The topic of stress and its effects on our health, goals, and lives, in general, has always been one that I skipped over. Up until recently, I never experienced stress at a high-enough level for it to impact my life personally. Even though I learned about stress control through my education, and although I preached its management to my clients, I honestly never had firsthand experience with how high stress levels can impact you. I really never took it that seriously, and I certainly never acknowledged it as a reason a client may not be seeing the results we are striving for. My personal experience with the effects of stress definitely put things into perspective.

What is Stress and its Effects?

Stress is a state of mental or physical strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. It is fair to say that we all experience stress from a mental perspective but also physically, from a training perspective. How we experience stress and adapt to it (both mentally and physically) is actually the same. Stress is stress. A moderate amount of stress is a good thing. Our bodies are designed to adapt to stress, and we can actually experience positive outcomes from stress (for example, giving a shit about the work you perform on a day-to-day basis. If it gives you some stress, it probably means you care and actually strive to do well.)

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However being in a chronic state of stress can have a negative effect on the body composition by affecting the insulin, impacting cortisol control, and can even negatively impacting your immune system and digestion. When your stress levels are elevated, your nervous system goes bonkers. Norepinephrine and cortisol increase, which can then cause glucose and free fatty acids to be released into the bloodstream. If you constantly have glucose up and ready for use in the bloodstream, your body won't use fat for fuel. And to make matters worse, more insulin than normal is being released to partition the glucose elsewhere. Imagine if you were chronically stressed out day in and day out; you can see how this can negatively affect your body composition and internal health. Your body basically gets really shitty at nutrient partitioning and sugar control, and this can happen even if you aren’t eating like garbage. I see this occur a lot especially with clients who have high-level corporate or busy jobs. They come to me in the hopes of losing some body fat and getting into shape, and when they send me their food and training logs, they actually don’t look that bad at all. If anything, I see these folks undereating but still seeing the weight gain pile on. On paper, the client shouldn’t actually be overweight. So, when I see client logs like this, the first thing that now pops into my head as the culprit is stress.


My Experience with Stress

I have always been a Type A, productive, workaholic type of person. From high school to college, and within my career today, I have always wanted to be the best at what I was doing. A ceiling never existed. Once I reached a goal, I would quickly think of something bigger, harder, more challenging to achieve. I was never satisfied. I was never “done.” Even in my accomplishments, I would tease out the errors to fix for next time. Now I do not demonize this mentality, as I hold a lot of respect for those with a strong work ethic; however, it was this mentality that drove me into a hole this past year. Even though in my mind I was never “done,” my body quickly told me otherwise—the hard way. The last 1.5-2 years are really when I made some leaps and bounds career-wise by taking on long-term opportunities but also some side hustles. Around 2.5-3 years ago, I had only one full-time job to worry about. I worked 9-5, trained, came home, watched some Netflix, and went to sleep. My life was very simple. But as you could have guessed, that lifestyle was not rewarding to me. I felt anxious like I was missing out on “doing more work” and becoming something more than my 9-5. I was training clients online here and there, but it wasn’t until two years ago that I really pushed my online training business to grow and create a solid client base doing what I love. It was also at this time that I was hired by elitefts to plan their events throughout the year (i.e., Sports Performance Summit, Learn to Train, etc., which, if you have never attended one, you are missing out!) About nine months after that, I took another part-time job for Monster Energy because why not? I love Monster, and it sounded like a cool gig. So, over the course of two years, I went from one full-time job to four jobs total. There were definitely days (and still are) where I would bounce between those jobs pretty much non-stop from 6am-12am for multiple days or even weeks if I was getting close to an elitefts event.

To add a cherry on top, I decided I wanted to start prepping for a show after a four-year hiatus, even in the midst of my crazy work schedule. I started my prep in April of this year, and it was at this turning point that I was like, oh shit…something is off. The moment I started prepping, I could just tell something was different. Now every prep is different, so there is variance in how you feel, what you need to do, etc. No prep will ever be exactly the same. But my biofeedback during this prep was more extreme than in previous preps. The minute I dropped into even a small caloric deficit, I felt as if I was starving. I chalked it up to being a baby and just kind of lived with it. Some months, when my workload was at its peak, I started getting panic attacks, which was also new. I definitely sugar coated it a bit with my coach because again I thought I just needed to suck it up. Then, I started experiencing mood swings (which I had never had during a prep actually) and head fog. Somedays I felt like I should be waking up the next day five pounds lighter because of how shitty I felt (so I must be losing fat right?) Wrong. Fat loss during this prep was literally like pulling teeth. I’d never had my weight fluctuate so much; it was really hard to interpret. I mean, I was HUNGRY. I have prepped before, I know what prep hunger feels like, and this was different.

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My energy was getting lower than I thought it should, and I was even experiencing some hair loss. In my head, I was like, “I am not doing anything drastic deficit or training wise, and my weight is not budging. How could I be experiencing strong prep-like symptoms already?” It just didn’t make sense. So, considering my slow fat loss progression and how I was feeling, my coach and I came to the conclusion that some blood work wouldn’t be a bad idea. I got my blood work done at the end of July, and most things came back fine. However, my fasting blood glucose was high (remember what I mentioned above about stress increasing blood glucose levels. If you are constantly stressed, you'll have excess glucose and fatty acids in your bloodstream due to the sympathetic nervous system being turned on all of the time), and my thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) was high. So, my thyroid was trying to bust its rear end to stay at a normal level, but my blood glucose was high like I’d been eating shit? It just seemed so contradictory. My sex hormones came back normal, so it wasn’t that, either. The only thing that is really left in this equation is stress. I have not gotten my cortisol tested yet because doing this is a bit on the pricier end, but at this point, all things were pointing to chronic stress. My symptoms, my stubborn fat loss, my fasting blood glucose, and my mood in general would be shit some days. It all added up. So, it was at that point that I knew that if I wanted to reach my goals, I needed to do a better job at managing my stress. Over the course of the past two months, I have really paid attention to and made stress control a priority.

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Ways I am Managing my Stress

At the end of the day, there are no magic pills, nutrition protocol, or training method that can address the root of the problem and reduce stress. Yes, there are supplements designed to help with stress management (which I do take and love), but I assure you that if you do not take steps in reducing stress in your life, the supplements and/or training won’t do jack shit. But on the other hand, I also think that telling someone to “take a walk in the mornings to reduce your stress” isn’t even skimming the surface of the issue. I truly believe that stress control has more to do with mindset than any other “stress relieving” exercise ever will. You have to prioritize your life, what is important, what can wait, and what can be eliminated. And a lot of that has to do with your mindset.

The first thing I did to start managing my stress: I learned to say no, to work.

I simply had to reduce my workload a bit. I was saying yes to things I didn’t have to, out of obligation, and I wasn’t taking any time for myself. Now I am not in a position to just quit all of my jobs for the sake of relaxing. That just isn’t feasible or intelligent. I just had to be more strategic with my schedule and set boundaries with my time. For example, on most days, now, I will not work past 6 pm or 8 pm. I know that doesn’t put me in the “hardcore” or “hustle” category anymore, but working less has actually done zero damage to me financially. I just compromised with myself and became more efficient during the day. Some days I may have to work late, but for the most part, I don’t. I watch Netflix with my dog and boyfriend most nights.

The second thing I did to start managing my stress: I learned to say yes, to friends.

Planning my weekends around social activities or traveling, rather than sitting behind a computer, has been liberating. I am so much happier when I get out of the house regularly and just do shit. Taking my brain off work or creating content and plans has actually productively helped my business. I don’t view work as a chore, but I feel re-motivated and energized. Spending more time with my friends and family and less time in front of my computer has been extremely stress relieving. My busy seasons come and go, and there will be times where it is nuts, but making sure to take time off when I can has been huge for me. I really had to shift my mindset from “you need to work all the time or you are being lazy” to “girl you need to chill and live your life.”

The third thing I did to start managing my stress: I stopped putting so much pressure on myself.

It is so easy to compare your success to others’ successes, what everyone else is doing, where they are at in life, and think that you are somehow behind. Newsflash! Half the success you see on Instagram and social media is fake and simply a perception of success. I’ve actually seen, with my own eyes, an “Instafamous Fit Chick” take a happy posey selfie in the mirror at the gym, and not even two minutes later cry in the corner because she is starving and exhausted. Instagram success highlight reels or even completely fake posts can send such an awful message to all of us, and we fall for it! I felt like I got into this mentality of, “If I am not working at all hours of the day and killing myself, I am not trying hard enough and will fail.” I put so much pressure on myself to grow my business and to do all of these things that I would wind up feeling guilty for meeting a friend for coffee or taking a nap. Sometimes I would even feel guilty for taking time to train, so I would answer e-mails in between sets to make me feel better about it. It just got out of hand. I was literally overworking myself because of this fake bullshit perception of “what it takes” to be successful. Another newsflash: You can’t exactly #grind and #hustle when you are buried. So, that Fitspo whom you look up to who is shredded year round and always looks happy—yeah, in reality, he probably hates his life. Don’t let him fool you. There is nothing wrong with getting eight hours of sleep a night, taking a day off, or eating carbs.

Even within the short two months where I have been refocusing my time energy, I have noticed such a difference in how I feel and look. My hunger actually decreased (probably because my blood sugar stopped being psycho), and I haven’t been moody at all. My boyfriend even mentioned this to me the other day. Bless his soul; he’s been a trooper. In terms of training and nutrition, we have transitioned to a reset phase for now, so we have upped my calories and dropped some cardio. Within a week of the reset, I hit a new low even with the added food and dropped cardio. My body finally feels like it is getting back in the groove. So, in short, I definitely learned how important stress control is firsthand and how it can sabotage your goals pretty quickly. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the experience, as it has only made me a better help to others and has helped me to become a better coach.