With many of us working, sleeping, eating, exercising, and socialising within the same 4 walls at the moment, we won’t blame you if your mental health has taken a hit. There’s no denying that doing everything from home can feel a little intense and our stress levels have definitely smashed through the roof more than once.
If you’re looking to bring them down, improve your health and your training, then we’re here to help you. We aim to help you achieve top training performance from home with our “At home Athletes” series. And that starts with managing stress.
In this week’s article we’re going to be discussing stress, what it is, the role it plays in our health, body composition and performance as well as some practical tips to better manage it!
What is stress?
Before we can dive into the role stress plays in our health, body and performance it’s important to actually cover what “stress” is. Whilst there isn’t a consensus definition of stress, arguably the best definition would be a disruption or threat to our body’s homeostasis.1
Homeostasis is essentially the state in which we can function optimally and have the greatest chances of survival.
When discussing stress directly, that which is causing the stress is described as the “stressor” and our body’s reaction to said stressor is known as the “stress response”.
Whilst stress can be potentially beneficial in certain situations (such as progressive overload in the gym or time constraints pushing an individual to finish a project), chronic and or excessive stress can be harmful, leading to a decline in both mental and physical health.1
What role does stress play in health?
As mentioned, stress can be potentially beneficial for our health. For instance, mild stress can actually improve visual and verbal memory as well as overall cognitive function.2 However, as is now all too common (almost 75% of people have felt so stressed they feel overwhelmed and unable to cope), excessive, chronic stress can have the opposite effect and be detrimental to physical and mental health (both short and long term).3
Mild stress may be beneficial for cognitive function but anything beyond this appears to be quite harmful.2 Studies have shown that excessive stress can lead to cognitive impairment, memory formation and judgement. It can even eventually lead to mood disorders (such as anxiety and depression).
One interesting study evaluated the impact of stress-related unhelpful approaches to thinking about problematic situations or events. The researchers called this unconstructive repetitive thinking (URT).4 They found that those who frequently practice URT are seen to have a more rapid onset of cognitive decline.
Excessive stress can also impact our immunity.5 Worryingly, chronic, excessive stress can hamper our immune response to harmful invading pathogens and alter how our immunity functions.
The gut will also take a hit when stress levels become excessive. It can lead to changes in gut motility (resulting in bloating, constipation, indigestion etc.).6
What role does stress play in body composition and weight management?
Those in the audience who wish to retain and maintain their gains as best they can may want to pay particular attention to these next points.
Whilst stress is an important component to developing muscle mass, excessive, chronic stress (to the point whereby you’d be in a continual inflammatory state) can be extremely detrimental.
In fact, excess stress can eventually lead to muscle wastage.7
Elevated stress levels can also have a significant impact on your body fat and weight management efforts. Stress is linked directly to the consumption of highly palatable foods to enhance mood (binge eating or comfort eating).8 Evidence shows that chronically stressed individuals store more fat around the waistline too.9
What role does stress play in exercise performance and recovery?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that, whilst mild stress may contribute to improved performance, excessive stress certainly does not.
For instance, did you know that being in an excessively stressed state actually mimics a state of dehydration?10
From what we now know we have to consider the impact of stress on psychological function and how this could impact an athlete’s performance. Data has shown a significant decrease in sporting performance following an acute stressor.11
Also, if muscle wastage or worsened body composition factors in, we also have to consider these impacts on short- and long-term performance outcomes.
Recovery from exercise has also been shown to be hindered in periods of excessive stress.12 This is the case for normal training as well as return from injury.
Basically, excessive stress is not in any way helpful for exercise performance or recovery. It may even lead to “athlete burnout”, a state in which the person does not wish to train or compete any longer.13
Practical tips to better manage stress
Ok, so having too much stress in our lives is obviously an issue (and one that affects many of us).
Aside from the very obvious stressor we’re all facing right now (oh hello lockdown and global doom and gloom), there are certainly things we can all be doing each day that can help alleviate stress levels.
Try some of these practical tips and find out how they can help you:
- Regularly exercise
- Get outside when possible
- Maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet
- Establish a sleep routine
- Maintain a strong social support network (do your best to talk to people outside of work situations when you can)
- Have time for yourself each day
- Do your best to separate work time from non-work time and be very clear cut on this (as excessive work exposure may lead to burnout)
- Avoid media outlets which may increase and or contribute to your stress level
- Find someone who you trust and will listen that you can talk with
- Be empathetic to your situation and if you are struggling take time off. We downplay the importance of mental health in society and often disregard it completely. Just because you’re not being physically sick does not mean you’re not unwell. Prioritize looking after your mind during these unprecedented times.
Organisations that can help
If you would like to talk to someone further about your stress (and or if your work does not provide this service itself), the following charities and organizations may be worth chatting to;
Take home message
A bit of stress can be good for us, but many of us live with far too much. Excessive, chronic stress can be extremely harmful to our short- and long-term health affecting our overall health, body composition, body weight and exercise performance.
Place your mind on a pedestal and take care of it; these are difficult times for all of us and we should be making all the more effort to look after ourselves (especially our minds).
Try some of the practical tips we outlined and, if needs be, reach out to one of the organizations and charities we listed. Stress is a normal part of life, but it needn’t ruin your life. There are people out there who can help and who you can talk to; like any knock to mental health, you don’t have to work through it alone.