Can we talk about stress for a minute?
We all know that being under a lot of stress is not a good thing for our body or mind at the most basic level. We get that it can cause health problems and make us feel crummy. Whenever we talk about being stressed out with family, friends, or even our doctors, their advice is “you just have to try to relax, take a day off.”
Okay- sure, great. I will stress less, no problem. Oh wait, uh, how the hell do I do that in the life we all live right now? Life is fast paced right now, between working 40+ hour work weeks with deadlines, having kids, sports, holidays, social outings it is non-stop. I mean just trying to schedule my daughter a play date needs to happen like two months in advance. “No sorry, she is booked until April.”
I got to thinking, how often do we really ever do anything about our stress? And if we are doing something, what does that something look like? Is is helping or hurting your body?
I know that I am highly susceptible to stress and pressure. I think it is because I feel like the actual act of stress is productive. Like if I am stressed out, I must be helping the issue in some way. If I am not stressed, how can I be doing a good job? This is something that I have spent the last year working on intensely.
I find as women we carry a ton of stress around with us, probably because we are trying to be and do everything as close to perfect as possible. We don’t want to screw something up and get called out, so we focus intensely on our tasks.
Then, we get home and feel like we have nothing left to give. We are exhausted. We know we need to calm ourselves down, but we have zero time to ourselves. So what do we do? Grab for whatever we can find that will provide the quickest relief possible. Usually this is in the form of alcohol or food, maybe both. A lot of times the staples are sweets, cheese, or chips. We do this because we believe these things are going to calm our nerves and let us ‘relax.’ We tell ourselves we need it.
But this cycle of high stress mixed with food and sedentary coping strategies only increases the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies further. And what this then does is create a yo-yo effect for stress. So you are crazy stressed at work, you come home and try to pacify with food-usually inhaling it because you haven’t had time to eat all day- then you pass out from exhaustion and food coma. Then you get up and are groggy, hitting the snooze button, exhausted, having to do it all over again. Sound familiar?
Your body is experiencing cortisol overload. You are pulsing cortisol through your body at an intense level all day. You start to run out of gas by early evening because you’ve burned out your cortisol tank, then you lose your willpower because you’re so tired. You’re starving and grab for carbs at night time to feel better fast, thus raising your insulin which then requires raising your cortisol again to lower your insulin back down, then you pass out. You wake up totally drained. Do you see how your stress hormones are running wild?
The amazing thing here is that cortisol is what I like to refer to as the Mac Daddy of hormones. If our cortisol is high, literally everything else in our body goes haywire. Our reproductive hormones- estrogen and progesterone go off kilter messing with ovulation and our periods (infertility issues are common, I have my own story on that one), our thyroid, our blood sugar, and our fat storage increase. Basically, cortisol is keeping you from losing tummy fat, having energy, and even making babies- that jerk.
Why is cortisol doing this to us? Well, when we are in a chronic state of stress our body is freaking out that we might get eaten by a tiger. So it goes into full on lockdown mode. It stores all the fat it can get, tricks us into eating more to keep energy up, and then when the perceived threat is gone-we collapse. This messes with our mood too, causing us to feel anxious, depressed and irritable.
The good news is, if you have been binging at night or struggling with sticking ‘to a plan’ you do not suck. You probably have a hormonal imbalance that we can uncover together.
So now we understand the sciencey stuff behind why stress is a pain in our gut. But here is the thing.
The reality is we can’t escape stress in our lives. Anyone that tells you you can, probably is living on an island sipping mai tias.
I have encountered many people who have given advice on how to beat stress and de-stress, including prescribing medication like anti-depressants. But if you ask me, that isn’t a solution to the underlying issue. In my experience, something always pops up out of no where and rattles our cages.
I believe the more powerful way to combat stress is to have a mindset geared toward learning how to interact with stress on OUR terms vs letting stress call the shots
So How Do We Do This?
1) When we stop fearing stress, we take away some of its power.
First, it helps to recognize that we all live with stress. It is unavoidable and there is no magical place of stress free living if you’re in the regular world. If you are pressuring yourself to live a stress free like ‘those other moms’ or ‘people’ be nice to yourself, stress happens. But I find if I check in with myself and ask what am I afraid is going to happen? Will I die from this? Will someone get hurt from this? If the answer is no, I take a deep breathe. Perspective.
2) We have to learn how to hit the pause button (like Zac Morris on Saved By the Bell-I hope you know this reference or I have aged faster than I thought)
You have to learn how to say holy cow, I am crazy stressed out right now and need a moment to regroup. An example of this for me is to get up and move. If I am at work, I walk away from my desk and walk the hallway, go to the bathroom, take a loop around the office. I might get a drink of water, look out the window, and just remember this is not life or death. I am okay. If I am at home and the day is going to hell in a handbasket quickly, I will pack myself and the kids/dogs up and get out for a walk right then. We will load the stroller or go to the park. We don’t need long but as soon as we hit the pavement, I can breathe. Stress hates not being able to sit and stew. Basically, the key here is to do an opposing action to stress rather than feed it.
3) If you are like me and you LOVE chocolate, good news- chocolate kills stress too. But what you need to know here is that milk chocolate is a sham. That isn’t going to do it. You will need to get DARK chocolate (80% or higher cacao– not cocoa because it takes away the enzyme needed for hormone) and eat 1-2 squares of it slowly while taking a few deep breaths, you’ll feel better. You can do this every dang day if you need to. I know I do.
4) Keep your blood sugar stable because a hungry body is also a stressed out body (even if we can’t feel it) . If you skip breakfast, eat a salad or yogurt for lunch, then smash dinner, your blood sugar is not stable. You want to try to fuel your body steadily through the day to keep it moving. This is something I work extensively on with the women in my coaching club. We look at their current eating habits and find ways to make eating more convenient and enjoyable throughout the day so that there is less of a crash and energy yo-yo throughout the day. This includes trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. If you have sleep trouble, this is more than likely tied to your cortisol hormone.
Bottom line is stress is unavoidable, but you do not have to be controlled by it. Not learning how to control cortisol can wreak havoc on your body, regardless of how healthy you are. In fact, a recent study shows that high levels of cortisol on an ongoing basis is MORE detrimental than smoking cigarettes. It is that serious.
If you are struggling with weight that won’t budge no matter what, irritability, low energy, and even low interest in your spouse, too high or too low of cortisol may be your underlying trouble zone.
If you need help identifying if your cortisol levels have gone off the rails, let’s talk it through. There are symptoms we can look for that will give us a better idea of the best way to help you regain some balance. The good news is, you won’t have to hate the process and your workouts won’t feel like a waste anymore.