Getting fit and healthy is a very real battle for many of us, and it’s one that statistics suggest we are losing. Even though we have more access to information and resources than ever before, we cannot seem to turn the tide against rising problems with physical and mental health.
But what if there were some simple tactics that acted to open the gateway to success in this fight, ones that gave you the advantage that you need to finally make progress.
That advantage is real, and it can be found in the form of your response to stress. This is something that I discovered through personal experience, the irony being that it was not during my military career, but during the period after while working in the corporate world.
What Actually Is Stress?
Everyone has experienced unpleasant feelings caused by stress. When you have that fear of things to come, worrying about bills or problems with your relationship. A head full of racing thoughts, like having every tab open on your computer. Everything feels so busy but nothing gets done.
But stress has been, and still is, incredibly useful to us. The key lies in the type of stress that your body is dealing with.
Stress is a response that basically advises you on what to do. It is a reaction in the brain where the amygdala–the part of the brain that handles decision-making and emotional responses–decides whether or not there is a threat and, if there is, alerts the hypothalamus–the part of the brain that regulates hormones–to the danger.
This then triggers a “fight or flight” reaction which causes changes throughout the body, to make sure we are best able to respond to the threat.
Acute Stress V Chronic Stress
In small doses this is a brilliant evolutionary system that works very well. This response kept our ancestors safe from dangerous animals or unrelenting conditions.
It’s what is known as acute stress, meaning it’s short and sharp, and in itself doesn’t take a heavy toll if we find ways to relax quickly. Once the stressor has been dealt with, we need to return our body to normal to be healthy and happy.
And this still serves us today if we feel like danger is close by and we switch into survival mode. The problem is that in comparison to evolution, modern society has come about very quickly, and the system that has served us so well is now malfunctioning.
Today we have a frustrating daily commute, financial strain, relationship disagreements, or caring for a sick loved one. These are all situations that can trigger a chronic stress response and then keep it going for weeks, months, or even years at a time.
And that is where things start to really go wrong. In today’s busy world we are prone to perceiving a low level of threat in everyday situations over a prolonged period of time, leading to a long-term stress response that is extremely hard on the body.
If your body is constantly on alert due to chronic stress (even if you don’t realise it) then all the other systems suffer, and you end up in a cycle that degrades you day by day.
From Battlefield To Boardroom
This difference between acute and chronic stress was something I experienced in my transition from military to civilian life.
My tours in Afghanistan serving with Special Forces were punctuated with short bouts of acute stress that were essential to survival. But periods in between this it was actually very stress free, because operational tours can be like being in a bubble.
You have no bills to worry about, no busy commute, no day to day problems that can feel like a grind. And you have a brilliant social environment because you are surrounded by good mates the whole time. So in many ways it’s more in line with how we have evolved to live.
When I left the military and started working in the city the whole experience was a stark contrast to my previous life, getting onto a rammed tube into the city each morning and trying to figure out costings and spreadsheets in a job I quickly realised wasn’t right for me.
But the problem in our “always-on” culture, being in a perpetual state of stress can start to feel normal. As our schedules get busier and busier, we adjust to a more hectic lifestyle without even realising that we seriously need to take action.
It’s a bit like the fishbowl effect, just as the fish has no idea that it’s in a tank, the way we feel on a daily basis becomes our own new normal. We don’t even realise how much better we could be feeling.
And this also means we don’t fully appreciate just how damaging this constant, day-in, day-out stress can be. We know it can be damaging for our emotional health but chronic stress also works quietly behind the scenes to wreak havoc on your physical health, too.
And I really started to notice it.
The Negative Impact
Getting irritated by simple things, being less social, and losing motivation for training were big indicators for me. I also had less interest in sex because chronic stress causes the body to produce stress hormones at the expense of sex hormones like testosterone.
My cravings for eating junk went up, and research has shown that stress influences the amount (up to 40% more), and type of food we eat (those with high fat and sugar content). Basically chronic stress does a number on us and manifests itself in many ways like losing your temper, getting upset at the small things, and feeling low on energy.
And when your body is constantly in “fight-or-flight” mode, it produces excess cortisol which can leave you battling a host of aches and pains, including back and neck pain. (If you’ve even been for a massage I can almost guarantee the masseuse made a comment about feeling the stress built up in your body).
Chronic stress creeps up and bubbles away under the surface, which means that it’s really easy to convince yourself that this is just how life is, how everybody is. However, this simply is not true.
Opening The Gateway
Have you ever been hard on yourself for failing at a diet or exercise plan?
Often we think we can’t do those things because we are weak, that we lack willpower. But, if your body is in a constant state of chronic stress it has a direct impact on your mental and physical capacity.
I have been into health and fitness for over two decades and still that period of stress had a huge impact on my desire to train, and ability to eat a good diet. So it’s no wonder it feels like an uphill struggle if you’re trying to build new habits.
But when you eliminate that chronic stress everything suddenly becomes far easier. During November we ran a simple 30 day challenge to help people achieve this.
The result …
And this is a pattern we have seen repeated because reducing your stress and feeling more energised is a gateway to success.
When your body is in a constant state of fight or flight it places a huge tax on your energy systems, meaning you are operating in a fog of mental and physical fatigue. Furthermore, all of those stress hormones will be throwing your whole body out of rhythm.
Unfortunately, until you make changes you can exist in this state and believe that it’s normal, that it’s just everyday life, or perhaps a sign of age. You become the fish in the bowl, swimming in your own reality.
But once you remove that stress (which you may or may not be aware of) and lift that fog it is a complete game changer. How you feel, your energy levels, the mental clarity you experience, it suddenly makes the process of positive change very achievable.
The hard part is escaping that fish bowl and feeling what it’s like to be free of stress, and how much energy and focus that gives you, so that you can really start making the most of everything you do.
Tactics To Reduce Stress
Here’s the thing, we can take certain simple actions that make a big difference to our stress response.
Chronic low-level stress (traffic jams, work pressure, family difficulties etc.) keeps your sympathetic nervous system fired up, and over the long term this causes big problems. But there are certain activities that anyone can do which will counteract this to drastically reduce your level of stress.
Here are 5 activities that will all reduce your stress, pick and choose any of them that you feel are simple enough to integrate into your life today.
- Breathe Deeply: Don’t be a shallow mouth breather, get some deep breaths in and out through your nose.
- Get Outside: Run/jog/walk, 60/30/10 minutes, doesn’t matter, get outside and move your body in natural light.
- Sleep More: It’s enjoyable, it’s free, it’s incredibly good for you! Aim for quantity and quality.
- Minimise Screens: Aim for 1hr post wakeup & pre-bed with no screen time.
- Maximise Social: Make time for things that make you happy
These are all simple, low barrier actions that actually make a big difference IF you are consistent with them.
It can sometimes feel like we are the only ones not coping, but it’s just not true. The numbers are clear, stress related disorders are becoming the most common mental health issues we face in modern times.
A healthy stress response is good, it makes you alert and will prime your body to tackle challenges.
In order to have that you need to eliminate chronic stress so that you can feel and perform at your best. When I look back to that period when I was under chronic stress compared to how I am after making simple changes, it’s night and day. It’s like coming out of a fog when everything suddenly becomes clear. And everything becomes so much easier rather than a massive struggle.
Make escape from that fishbowl a priority and I guarantee that you will suddenly find things you struggled with in the past become far easier and far more enjoyable.
P.S. If you want help in reducing stress and building resilience then take a look at our Limitless Challenge below.