If you want to improve the quality of your life and overall fitness then you need to become a master at managing stress. Although stress tends to get a bad rap it’s necessary to our growth evolution, but too much of a good thing can become detrimental.
Ultimately when it comes to stress it’s about balance. We lift heavier weeks and run faster to purposely stress our bodies. When we recover properly this results in becoming a stronger and fitter human. However if we don’t get that recovery that’s when burnout and injury occur.
And the thing about the human body is that it doesn’t differentiate between different types of stress. For example if you are crushing workouts, dealing with a negative relationship, and struggling financially that could be too much for your body to handle. Without coping properly, you will start to see diminishing returns on your workouts no matter how hard you push.
As important as the workouts are to your training, it doesn’t matter if the rest of your life is out of balance. Often people only consider things like nutrition and sleep in this conversation, but being able to downregulate your body, relax and unwind are keys in the chaotic world we live in.
Before I dive into how we can better manage stress let’s talk about what’s happening in the body. You see our autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic.
You can think about the sympathetic as “fight or flight” or an upregulated state of being. When we work out, are overwhelmed or dealing with deadlines this is what takes over. Hormones pump through our body putting us at high alert. This is super necessary when fighting for our life, dealing with a traumatic injury or working out. The problem becomes when you take that stressful even from the office home with you. Reliving it in your head while trying to fall asleep re-lives this event and keeps those hormones flowing that keep you upregulated. If this goes on for too long our body begins to shut down with a number of negative health side effects.
The parasympathetic side is the “rest and digest” or downregulated state. This is when we are feeling relaxed and calm. It is necessary for recovery and repair within the body. In order to get the most out of your hard workouts you need to be able to get into this state. It can be a skill like anything else being able to downregulate after a stressful situation or interaction with other people. The key thing is that it can be trained!
Now for the good part. While there are numerous ways to downregulate I want to teach you about three of the simplest and yet most effective methods you can add to your day to day life! These are breathwork, meditation and mindfulness. And the beauty is these can all actually be completed separately or simultaneously.
Okay I know what you’re thinking: I’ve been breathing my whole life, why would I need help with this? Well the answer is because our modern society does not support the way we were meant to live. For example: sedentary lifestyles and highly processed diets. While we could dive down a massive rabbit hole here I am going to stick to breathing as a mechanism to downregulate the body. So if you want to move into a parasympathetic state and relax then start focusing on your breath.
The easiest way is to start by nasal breathing only as much as possible. This is how we were meant to breath the majority of the time (high intensity exercise is the exception). By breathing in and out through your nose you promote a parasympathetic state.
The next method is by having a longer exhale than inhale. This will literally help change your physiological state and nervous system to become more relaxed. An easy way to begin is through a method called “Box Breathing”. In box breathing the breath is broken up into 4 parts, the inhale, a breath hold, the exhale and another breath hold. Each part is assigned a specific cadence.
Here is an example with a longer exhale to enhance a parasympathetic effect:
- Cadence: 3-3-6-3
- 3 second inhale through nose
- 3 second breath hold
- 6 second exhale through mouth
- 3 second breath hold
Next time you are feeling stressed give this a shot and try going through 10 rounds of box breathing at the above cadence. If you really want to enhance your life try doing this every day even if you don’t feel stressed!
Meditation is another topic we could spend hours diving into. For now I want to simply give you an easy way to get started and dispel some myths. While there are numerous reasons and methods for mediation, the big one I want to focus on is mindfulness or becoming present. It’s about being still and in the moment.
All too often I talk to people about meditation and I hear responses like “I’m just not good at it” or “I can’t think about nothing.” The thing is meditation is a skill just like any other and the more you do it, the easier it becomes. The truth is you can’t be “bad” at it. In fact it is normal for thoughts to come in. And when they do simply let them leave and go back to focusing on the breath or being present. If another thought comes in, let it come and then let it go. The more often you meditate the easier it will be to let go of the thoughts.
Secondly I find that people start with too much. I would much rather you begin with a couple minutes every day of meditation rather than 20 minutes one time a week. It’s really a pass or fail concept. All you have to do is do it and it counts as a session!
Lastly I want you to think about meditation just like a pre-hab exercise. In the same way you do certain exercises at the gym to stay healthy or prevent exercise you should be doing meditation on a regular basis. If you wait to meditate only when you think you need it, then it’s too late. It’s really about adopting a regular meditation practice that will set you up for success.
My favorite way to get started is with the App Headspace. It’s a simple and guided meditation that is great for beginners. Give it a try and then if you want to learn more then send me a message and I’ll be happy to send you more resources!
Mindfulness is simply the act of being present. While people commonly think about this as acts like yoga or meditation it can really be much simpler. Literally any time you are focused in the present moment you are mindful. When you stop to notice a sunset, are engaged in a deep conversation with a friend or so in the zone with a workout that you are only thinking about what you are doing then you are practicing mindfulness.
The reason this gets so hard is because of all of the distractions in our modern life. Which is why we can use things like breathwork and meditation to focus on the present. However all you need to do is be in the moment. Whether that’s putting the phone away, stop thinking about work or pick up a guitar and get lost in a song.
In summary the point of all of this is finding ways that can help us downregulate in a stressful and chaotic world. I challenge you to start implementing these breathing, meditation and mindfulness tools in your day to day and just see how the quality of your life changes in the next month!