Recently my life became extremely stressful. It all started earlier this year with a promotion at work which, while a welcome new challenge, came with more responsibility and a notably higher degree of stress. Last month I went to London for nine days where I camped out on friends’ floors, ate more packaged and processed food than usual and definitely drank away too much! Three days after my return I ran my first half marathon, simultaneously trying to recover from the punishment I’d just inflicted on my body and suffering from the upset in my training schedule in the crucial weeks before the race. In between all of that we had family visiting us, and grabbing a few moments of me time was a physical impossibility.
All of this had a plethora of 'like, duh' effects on me – I felt anxious, worried and overwhelmed. I felt exhausted but struggled to fall asleep, and when I did sleep I often woke up feeling like I was suffocating. My energy was low and I battled to resume regular exercise. My body felt out of synch with itself – my digestion was sluggish and I craved sugar and unhealthy foods that I normally don’t have a problem with.
Our stressed-out lives
What I’ve just outlined is not a unique situation. In fact, it’s a situation that’s considered pretty normal in the society we live in. We’re all expected to just go, go, go all the time. We’re trying to be everything to everyone – great workers, great friends, great mothers/fathers/children, and in trying to do so we often put our health on the backburner as we choose where to focus our limited time and energy. Our lives are so hectic that it’s become almost like a competition to see who is the busiest. As if resting and relaxing is indulgent and only for those who can’t keep up the pace.
Many of us live in the ‘rat race’ – an environment that is already conducive to high stress levels. We then exacerbate that by putting extra pressure on ourselves, saying ‘I must work out for an hour this evening’ and ‘I have to see this friend or attend that function’. People feel guilty for taking time to chill out, and it’s a culture that is doing major damage to our health.
The body’s response to stress
The adrenal glands produce adrenaline, the short term stress hormone that triggers the flight or fight response and which kept us alive in caveman times. They also produce cortisone, the long term stress hormone that gives you the oomph to get you through a tough workout, but that also causes the majority of modern health problems.
After facing down a woolly mammoth, cavemen returned to a state of rest and the body’s production of stress hormones stopped. These days, with the increased social and psychological pressures that we face, our bodies produce far more cortisol than we can cope with. For some people, the stress response literally never shuts off.
The most common side effect of too much cortisol is adrenal exhaustion, where you wake up tired but you get a second wind late at night. This is often paired with weight gain, blood sugar imbalance, high blood pressure, inability to concentrate…and things just go downhill from there. Chronic fatigue, memory loss, insomnia, terrible PMS, sugar cravings…it’s all fun and games.
Your mind vs your body
You’ll tell yourself that it’s ok to go to the gym even though you’re physically and mentally exhausted. What many people don’t realise, however, is that your body can’t tell the difference between work stress and workout stress – it all results in the same hormone production. So if you’ve had a rough few days and you’re exhibiting signs of fatigue or stress, you’re far better off ditching the gym for the beach or an hour sitting in a hammock reading a book.
And this is where the key word comes in: DOWNTIME.
Making time to unwind and rest is so vital to your health, it can literally make you feel like a different person. I’m not very good at sitting still and I’m not a natural relaxer, but I'm learning. I make a point of scheduling time to relax – yes, sometimes I mentally add it to my jam-packed calendar and make myself sit in the sun for 15 minutes, or lie on my bed and read a book.
When we slow down, take a breath and find stillness, we are better people. We are calmer, friendlier, more open and better able to cope with daily pressures. We are refreshed and can approach our lives with renewed energy, not the false energy found in cortisol. If you study and then have a nap, you’ll remember facts better. If you have rest days in between training, you’ll get stronger and fitter more quickly.
But I’m so BUSY, I hear you say, I just CAN’T find the time! Yes, you can. Make it as much a part of your daily schedule as brushing your teeth. You’ll soon see how normal it becomes, and how much better you feel for it.
Your stress-free zone
Create a stress free zone that you visit every single day, just for 10 minutes. I do 10 or 15 minutes of online yoga, read my book or write in a journal. Sometimes I don’t manage to get round to it, like on most days this past month, and that’s ok. You don’t have to punish yourself if you miss it. Just try again tomorrow. Remember you’re not doing this to impress anybody, you’re doing it to genuinely feel better and healthier in your mind and body.
Here are some options for your stress free zone, but invent your own if you like - whatever makes you feel relaxed and switched off.
Write in a journal – it doesn’t have to be pages. Just write down 5 things you’re thankful for that day. Focusing on gratitude automatically makes you less stressed.
Read a book
Go for a walk in nature – remember you can’t take your phone!
Sit in the sun
Meditate – this isn’t for everyone. I can safely say it’s never going to happen for me. But many people who try it swear by it.
Lie with your feet up against the wall and breathe deeply.
Go for a swim – not for exercise, just for enjoyment, preferably in the ocean.
Do restorative exercise eg. Yoga
Learn to say no – if you’re tired and stressed, don’t feel obligated to accept an invitation.
Take an afternoon nap
Give yourself permission to rest. Your body is smart – listen to it.