As the temperatures drop, it’s starting to feel like the holiday season is on its way. For many, the holidays are the most stressful time of year. We juggle work with cooking and shopping for gifts and hope to still hold on to a routine. We want to avoid gaining the dreadful 10 extra pounds from the holidays or just feeling exhausted and lethargic.
Your stress may be increasing just thinking about this time of year! So what do we do about it?
How does your brain perceive stress?
Our brains and nervous systems are intricately designed to prioritize survival, with the majority of information processing occurring on a subconscious level. This includes familiar concepts like the "fight or flight" and "rest and digest" responses, which play a significant role in this discussion.
The "fight or flight" response is governed by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which triggers an increase in heart rate and breathing rate when we encounter a startle, perceive danger, or engage in exercise. Surprisingly, exercise itself can elicit this fight or flight response, and we will delve into this further shortly.
On the other hand, the "rest and digest" response, controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), counteracts the SNS. When activated, it lowers heart rate and slows breathing patterns after the perceived threat has passed. This state allows the body to rest, digest food, and enter an overall relaxed state. The PNS is crucial for the recovery process, including post-exercise recovery, and also exhibits primary anti-inflammatory effects. Ideally, you want your PNS to be active most of the time.
Spending excessive time in a fight-or-flight state can have chronic effects on the body. It may lead to increased body fat, muscle loss, and persistent fatigue (even worsening the effects of caffeine).
Conversely, being in a constant state of anxiety or high alertness can also have negative consequences. Your digestion may be disrupted, and you may experience heightened bodily discomfort. The list goes on.
If you identify with these symptoms, rest assured that your body is doing its best to take care of you. However, it is also sending signals that it's time to pay attention and modify your current stimuli. Hormonal changes, both acute and chronic, occur in response to support you, but they may not align with your goals of weight management or sustained energy levels.
Understanding these responses and their implications can empower you to make necessary adjustments and prioritize your overall well-being.
Is exercise good or bad stress?
Now, back to that concept of exercise activating your SNS — you might be a bit confused or thinking, “But exercise is the good stress.”
Exercise is a stress input into our bodies. Your body only knows the dosage of added stress; it can't diagnose good or bad stress Stress is stress. It’s the dosage that matters to the body. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t exercise or move — your body and brain need movement. No movement is also an added stress.
So how do you exercise, then? Consider changing how you exercise.
There’s a time and place our bodies can handle those grueling, high-intensity, and long workouts. There are times to choose therapeutic movements, and workouts where you take more breaks or push yourself at a 6 vs. a 10. Weightlifting, in general, tends to be less stressful on the body than long cardio workouts. More isn’t always better. More may not get you to the results you’re trying to achieve.
When you’re at a low-stress point in your life, you need the benefits of hard workouts. Again, stress isn’t good or bad. When you can add stress that your body can recover from, your body will adapt to handle it.
The Yin and Yang of the SNS and PNS
You may be familiar with the yin-yang symbol. The Chinese philosophical concept of dualism reflects the interaction between the SNS and PNS. We can use this symbol to illustrate the importance of balance between the two automatic systems, and therefore your life. Prolonged or chronic time in SNS causes severe wear and tear on your body and brain. It can lead to high levels of oxidative stress and inflammation.
To help understand what nervous system state you may be in, you can learn how to better read your body. Are you feeling exhausted every day? Do you always feel like you need a nap? When you work out, are you sore for two or more days? Your sugar cravings may even be higher if you feel like this. Chances are you may be spending too much time in a fight-or-flight state and need more PNS time.
If that’s the case, consider the following tips for managing your stress:
- Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep. If sleep is challenging, try to work on your nightly routine to wind down, such as taking a bath, low lighting, and cutting out screen time.
- Get 15 minutes of sunlight, ideally in the morning or afternoon. This will help set your circadian rhythm in your body, significantly impacting your hormones and your ability to fall asleep at night.
- Take time to be silent and think, even if it’s for just 3 minutes a day. In our modern world, “threats” aren’t predators but rather situations like multitasking and trying to take on too much. Our brains need time to relax.
- Add therapeutic movement to your day with activities like walking, mobility work, breathing, and even dancing.
- Include more strength-based workouts to your routine. And take a few days off a week to rest your body. Again, this doesn’t mean stop working out. It means walk or hike more or do more movement-based workouts like yoga.
Understand that spending more time in this rest and digest state will allow you to push harder again and respond accordingly and positively. Our bodies are smart. They respond how we need them to respond, even if we don’t always agree with it.
Remember this holiday season to listen to your body. Make time for balance and relaxation so that you can continue to maintain or even achieve your goals. If you can master this balance, you’ll only continue to excel.