I like to use analogies. I’m not always great at explaining what something is, but I’m usually pretty damn good at coming up with something it’s a lot like. Plus, people learn it better if they make an association between the concept they’re trying to learn and something they already know well.
One of my favorite analogies about stress is the idea of the gas tank. It’s simple, but it’s also really helpful. Life is a stressful game. There’s a lot to get done. There’s work, there’s relationships with other people, there’s our own insecurities, kids, school, and society’s pressure to get a million things done in a day. All of these things empty your gas tank. They all take a little bit of your energy, your time, your effort, your attention. And we only get so much focus in a day. Willpower is a finite resource.
So while we might sometimes have the outward signs of stress: the constant tiredness, severe case of the “blah’s”, general IDGAF (I don’t give a ****) attitude towards kind of everything... there’s also a lower level that’s happening constantly, every day.
There’s a quote I like that says, “Life is not lost by dying. Life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day in all the thousand small uncaring ways.” And I always think of it when I talk to people that tell me about their lives. They’re overweight, they look tired, they have a number of aches and pains, they take several medications. And sometimes they come to me and tell me a story about their life and it breaks my heart. It’s like they’re realizing, for the first time, in their 50’s or 60’s or 70’s that their health is important, and that they need to start taking better care of it.
“Life is not lost by dying. Life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways.”
I just had a client last month who needed emergency heart surgery for a completely blocked artery. I’ve tried so many different things to help him get control of his nutrition, and none of them moved the needle. Then in January he had three of his friends all die of heart attacks or strokes, and we talked about his need to get a physical for himself. He got one, and his total cholesterol was 228. The doctor wanted to put him on statins. He said no, let me try it with diet and exercise for a few months first. And he made the discovery at that moment, for himself, that his health was worth fighting and maybe even sacrificing for. And he did – he fought for it. He changed everything about the way he thought about food, the way he and his wife cooked and ate, the way he planned his life even. He worked out with me twice every week and did two or three more days of cardio on his own. And when he was admitted to the hospital last month for his chest pains, his total cholesterol was down to 180. His heart function was exceptionally strong, even with a 100% blockage in the LAD – also known as the ‘widow-maker.’
I visited him in the hospital the day he had the surgery. We sat and talked for a while and eventually it came up – Can you imagine what would’ve happened if we didn’t make those changes 4 months ago? Those chest pains wouldn’t have been minor chest pains. That could’ve been a massive heart attack. How close to the edge did he come? He said he trusted in God and was ready to go if He wanted to take him. I told him that lots of people, including me and his 3 year-old granddaughter wanted him around for a lot longer.
And he thanked me for pushing him for so long to get better at his nutrition. It might literally have saved his life.
It’s heart-breaking to see people realizing far too late that their health is critical, and that it is so much within their own power to control it. I say that to my clients all the time: There are so many things in life we can’t control, but our habits, we absolutely can. And those habits play a huge role in our overall health.
If your gas tank gets depleted day by dragging day, its critical to your health to find some ways to fill it back up. We have to be able to handle the daily stressors that life throws at us – and there are a lot of them. The problem is, we often fail to prioritize ourselves among all the things we have to do. Everything else comes first, because it has to. I know, because my mom has been that way her entire life, and I’ve given her such a hard time about it. There won’t be anything to take care of if you don’t take care of yourself first, I tell her. And it’s true. You HAVE to take time to put yourself first.
I’m actually a pretty selfish person, to be honest. I put myself and my needs above others a fair amount of the time. I’m not by any means heartless – I am as kind to people as I can possibly be, all of the time. I have my profession because above all things, I love helping people. There’s nothing better in the world than giving someone control back of their life, their health, and their joy.
“What being selfish does is allows me to attend to my own needs first, so that I can help other people attend to theirs.”
With that said, I don’t compromise on some things that I want. I set really clear boundaries and expectations with people, and because of that I’ve been called blunt, rude, arrogant, and an asshole. And it always makes me smile when I tell them what my grandfather used to tell me: “It can’t be that bad... God gave one to everyone.” 😊
In all seriousness – what being selfish does is allows me to attend to my own needs first, so that I can help other people attend to theirs. It’s what I preach to my mom (and she ignores).
Consider all the minor stresses – the traffic jams, the spilled coffees, the flat tires, the annoying coworkers or bosses, etc. These are ones we all deal with pretty much every day on some level.
Now consider all the major stresses too – The cancer diagnosis’, the breakups/divorces, the big move to another place, the death of a loved one. Unfortunately, we also occasionally deal with these on top of the minor stresses.
I often ask people “How do you manage your stress?” and because the question is usually asked inside of a gym, a lot of people say, “I work out” which is a great thing that they’re doing. But I also have to tell them, “Look, working out is a stress too - for your body.” It’s important to know that.
I used to love my boxing workouts when I’d get stressed. I’d put on the gloves, get out some aggression, and channel that towards something positive. It worked really well until one day when I was REALLY pissed. Instead of 20-30 minutes of pretty hard bag work, I did over an hour of extremely intense, very high-volume punching. I must’ve thrown over 1500 punches. I was completely exhausted at the end, which was what I wanted. I momentarily felt proud for how hard I’d worked.
And then about an hour later my left arm started feeling weak and sort of tingly, especially in my pinky and ring fingers. As the afternoon went on, my elbow started to throb and the pain, weakness, and tingling got worse.
To make a long story short – I spent the next 6 weeks unable to work out because of intense, unyielding pain in my left elbow. And when that finally began to subside, after a long course of prednisone and rest, my other elbow let me know that it, too, was seriously injured.
I say all that to say this – your workouts need to add to your gas tank, not empty it further. Now, understand that sometimes (in a well-rested, well-fed, hydrated state) it’s the best thing to work super hard and exhaust yourself with some high-intensity training or heavy weight-lifting. In that situation, the acute stress of a workout is a very GOOD thing. It causes us to burn fat, and stimulates changes in our muscles to get stronger and bigger. Like most things – stress in moderation is actually pretty good for you. It makes you more resilient, healthier, and stronger. The problem is the dose. If you’re not already sleeping well, stressed from work or financially or at home, and not eating well, a hard core cross-fit session is the very last thing your body needs.
You have to recognize that sometimes, the best workout for your body is actually a low-intensity recovery session.
Chronic stress has some pretty serious negative effects on your health. It can disrupt your sleep patterns, leading to insomnia. It can increase your levels of chronic low-grade inflammation by causing leaky gut, which in turn can increase your body fat and predispose you to a huge number of diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even Alzheimer’s.
“If you’re not sleeping well, you’re stressed, and you’re not eating well, a hardcore cross-fit session is the very last thing your body needs.”
Stress is one of the worst things for both your gut and your brain. I talk to my clients a LOT about gut health. I don’t believe it’s over-selling it to say that your gut health is your overall health. I’ve read hundreds of studies on gut health, and the impact of stress and diet and exercise on gut health. And they agree that the worse your gut health is, the worse everything else is, too. When you’re stressed your desire and motivation to work out decreases, you're in a bad mood, and you make worse food choices, which just furthers the cycle of poor health, stress, and inflammation.
So ok, you’re probably thinking, “I get it, stress is bad. Life is stressful. But I can’t change any of that, so what am I supposed to do, just be stressed out until I die?”
Life is too phenomenal to live like that. Don’t lose your life day by dragging day, in a thousand small ways. Take time to prioritize yourself, your mental health, and your overall health. It may be hard to picture your life without your health, but believe me, having seen hundreds of clients make that realization far too late – you need to start now.
Check out these 10 tips you can use to decrease your stress levels, improve your sleep, and take care of yourself so you can take of everything else.
- Schedule & spend time in nature
- Write down stressors/relaxers
- Practice mindfulness (yoga, meditation, visualization, memory re-visiting, gratitude, etc)
- Be a part of something (rec team, group project, volunteerism, build something/get creative)
- Time management (set up a schedule, write TDLs, batch your work, make it simple/visual)
- Schedule & spend time with friends/doing something fun each week.
- Make it part of your routine (sunday evening baths, sunday morning walks, etc)
- Take instant vacations in your mind/revisit old happy memories & stories when stressed
- Exercise, eat right, sleep well. This cannot be overstated – eating well can help improve your body’s ability to handle stress.
And remember – use your powers for good!