We’re entering week 5 of the nutrition challenge. The end is really in sight now! Up to this point, we’ve chatted about macronutrients, portion sizing, proper mindset, and balancing nutrition in the real world. Today, I want to talk about something that might not seem obviously related – stress.
Everyone has moments of weakness where they end up making a choice they later regret. Maybe yours is peer pressure, and you wish you wouldn’t have ordered that dessert like everyone else at the table. Or, maybe you tend to make poor choices when you’re tired. Everyone’s trigger is slightly different, but no one is bulletproof.
One of the most common triggers we see? Stress.
You know the feeling. You wake up late. It’s a big day at work, and you still have to get the kids off to school. The dog (trying to be helpful, no doubt) barfs on the floor. Suddenly, you’re running 30 minutes late on a day when you don’t have 30 minutes to spare. Which of the following likely describes breakfast?
A) Eat a home-cooked breakfast at home
B) Rush through McDonald’s trying to feed everyone in minimal time
Okay – maybe there’s a middle-ground, but you get the point. Stress is a real hurdle to overcome when we’re talking about nutrition. A few things are important to realize:
- Not all stress is bad (notice how we said “stay in balance” not “eliminate stress” in the title?)
- Everyone handles stress differently, and it’s important to understand how you specifically handle it
- There are techniques you can use to stay in balance
Let’s tackle each point in detail.
Not All Stress is Bad
When we hear the word “stress,” it typically has a negative connotation. We’re under stress at work, stressed about something at home, etc. It’s important to realize that stress isn’t all bad. It’s just your body’s response when challenged with a taxing situation.
“Stress” is a broad term. We can break it down even further into eustress and distress:
- Eustress – Positive stress that motivates, focuses your energy, and improves performance. (Examples: Getting a promotion at work, buying a home, and having a baby)
- Distress – Stressors that distract you, decrease performance, and lead to mental/physical issues. (Examples: Death of a family member, unemployment, legal issues, etc)
Working out is actually a stressor. When you’re in the gym, you’re literally stressing your muscles. With the right volume and intensity, this improves performance and leaves you stronger. Overtraining, on the other hand, is an example of distress – leaving you feeling tired, exhausted, and even injured.
The key is to find your “stress sweet spot:”
To find the right balance, you need to key into how you specifically respond to stress, which leads to our next point.
How Do You Handle Stress?
I often wonder how in the world Elon Musk runs not one, not two, but (at least) three companies (Tesla, SpaceX, and Neuralink). We’re not talking about small companies either. These are billion dollar companies…all at the same time…without losing all his hair.
Nerdy tech example aside, the truth is that we all handle stress differently. A situation I might find under control might leave you pulling your hair out and vice versa. Some of the factors that influence how you handle stress are more permanent (genetics-based) while others are certainly under your control.
For example, you might be genetically predisposed to be stress-prone while others are naturally more relaxed and stress-resistant. On the flip-side, you can spend time building up an emotional support system and perfecting tactics for adapting and coping with stressful situations.
The key is to understand your natural wiring and work on the aspects you have control over. To get started, think about the following question:
When reflecting back on past experiences, would you say you’re naturally optimistic and view stress as a positive challenge? Or, do you typically feel paralyzed and uncomfortable in stressful situations?
Techniques for Staying Balanced
Okay – now that we understand stress isn’t all bad, and we have an understanding of how we specifically respond to stress, it’s time to talk about practices that keep us in balance. Here are five suggestions to get you started, courtesy of Precision Nutrition:
- Practice parasympathetic activities. Your sympathetic nervous system is your body’s “fight or flight” system. When activated, heart rate is elevated, blood pressure rises…your body is literally preparing for a fight. The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, is associated with relaxation. It’s activated by things like enjoying walks in nature, listening to soothing music, laughing, and spending time with loved ones. Schedule these things on your calendar just like you would anything else!
- Meditate. Before you immediately shut this one down, give it a try. Meditation isn’t all about chanting mantras and religious undertones. Trust me! It can be simply about breathing while listening to relaxing music and paying attention to how your body feels. To get started try Headspace or Calm – both have easy-to-use apps.
- Get outside. Stop staring at your screen and go for a walk. Gentle sun exposure (and natural exposure in general) helps reduce stress. Ditch the headphones and enjoy the sound of birds. Start with a five minute walk around lunch.
- Exercise (appropriately). Exercise can be a catch-22. Overall, it’s a very positive way to deal with stress. It releases endorphins, builds muscle, and (in the case of CFU), gets you involved in the community. If you pile intense exercise on top of a mountain of stress though, it can be too much. Default to including exercise in your week but keep an open mind. If you’re going through a particularly stressful period, scale back the workout or opt for an easier, recovery workout during open gym.
- Be kind to yourself. Feeling stressed out isn’t a weakness. It’s natural, and it happens to everyone, just at different levels. Practice self-compassion and know your limits. Build up a support structure of people you can talk to and lean on. Ask for help when you need it (something many of us aren’t great at). Unplug and give yourself time to recover.