By Adrienne Herrenbruck, Ph.D., ACSM-EP
Faculty Member, Sports and Health Sciences
April is National Stress Awareness Month. Although it’s clear that stress affects all of us around the year, it’s important to take a step back this month and intentionally evaluate our current stressors and what we can do to mitigate them.
Ask anyone around how they are, and I guarantee the bulk of the answers will be “Good, just busy.” I’m not sure when this phrase became the go-to as a normal social answer, but one of my personal goals in life is to never use it again.
Some people may glorify busyness, while others see it in a negative light. Either way, I don’t want being busy to be the main characteristic of my life.
Regardless of whether you enjoy a packed calendar or one with plenty of blank spaces, the inevitable truth is that there are stressors in our lives. These stressors include health problems, financial burdens, daily tasks and more.
Over time, they pile up. We can do our best to manage the stressors in our lives and avoid feeling overwhelmed, but sometimes, life is just stressful.
When this situation is the case, I turn back to my roots in exercise science. I know from a scientific background as well as previous experience that moving my body and engaging in physical activity decreases my stress and clears my mind.
Often when I discuss this need for physical activity with others, they get a concerned look on their faces and lament that there’s one more thing to add to the to-do list. I urge you: Do not fall into this trap.
Physical activity doesn’t always need to mean a “workout” or an all-out effort. In fact, many of the best stress-reducing activities are those that eventually pull us out of the high-stress fight or flight response and into the “rest and digest” phase.
There are many forms of exercise that you can use to relieve your stress. However, my top three suggestions include walking, passive stretching and strength training.
It’s been said thousands (if not millions) of times before, but walking is a powerful tool to deal with high-stress situations. Whether I’m overwhelmed with work or dealing with personal emotional situations, taking a walk outside helps every single time. In fact, being in nature is a known factor in reducing stress.
When you’re stressed and need exercise to calm down, don’t wait for a change of clothes or even the perfect shoes or weather. Walk around the block, walk from your office down to the lobby or walk to the sunniest part of your building. Get in those steps.
For years, health experts recommended that you perform stretches before being physically active. Although we now know this practice of stretching prior to exercise is not the best, right before you go to bed is an excellent time to practice passive stretching.
For passive stretching, sit on the floor during your favorite TV show and lean forward to touch your toes, remembering not to bounce. The best way to practice these stretches is to hold a long continuous pose while practicing deep breathing at the same time.
There’s no need to stretch to the point where you feel extreme discomfort. Just reach, reach a little further, hold the pose for a while and breathe deeply.
This type of stretching calms your central nervous system. It will not only provide stress relief but will promote a higher quality of sleep, which has a long-term, positive impact on your health.
While strength training is likely not on many people’s lists as a great way to bust through stress, strength training can do remarkable things for your physical and mental health. For some reason, we like to discuss the brain as if it’s a separate part of us. But the brain is part of our body, so when our body gets healthier, our brain gets healthier and makes us more resilient to stressors.
Additionally, it takes extreme concentration to perform strength training correctly. Focusing on something without distraction is a wonderful practice in mindfulness, which also encourages stress reduction.
Related link: Training Like Olympian Athletes without Overtraining
Eliminating Stressors or Mitigating Their Stressful Impact
When I’m trying to mitigate my stress, my first inclination is to figure out how to eliminate the stressor. In many cases, however, that stressor cannot be removed. For instance, if you have financial worries, it’s still necessary to pay the bills you owe.
When a stressor is there to stay, then it’s time to figure out how to mitigate the impact of that stressor and make the most of your current situation. I know I’m biased, but I’ve yet to find any therapy that is remotely as successful as physical activity. As a bonus, physical activity frequently leads to other experiences – such as being outdoors or being mindful – that all add up to an overall decrease in your stress.
What’s your first defense when feeling stressed?