and think better. By eating anti-inflammatory foods, and foods which contain high levels of anti-oxidants, you’ll increase your circulation, which also increases the circulation to your brain. This in itself helps you think better which can help resolve many stresses!

As mentioned before, the temptation is to grab an unhealthy snack thinking it will make you feel better. But have a think. When was the last time junk food ACTUALLY made you feel better? Most of the time it really doesn’t. When I take a second to think when I got genuinely true joy from unhealthy food, I realise it’s usually the situation I’m in, not the food itself. You can make healthy food taste amazing – so why not do that. Then you don’t get the guilt associated with it!


Meditate or find your own form of reflection


For some of us, it can be going for a run, like I mentioned above, or it might be walking in nature, or it might be doing some meditation. For me, it’s all of those. I really notice it if I fail to do those things frequently. Because you don’t take the time to actually stop and think a lot of the time – you rarely have the opportunity to sort things out in your head. You don’t get clarity, which in itself causes more stress, because things seem unmanageable!


Stress is complicated, and it can be difficult to notice. But, if you do some of these things I’ve mentioned above, you should kick start your way to a less stressful life