Why am I writing about stress management?
It’s simple really, managing your stress levels will improve the quality of your life. It will improve your digestion, recovery, mood, and make you more productive. It will also improve your muscle gain and fat loss efforts.
I rest my case!
Notice it’s called stress management. Not stress avoidance or reduction. The fact is, that you cannot avoid stress altogether. You can, however, improve how you manage it. If you manage stress better you will be happier, fitter, leaner, and more muscular. In short, life will be better.
Read on to learn more…
A quick overview on stress:
The bodies control centre is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). 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 or digestion.
The ANS has two branches. The parasympathetic and sympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic is also known as your “rest and digest” mode while the sympathetic is “fight or flight” mode.
These two work in a see-saw like fashion. Whenever one of them is activated, the other is inhibited.
Unfortunately, your body cannot differentiate between types of stress. When the sympathetic nervous system is upregulated, it cannot tell the difference between the stress of a life-threatening event, a challenging workout, or the asshole who just cut you up in traffic.
Obviously to manage stress we want to spend most of our time in a parasympathetic state. The reality is, however, that we spend too much time in a sympathetic state. The non-stop barrage of stresses we face day to day add up. This has many negative health implications and inhibits our ability to build lean muscle.
Right, with that background out of the way, it’s time to identify strategies that help to control stress as much as possible
What Gets Measured Gets Managed
A good 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 get a Polar heart-rate monitor to assess this. You could also explore heart-rate variability apps to add another level of assessment.
Plan on Being on Auto-Pilot
Cal Newport talks about how being on “auto-pilot” can help you be more productive and less stressed. He says that there are two types of work in his world:
- Regularly occurring tasks
- Non-regularly occurring tasks
This is true of almost everyone’s life.
The problem with regularly occurring tasks is that they are so numerous that if we just try to manage them on the fly we get behind and become overwhelmed. I believe this sense of overwhelm is one of the key drivers of stress in people’s lives. It certainly is major cause of mine.
To deal with this, Newport assigns every regularly occurring task a specific time slot to be done. He calls this his auto-pilot schedule. By doing this he found that he doesn’t waste time or energy struggling to prioritise and schedule tasks day to day. They run on autopilot. Once you have this stuff allocated to specific times and you make that a routine it means you can then allocate all other available time to other things that interest you.
Granted this method takes some up-front planning but, it pays dividends. A final point on this is to understand that, it will take time to refine and adjust this process. Fortunately, you’ll be so much more efficient you’ll have the time available to make adjustments when needed.
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 which guide you through the process. For more info on this you can read this detailed blog post I wrote on my morning routine.
Meditation is a great way to combat stress. Personally, I have not gone full granola-yogi yet (perhaps when I’m a bit older I’ll embrace the Zen fully!). I am also aware that the word meditation conjures negative connotations with some people (my granola-yogi reference is a case in point). So, if you’re not quite prepared to consider meditation, call it sitting in silence, chillaxing or whatever you’re comfortable with.
Rather than full-on meditation I simply sit quietly and focus on my breath for a couple of minutes. “Belly breathing” with deep breaths in through the nose and slow exhalations out through my mouth do the trick.
If you want some guidance then the app Headspace is great. I have done some of their 5-10 minute guided meditations and it certainly chills you out! These few minutes every day will have a remarkable effect on managing your stress levels.
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 at a time. Then, aim to be “present” within that task. Fully immerse yourself in the sounds, smells, sensations, visuals, and taste of whatever you are doing. Whether that be journaling in your leather-bound notepad while drinking a coffee, hanging out with friends at a BBQ, or drafting that killer sales pitch sitting in front of your laptop in the office. 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, irrelevant potential stressors.
“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift––that is why it is called the present.”
Control the Chimp Inside
In his book the Chimp Paradox, Dr Steve Peters talks about our chimp brain and how it can control us. When this guy takes over, logic evaporates and emotion takes over. All too often when we are under stress we take an emotional approach. The chimp inside us get irritable and can wreak havoc before we know what has happened.
When we get an emotional reaction to something it usually subsides after about 90 seconds if we don’t act on it. Pema Chodron speaks about this in the book, Living Beautifully: With Uncertainty and Change.
Emotions will ebb and flow. Under stressful situations they might rise up like a Tsunami inside you. That’s only natural. It seems the best way to deal with and keep stress under control is to accept the emotions. To feel them. But do not act on them. If you act on them you add fuel to their fire. They will rage higher and for longer. Instead, let them burn themselves out. Then, once you are calm and logic has returned, consider ways to avoid a repeat of the situation which placed you in a position of stress and caused negative emotions like fear, worry, hate, or anxiety to surface.
Take a Deep Breath
Whilst feeling the emotions it might be a good idea to take a deep breath in through your nose, hold it for a few seconds and then exhale through your mouth. This has an incredibly calming effect on your body. In my experience, it can really help to speed the reduction in negative emotions when they arise.
A side effect of stress is shallow breathing. This impairs the proper oxygenation of cells. This reduces your bodies ability to recover. Given I am fond of saying, “you don’t get big lifting weights, you get big recovering from lifting weights”, it should be obvious why being stuck in a stressed, shallow breathing state is limiting your gains.
Pro Tip: Using some simple breathing exercises post-workout switches you from the “fight or flight” mode to the restorative “rest and digest” mode. This instantly reduces stress levels, increases the oxygenation of cells and accelerates the recovery processes. If you train in the evening it will also help you to relax and get to sleep. Sleep is the most powerful recovery tool you have available so this is crucial!
Breathing exercises can also can be extremely effective as a proactive stress management tool when done daily. As I mentioned earlier, I try to do it each morning for a couple of minutes. It creates a wonderfully calm sensation. I would never claim to appear serene but, this is probably the closest I come to feeling it.
Perspective – A Lesson from Dr Pepper
Is what is stressing you out really that bad? Most of the stuff we worry about is really not that significant. It’s very rarely life or death, or leading us to financial ruin. Sitting back, taking stock, and asking yourself… “what’s the worst that could happen?” often allows you to gain some perspective, view the stressor objectively, and place its significance appropriately in the hierarchy of events/needs/wants/stresses in your life. 9 times out of 10, you’ll then chill the fuck out and realise you’d got your knickers in a twist unnecessarily.
Step away from your phone – no not this very second – keep reading this incredibly interesting blog ;). 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 is weird!).
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 smartphone use 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.