In today’s fast-paced world, stress and anxiety have become prevalent, affecting our well-being daily. But what does ‘stress’ mean?
In a medical or biological context stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. It leads to chemical changes in the body that can raise blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. Other symptoms include feelings of frustration, anxiety, anger, or depression.
Not all stress is bad. Toxicologists use the term ‘hormesis’ to refer to a “biphasic dose response to an environmental agent characterized by a low dose stimulation or beneficial effect and a high dose inhibitory or toxic effect.”
Biology and medicine define hormesis as an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate, usually intermittent, stress. Exercise, dietary energy restrictions and exposure to low doses of certain phytochemicals can all be defined as such activities.
In simple terms: exposing oneself to moderate stressors is beneficial.
Moderation is the key factor here.
There are many stressors in our daily life. Not many people seem to realise that physical activity classifies as a major stressor, too. Especially the intense type of training. This is probably mainly because exercise makes us feel good.
In an immediate reaction to training, the body will experience an acute stress response, aka “fight-or-flight”. This is mainly triggered by the release of adrenaline and cortisol which increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate to deliver more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. It also stimulates the release of glucose into the bloodstream to provide energy for physical exertion.
Intense exercise can also temporarily disrupt the balance of hormones in the body. For example, exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which are natural painkillers and mood enhancers. However, it also increases the production of cortisol, known as the stress hormone. While cortisol is necessary for regulating energy metabolism and inflammation, excessive or prolonged elevation of cortisol levels can have negative effects on the body, including impairing immune function and promoting muscle protein breakdown.
Exercise also leads to the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) or free radicals, which are natural by-products of metabolism. These free radicals can cause oxidative stress by damaging cells, DNA, and other biological structures. However, the body has its own antioxidant defence mechanisms to neutralize and remove these harmful substances.
It’s important to note that exercise-induced stress is typically a positive stressor when practiced in moderation and balanced with adequate rest and recovery. Regular exercise has numerous health benefits, including improved cardiovascular fitness, increased strength and endurance, enhanced mood, stress reduction, and overall well-being. However, excessive exercise without proper recovery can lead to chronic stress, increased risk of injury, and negative effects on physical and mental health.
Recovery and adaptation stages of any intense workout are a crucial part of the process and will allow you to better handle future physical demands.
Following exercise, the body enters a recovery phase where it repairs damaged tissues, replenishes energy stores, and adapts.
This recovery period is crucial for optimizing the benefits of exercise and reducing the negative impact of the initial stress response!
Now let’s make it more practical. Think about the following scenario:
You just finished an intense workout and rush off to the changing room. You need to get back to the office, go home or go out for dinner with friends.
How often has it happened to you that, due to lack of time, you left your training session without even thinking about calming down/ downregulating your nervous system?
I place a huge emphasis on downregulating after my training sessions, especially the evening ones. My jiujitsu and kickboxing classes are usually in the evening, so I make sure I incorporate some type of downregulation strategies at the end of my training. The same goes for heavier weightlifting sessions. Training can place huge physiological demands on your body so it’s important to appreciate it and take necessary steps to kick off your recovery as soon as possible.
There are plenty of powerful strategies that can help you find calm and promote CNS downregulation. Apart from various tech-solutions (gadgets, apps etc.), I use two simple tools to make sure my recovery process starts as soon as possible: breathwork and music.
Each of these techniques can be utilized independently at different times to effectively combat stress and cultivate a sense of tranquillity.
Breathwork, a practice with roots in ancient traditions, involves intentional manipulation of our breath patterns. By altering the depth and rhythm of our breathing, we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s “rest and recover” response. Deep, slow breathing triggers the relaxation response, helping to counteract the effects of stress on our CNS. It increases oxygen intake, slows down heart rate, and lowers blood pressure, promoting a state of calm and balance.
There are various techniques and protocols that promote the downregulation of the nervous system. The following protocol is great to use right after training. It will help you to reset the autonomic tone, jumpstart the adaptation process, switch your mental state from performance focused to normal, prepare you for rest and reduce anxiety.
Do 5-10 cycles of the following:
- 5 seconds inhale/ 5 seconds’ exhale (1:1 inhale/ exhale)
- 5 seconds inhale/ 10 seconds hold/ 5 seconds’ exhale
5 is an arbitrary base number for ease of application. Play around with the numbers to see what works for your physiology. Whatever numbers you use, I suggest keeping the same ratios as above!
Sit in a relaxed position or lie down. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to your breath. Take slow, deep inhalations through your nose, allowing your abdomen to expand fully. Then, exhale slowly through your mouth, releasing any tension or stress. Focus on the sensation of your breath and aim to establish a steady and soothing rhythm. Practice this for a few minutes each day or whenever you feel overwhelmed.
Another “tool” (as silly as it sounds to call it that) I use to kick off recovery is music. I utilise it to motivate myself to work out, so I like to use it for the opposite effect, too.
Music has long been recognized for its ability to influence our emotions and create a sense of relaxation. It can be used as a powerful tool to support CNS downregulation by diverting our attention from stressors and inducing a state of tranquillity. When we listen to calming music, it activates the auditory cortex and stimulates the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and relaxation.
I have my favourite playlists that I now automatically associate with rest & recovery. I tend to listen to them right after my training sessions – either on my way home or when stretching – all depending on what I’ve been training.
It’s best to select music that resonates with you and promotes relaxation. Slow-tempo music with gentle melodies and soft instrumentals tends to be particularly effective.
When it comes to selecting music for relaxation, scientific research has shown that slow-tempo music with a low pitch and minimal variations is particularly effective. Such music encourages a gentle and steady state of relaxation, allowing your mind and body to unwind. Embrace the practice of breathwork and let scientifically proven music guide you on your journey toward a calmer, more balanced life.
Experiment with different breathwork techniques and music genres to discover what works best for you. Guided breathwork sessions, meditation apps, and online playlists can provide valuable resources to enhance your practice. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s essential to personalize your breathwork and music choices to align with your preferences and needs.
Let me know if you have any questions, I’m always happy to help.