Stress: The Good and the Bad

Posted by Casey Stenehjem on Dec 2nd 2020

Are you listening to your body's stress signals?

Stress: The Good and the Bad

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 designed explicitly for survival, and most of the information coming in is subconscious. In other words: you don’t even realize it’s occurring. You may be familiar with “fight or flight” or “rest and digest” responses. Those statements hold true to this topic.

Fight or flight is your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is designed to increase your heart rate and rate of breathing when you are startled, perceive something as dangerous, or in response to exercise. That’s right — exercise can cause the fight or flight response (and we’ll dig into this soon!).

Rest and digest, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), counteracts the SNS. When activated, it will lower your heart rate and slow breathing patterns after the perceived danger passes, allowing your body to sleep, digest food, and be in an overall relaxed state. This system is critical for the recovery process, including recovery from exercise. The PNS also has primary anti-inflammatory actions. You want your PNS system activated most of the time.

If you spend too much time in a fight or flight state, your body is chronically affected. You may gain body fat, lose muscle, and feel fatigued (and coffee will make you feel even worse!).

On the flip side, you may feel anxious or always on edge. Your digestion may be altered, or your body may ache more. The list goes on.

If you already feel like you fit this mold, don’t worry. Your body is doing an excellent job of taking care of you! However, it’s also trying to send you signals to pay attention and change current stimuli. Your hormones will change acutely and chronically to assist you, but chances are this doesn’t align with your goals of keeping weight off or feeling energized.

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, 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.

Casey Stenehjem

Casey has been a health and fitness professional since 2009, after graduating with a Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science. She has helped hundreds of people achieve their fitness goals. From working with beginners, youth, older adults, and almost everyone in between, Casey loves to blend her diverse knowledge and experience to help guide her clients to where they want to be. Her philosophy is simple: meet people where they are today in order to help them learn, grow, and excel through education in nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle changes unique to them.

Casey’s certifications include:

  • Z-health R-phase, Z-health I-phase, Z-health S-phase, Z-health T-phase, Z-Health Strength and Suppleness  
  • Functional Range Conditioning Level 1
  • NASM Corrective Exercise Specialist
  • ACE Certified Personal Trainer  
  • Precision Nutrition Level 1  
  • USA Weightlifting Certified