When people come to me asking why they’re not seeing results with their workouts, or why no matter how much they work out and eat right they can’t seem to lose the stubborn belly fat, I always ask them “how is your stress?”
Stress is one of the most debilitating, draining, and havoc wreaking forces on our overall health, energy, and ability to thrive.
You’re probably familiar with some of the most stressful events in life, like divorce (any painful breakup), death in the family, moving, major illness (taking care of someone with major illness), and losing your job.
But there is also the more subtle, ongoing stress so many of us live with day to day with no respite: of trying to get everything done in a day, financial pressure, the pressure at work to finish by the deadline, the pressure we put on ourselves to look a certain way, the emotional distress we feel in an unhappy relationship, or from past events that we haven’t been able to resolve.
How the Fight or Flight/Stress Response Affects You
Our brains, while highly evolved, still respond to the fear mechanism that’s wired into us for survival(1.) When we’re triggered by a stressful event, a signal is sent to the hypothalamus – the command center in our brain that regulates our sympathetic and parasympathetic response systems.
The sympathetic response system is like the gas pedal in a car: it triggers the fight or flight response, providing your body with a burst of energy so it can respond to danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is like the brakes: it promotes a “rest and digest” response that calms the body.
So something stressful happens. Your hypothalamus tells your sympathetic nervous system to get to work. Your adrenals release epinephrine (AKA adrenaline) into your bloodstream, which causes the heart to beat faster, pushing blood to vital organs like the heart. Breathing speeds up, extra oxygen is sent to the brain; sight and hearing sharpen.
Blood sugar and fats are released from temporary storage sites around the body – flooding into the bloodstream to supply your system with energy in case it needs to fight or to run away from danger.
After that first surge of adrenaline subsides, the hypothalamus initiates the second level of the stress response system, the HPA axis, which involves the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. Together, they trigger the release of cortisol, which keeps the “gas pedal” pressed down and the sympathetic nervous system to stay activated.
When you press the gas pedal down in a car and keep it pressed down, the engine runs at high RPM’s. Chronic stress is like that for your body – if you don’t have a way to trigger the parasympathetic system and put on the brakes, chronic stress just keeps that HPA axis active and the engine in overdrive – contributing to many health problems.
Ongoing adrenaline running through your body can increase blood pressure, and cause damage to the blood vessels and arteries which raises the risk of heart attacks and stroke.
And elevated cortisol levels help replenish the body’s energy stores that are depleted during the stress response, but inadvertently contribute to the buildup of fat tissue and weight gain, while also breaking down muscle tissue.
This is why we need tools to help us handle and mitigate our stress, so we don’t age before our time, get sick more than we should, feel terrible and anxious all the time, and pack on the pounds that come from chronically elevated stress hormones running rampant in our bloodstream.
So here are 5 ways to stress less, and accomplish more in your day, your workouts, your body goals – and your life – than you ever have before!
1. Cultivate Mindfulness
Mindfulness is all about bringing your awareness into the present moment, and it’s great for handling your stress in the here and now.
If you’ve ever noticed yourself grinding your teeth, clenching your fists, or tensing your shoulders and were able to stop yourself, that’s mindfulness at work.
One great way to deal with the feelings of immediate stress is to cultivate this mindfulness.
Take a moment to do a full body scan, noticing what you can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. This is a great way to slow down and tune in, and reduce the instant stress.
A great thing to do if you notice that you are tense, anxious or stressed is to do a simple breathing activity:
1: Take a deep belly breath to the count of 2 or 3.
2: Exhale slowly, counting to 4-6.
3: Repeat, until you feel calm.
Here is a free, guided audio of an exercise that will help you melt stress – from my dear friend and Meditation Coach, Emily Fletcher.
Whenever life starts to feel overwhelming, come back to this; the blessings. There is so much good in your life. When you feel like you’re drowning just take a deep breath, stop the racing thoughts, and think of 3 things you are really, really grateful for.
This is another mindfulness practice that will put you right in the present moment and changes your energy allowing you to think more clearly, calm your nervous system, and gives you the space and grace to navigate the challenges.
You’ve got this. Keep going. I believe in you.
3: Embrace Anti-Inflammatory Eating
Inflammation is your body’s immune response to different kinds of stressors – physical, chemical, or emotional. In the short term, it helps bring you back into balance and keeps you healthy. When it’s prolonged, it causes dangerous build up in tissues, blood vessels, and organs – which can lead to disease.
Decreasing your intake of foods that cause inflammation and increasing your intake of foods that actively support the immune response is a great strategy for reducing internal stress to your system.
1: Moderate Caffeine Intake, especially before bedtime:
While coffee and caffeine in moderation can be a good thing with some lovely health benefits, be mindful of not over-consuming it.
(Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, chocolate, soda, energy drinks, diet pills, and even some foods as an additive – read your food labels)
Like stress, caffeine can elevate your cortisol levels, and create energy highs and lows (2). Because caffeine can stay in your system for up to 8 hours, be sure to limit consumption in the afternoon so it doesn’t interfere with sleep.
2: Reduce your intake of sugar
Too much acidity in the body is harmful to our health. Most cells and body tissue maintain an alkaline pH balance. Sugar imbalances pH and makes you more acidic (3), increasing your risk for chronic inflammation and oxidative stress.
An acidic environment creates stress in your system, and can raise cortisol levels – keeping your body in a heightened state of alertness, accelerating aging, and increasing fat storage.(4)
3: Increase your intake of whole foods
Focus on increasing your intake of antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods to support your body from within against the effects of stress and inflammation (5).
Grapes, blueberries, red raspberries, strawberries, and dark green vegetables are high in antioxidants (6) that protect your cells from oxidative stress and inflammation. Nuts and fish contain powerful omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent inflammation. Whole grains and legumes are excellent sources of heart healthy fiber, and contain numerous plant sources of vitamins and minerals that offer a plethora of protective benefits to your overall health.
While exercise is a kind of stressor on the body, it’s actually the kind that’s good for you.
Exercise has been shown to reduce the levels of your body’s stress hormones (7) and stimulates your endorphins, leading to less stress and higher performance.
The kind of healthy stress that comes from exercise or getting really hot in the sauna, or even doing a cold plunge has a cleansing effect on our cells, strengthening the strong mitochondria and eliminating the weaker ones. (Your mitochondria are like power generators inside your cells that convert the stored energy from the food you eat into the fuel your cells run on, giving you energy to live.)
This natural process is known as hormesis, and it’s wildly different than that low-grade chronic stress that’s so damaging that creates inflammation, fat storage, insomnia, and more – keeping you from getting the most out of your workouts, sleeping like a (#betty)rock(star), and other healthy lifestyle activities you enjoy.
Whether it’s a restorative yoga flow where you’re tuning into your breath or a HIIT circuit where your heart is pounding, being IN your body and present to what you’re doing when you move is a powerful way to lower your stress.
“We meditate to get good at life, not to get good at meditation.”
That’s one of my favorite quotes from the amazing Emily Fletcher, meditation teacher and founder of the Ziva Meditation Method.
I used to think I needed to sit cross legged on the floor in the lotus position with my fingers in a perfect position, back straight, and most of all, NOT THINKING….all of which I could do for about 2 seconds…and then I would think about lunch, or something from my to-do list, and the next thing you know I wasn’t “meditating right.”
But the truth is, meditation is more of a practice, like working out is a practice. We do it to strengthen our ability to be present.
I actually started using Emily’s Ziva technique in 2017 after meeting her (and instantly becoming friends), because I was intrigued by the suggestion that my sleep would improve significantly, my stress “backlog” would actually release, and I could strengthen the connection between my right and left brain.
Nearly every book I’ve read and every podcast I’ve listened to about high performers and people who are on a path of personal growth mentions meditation. And with Ziva, I didn’t have to be a “perfect meditator” to actually develop a daily meditation practice that really worked.
Meditation is one of the single most effective stress relieving tools. It’s the one that pays dividends in your life the more you do it. Just like the “deposits” you make in your daily “health savings account” with your healthy eating, exercise and sleep, meditation has a cumulative effect and strengthens your stress response “muscles.”
Enjoy the video (above in this post) that originally aired live on Facebook to meditate with me and Emily, and see for yourself how good it feels.
You can learn more about Emily’s meditation practice and try it for yourself in her amazing book, Stress Less, Accomplish More, which I highly recommend.
Endorsed by neuroscientists and functional medicine doctors alike, this book is a practical guide to finding your balance in a busy life.
Thanks for being here today, Rockstar. I hope this post had some helpful tips you can use! Our mental and physical health are intimately intertwined and it’s so important to take care of yourself so you can live a long, healthy, happy life in a fit body you love!
I’ll be looking forward to reading your comments and thoughts below, and feel free to share this post with your friends and family.
We talk about these topics (and more) in Rock Your Life, my online home workout studio and women’s fitness community!
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- Kozlowska, Kasia et al. “Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry. July 2015. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4495877/
- Lovallo, William R. et al. “Caffeine Stimulation of Cortisol Secretion Across the Waking Hours in Relation to Caffeine Intake Levels.” Psychosomatic Medicine. February 2008. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2257922/
- Schwalfenberg, Gerry. “The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline pH Diet Benefits Health?” Journal of Environmental and Public Health. October 2012. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3195546/
- Zampieri, Fernando G. et al. “Relationship between acid–base status and inflammation in the critically ill.” Critical Care. July 2014. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4223545/
- Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K. “Stress, Food, and Inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the Cutting Edge.” Psychosomatic Medicine. April 2010. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2868080/
- Carlsen, Monica H. et al. “The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide.” Nutrition Journal. January 2010. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841576/
- “Exercising to relax.” Harvard Health Publishing. July 2020. Web. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax