Health experts agree that 90% of illness is caused by stress 🤯
Stress in America is on the rise. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, 1 in 5 American adults say that their mental health has declined over the last year. Around the world, it is reported that about one-third of people report feeling stressed, worried, and/or angry. According to Our World in Data, approximately 284 million people worldwide have an anxiety disorder. 77% of Americans said that they regularly experience physical symptoms of stress, while 73% reported experiencing psychological symptoms. Lastly, 42% of Americans said that stress has caused them to lose sleep (if you want to learn more about why sleep is so important, check out part 1 of our recovery series here our article here).
What is stress? It is any intrinsic or extrinsic stimulus that causes a biological response. That definition is not helpful though, especially as it pertains to the fitness athlete. We need to start by understanding what stress is and what it does to the body. Let us start with a fancy word known as hormesis.
Hormesis is a biological reaction in which low doses of an agent, that could be toxic or lethal at higher doses, have a beneficial effect. These are things like improved health, stress tolerance, muscle growth, longevity, fasting, and exposure to heat or cold. Mild doses of stress to the body are not bad. That is why: lifting heavy things and ripping muscle fibers yield muscular growth and strength; fasting enhances blood sugar control and longevity; sitting out in the sun and getting hit with those rays increases Vitamin D synthesis. Have you heard us talk about killing comfort? Hormesis is the sole reason you should do something uncomfortable every day. However, just like everything, proper dosing is key. Too much of this stress can overload the system and lead to excessive exposure.
When we go down the road of too much hormetic stress, it is typically paired with physical stress from sleep deprivation; chemical stress from things like drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, etc.; mental stress from anxiety; emotional stress; nutritional stress; and spiritual stress. When any of these stressors, good or bad, become too high for too long, you can break down through a system known as the hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary axis (HPA axis). And while we will not focus too much on this, it is important to note that this is the system, when overloaded, leads to chronic stress.
Let us look at the research to answer this question. One study looked at training loads and perceived stress in young elite university athletes. A hot topic these days, and rightfully so, is adequate recovery. A lot of athletes look at this as simply recovering from a hard day’s training session and avoiding overtraining, injury, and illness. However, often stress levels are overlooked. Again, as we talked about above, appropriate physical stress is good. But stress in athletes is often coming from areas outside of training.
The research study by Hamlin et al., examined if subjective stressors were associated with counterproductive training adaptations in university athletes. The researchers monitored mood, energy levels, academic stress, sleep quality/quantity, muscle soreness, training load, along with injury and illness markers in 182 elite athletes, aged 18-22, over a four-year period.
For the mood score, they used a super simple measurement for perceived stress. They called it the “mood” score in which the athletes rated their stress levels from 1-5. Then, they looked at the risk of injury across a training period. The findings of the research?
“A logistical regression indicated decreased levels of perceived mood, sleep duration, increased academic stress, and energy levels were able to predict injury in these athletes. Examination periods coincided with the highest stress levels and increased likelihood of illness. Additionally, a sudden and high increase in training workload during the preseason was associated with an elevated incidence of injury and illness.”
What does this all mean and how should you apply it? Stress does seem to correlate with injury. Using the simple ranking system of 1-5 on any given training day to monitor your stress levels will help you determine how hard of a training session you should hold for yourself or a client. If you are feeling more stressed, it may be best to not have a hard training day, as your risk for injury, according to this study, may be higher.
This seems like the next appropriate step. Obviously above we stated to use a scoring system to see how hard you should train. A lot of people use exercise as a stress reliever. But does it help?
Exercise has a strong effect on certain neurotransmitters (think of these as messengers in your body that help your brain communicate with tissues) in your body. Specifically, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, feelings of well-being, and overall happiness. A second neurotransmitter is GABA (Gamma aminobutyric acid). GABA is the minds natural calming signal. Both neurotransmitters are known as “inhibitory” neurotransmitters. They primarily make you feel happy and destressed, but when depleted or low due to lack of physical activity or high stress, can cause feelings of anger, depression, anger, or even more stress.
If we have “inhibitory” neurotransmitters, then we likely have “excitatory” neurotransmitters. These are glutamate, catecholamines, and dopamine. These help keep you alert, sharp, keep your mind focused and de-stressed. In excessive amounts they can cause…more stress, anxiety poor, and poor sleep.
Exercise, or staying active, can help keep these inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters nice and balanced, helping you stay emotionally and mentally balanced. Interestingly, a study by Conroy et al., reported just this. They found that people, on days when they are more physically active, have more feelings of excitement and enthusiasm compared to days when they have less physical activity. A big reason for this is that balance of neurotransmitters.
For all the reasons listed above, some type of physical activity can help reduce stress. This does not have to be an all-out gym session. Go for a walk, run, bike ride, yoga, or anything that gets your body moving. Again, as noted above, if you are feeling particularly stressed, and slow, steady state type of physical activity would yield a great benefit to you.
Research has determined a link between stress and breath, particularly deep breathing techniques. This all works to allow your brain to relax, impacting the HPA axis, and therefore reducing stress. Below are two techniques, and two apps, that you can start implementing throughout your day.
If you are looking for meditation specifically, there are great apps that allow you to follow along with your breath and only take 5-10 minutes of your day. The two apps we really enjoy are Headspace and Insight Timer.
*This is helpful information, but it is general information. This is NOT medical advice. If you already have any injury, pain, tightness, etc., please seek help from a licensed and qualified healthcare provider like us, performance physical therapy in Green Bay. A complete solution for what you’re dealing with needs to be customized to all the different factors driving your pain, and those factors will be at least slightly different for each person. These strategies may help, but they’re not likely to be a complete solution for each individual reading this now or in the future.