We all encounter difficult times in our lives when events - often beyond our control - can almost seem overwhelming. Moving home, relationship problems, parenting troubles and career issues can all lead to a rise in stress levels.
Stress can manifest in a few ways, and everyone is different. It can lead to both weight loss, and weight gain, it can cause fatigue, a weakened immune system and even long-term issues such as high blood pressure.
Stress can be useful - a little kick up the bum to encourage you to smash it out for that deadline for example. However, too much stress can be debilitating. So what happens to our bodies when we're suffering from stress, and what measures can we take to help calm the symptoms?
What is Stress?
Before we can look at the adverse effects of stress on our bodies, we need to understand what stress is. Essentially it's our emotional reaction to unpleasant or difficult happenings.
To deal with these unpleasant events, the hypothalamus in your brain triggers a release of adrenaline and cortisol. Both of these hormones give you a kick of energy while increasing heart rate and blood flow - preparing your body for a reaction - be that "Fight OR Flight".
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. Our bodies need a little bit of stress to function: to get out of bed, to go to work and get things done. Like everything in life though, stress needs to be moderated as too much, or even too little stress can have adverse effects.
In the right amounts, cortisol is actually very good for us. It's our natural anti-inflammatory as cortisol is converted to cortisone and helps tackle problem areas.
A lack of stress and subsequent cortisol production can leave your body under-stimulated. However, too much stress releases too much cortisol over a prolonged period of time, leading to negative effects on the mind and body.
Stress Effects the Mind and Body
The physical side effects of prolonged stress are vast, and they can manifest themselves in a number of ways which vary between individuals. Usually, those suffering from stress have a weakened immune system as cortisol can inhibit the uptake of other chemicals in the body.
Cortisol can slow your metabolism by effectively telling your body to switch into "survival mode". This causes your body to burn fat at a slower rate than normal which can ultimately lead to weight gain.
Hormones that usually get blocked by cortisol are gonadotrophins - the sex hormone - and this explains why those suffering a stressful period will see a reduction in their libido levels. Other physical symptoms can be headaches, muscle tightness, upset stomach and high blood pressure.
Stress plays a key role, and usually is the trigger for both anxiety and depression. Mental health conditions are complex in nature, and different people will be affected differently.
How Stress Affects Training
If you've had a bad day at work, sometimes it's good to sweat it off in the gym, or on the bike. Getting the blood pumping and adrenaline surging can lead to happy chemical production in the body, giving you a positive boost.
However, when suffering from chronic prolonged stress, your workouts can become a lot less effective, for a number of reasons.
Working memory is what we use when we perform certain tasks, particularly when we have to process numerous pieces of information at one time. However, when we're stressed, we often take a lot longer to process information. For this reason, mistakes are easily made, especially when training - and if your mind isn't totally on it this could lead to an injury.
If the cause of your stress is a particular event or an ongoing worry, then this will result in a loss of concentration. Having focus is key to a good workout to ensure you're pushing yourself to your best ability, keeping the correct form and pacing yourself over time.
As well as the mental distractions, stress can reduce the level of gains you'd expect to see from your workout. When there are high levels of cortisol in your body, it affects the amount of oxygen your body can recruit for a workout (VO2 level). Typically, you would expect to see the VO2 levels improve over time, but not if you're bogged down with stress.
Muscle recovery times are a lot longer by comparison to those with fewer life worries. It's natural to feel a little achy after a good cycle session, or gym workout, but those suffering from chronic stress can take a little longer to recover. Because cortisol affects so many physical and mental aspects of your body, it drains resources that you need for a full recovery. That's why stress and fatigue can sometimes go hand-in-hand.
What Can You Do?
There are many natural stress-fighting things you can do to help gain control over those worrisome issues. However, if it is chronic stress, anxiety or depression, it's always advisable to seek professional medical advice too.
EXERCISE (gently!): Putting your body under physical stress helps relieve mental stress. When you exercise, you release both adrenaline and cortisol to help get the heart beating quicker, get blood flowing faster and also help block pain receptors. In addition, you're encouraging serotonin and dopamine production. These are the happy chemicals, or the reward hormones, which help you feel revived and refreshed after a good session. However - with all of the above considerations in mind, remember to work within your limits to avoid injury.
DIET: Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet is key to help reduce stress levels. Plenty of water, foods low in sugar and lots of fresh meat, fruit and veg give the body and mind all the necessary nutrients to help fight off stress-related symptoms. Spiking insulin levels with sugar and sweet treats might give you a sudden high - but it won't last.
MEDITATION: Yoga and many other forms of spiritual relaxation are known for having a positive impact on stress. Learning to relax and control your breathing can have more benefits for the body that you would think. It's very different for everyone, and no one rule fits all - but there are many gains to be found in yoga for cyclists.
Stress is a natural part of life and a natural part of our bodies. We need some of that cortisol to get us through the day, but too much or too little can have some serious side effects. It's how we handle stress which affects how much of a negative impact it can have on us.
By ensuring you maintain regular exercise, a well-balanced diet and some mental 'you time', you'll help combat the symptoms of stress. Although for persistent and chronic cases, it's best to seek medical advice.
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