Stress is not just a feature of modern life. It’s a deep-rooted instinct that has been saving humans’ asses since the dawn of man.
But chronic stress is a sign of modern times. And along with it comes a host of stress-related problems — digestive issues, poor memory, sleep disruption, mood swings — the list goes on.
Chronic stress will change your appearance, eating away at muscle and fattening up your midsection. Not a good look.
Why does stress happen?
Stress is supposed to protect you from imminent danger. It’s a complicated hormonal response with a simple purpose: to prepare you for action — fight or flight.
Whether you’re being hunted by a lion in the African bush, or chased by a madman in a dark alley, the fight-or-flight response gets you moving fast. You wouldn’t survive without it.
When you sense an imminent threat, your brain activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which releases cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones to prepare you for action.
- Breathing becomes short and fast
- Blood pressure and heart rate increase
- Digestion is slowed down — blood is diverted to the working muscles
- Sex hormone production slows or stops
- Glucose and fatty acids are released into the bloodstream, giving you plenty of energy for swift action
At this point, you either fight, flee or freeze. After the threat is gone, the SNS calms down, and the stress hormones recede.
How chronic stress makes you skinny fat
In modern life, we don’t often experience life-threatening danger. Instead we have chronic stressors — deadlines, job woes, 24-hour news, etc.
Chronic stress activates the SNS on a smaller scale. And that leads to chronically elevated cortisol.
- Cortisol releases fatty acids from strored fat, so you can burn them for energy (for the fight or the flight). But when they’re not used, they move into the fat stores in your abdomen. In other words, your body fat is relocated to your mid-section.
- Cortisol breaks down the amino acids in your muscles, converting them into glucose (also for energy). When the glucose isn’t used, it gets converted to fat and stored in your abdomen. In other words, your muscles are broken down, converted to sugar, then stored as fat in your mid-section.
- The stress response supresses testosterone. Reduced testosterone is associated with higher levels of abdominal fat and leg fat, and more chest fat in men (moobs). It also lowers your ability to get stronger and gain size.
If you can’t gain muscle mass, stress could be what’s holding you back.
7 tips to help you reduce stress
There’s no magic pill, but try a few of these. They work.
It’s not just for hippies anymore. Meditation is one of the most effective ways to reduce your anxiety.
The simple act of sitting still and focusing on your breath will alter your brain activity and reduce stress hormone levels. In fact, regular meditation causes positive physical changes to your brain.
If you prefer quick and painless guided meditation, I’m a big fan of the Headspace app for your spartphone. (Yes, I see the irony in using your phone to help you unplug, but that’s the world we live in, and it works.)
2. Do sprints instead of long cardio sessions
Repeated long-duration cardio causes oxidative stress that can raise cortisol levels. If you already have high cortisol from stress and anxiety, this will make it worse.
Sprinting and high-intensity interval training will lower your baseline cortisol levels if you do them consistently. And they burn more fat in less time.
3. Get more high-quality sleep
The importance of good sleep can not be overstated.
High anxiety levels interfere with your sleep. And sleep deprivation further increases your stress hormones. Not a good cycle.
If good sleep is hard to come by, try a few of these:
- sleep in a dark, quiet room; dim the lights before bed
- reduce your nighttime screen time
- put your phone on do not disturb mode
- go to bed an hour earlier.
In fact, each of these 7 tips (except maybe #7) will contribute to a better night’s sleep.
4. Do yoga
Yoga helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), known as the “rest and digest” system (as opposed to ‘fight or flight’). When you activate the PNS and calm down the SNS, you lower cortisol and other stress hormones.
Yoga has been shown repeatedly to enhance mood and sense of well-being. It lowers blood pressure, and relieves insomnia.
Through the combination of movement, sretching and breathing, yoga also relieves muscular tension caused by chronic stress.
5. Put down your damn phone
Obviously you should finish reading this article first.
Being hyper-connected keeps us in a constant state of alertness. All day long, we check news feeds, photo streams and other endless-scroll bullshit, processing every bit of information as we go.
When you add in a drop-everything-now reaction to emails, calls and text alerts, it’s no wonder you can’t relax. All of this keeps the SNS constantly activated.
Smartphones are a part of life. But start to take notice of your avoidable screen time — like your 8th daily visit to Instagram. Turn off news alerts (this one is huge). Set aside some time to silence your phone and not be interrupted by it.
6. Breathe deeply
You already know that high stress causes fast, shalow breathing.
But your brain is always monitoring your respiration. And fast, shallow breathing will further activate the SNS, which reinforces the breathing pattern.
You can interrupt this feedback loop by taking control of your breath. Take a slow, deep breath all the way in, hold it for a second or two, then exhale fully and slowly. The long exhale is important.
Doing this throughout the day will calm you down. And if you’re saying to yourself, “hell no, I will not meditate or do yoga,” then deep breathing exercises will be especially beneficial.
7. Drink green tea
Unlike coffee and other caffeined drinks, green tea contains theanine, an amino acid that helps you to relax.
Theanine occurs naturally in the body, and is found in many all-natural sleep aids. It can balance out the caffeine in green tea, keeping you alert without feeling jittery.
If you drink green tea throughout the day, go with decaf as the day wears on. Caffeine is a known sleep disruptor. Which kind of defeats the purpose.