“It’s holiday season. Why write an article about stress now, Victor?”
Simple. For many this is the most stressful time of the year.
I remember watching this episode of the Simpsons (that was over 15 years ago when the Simpsons were the pinnacle of TV entertainment) where Homer struggled to make ends meet, working multiple jobs, being out and about every day to raise the money for Christmas presents. Despite the silly narrative of the show, it was quite a thought-provoking episode.
But no, I didn’t write this article to make a statement about the holiday craziness. I could care less about the festivities to be honest. I needed to write this for myself (I’m a selfish bastard) as I was losing ground these last couple weeks, burying myself in work and not sticking to my regimen.
You’d think as someone spending so much time pushing others towards their personal optimum, I would have my shit together. But every once in a while, I find myself making the same mistakes as each and every one of you.
So let me use this opportunity to refocus, while I detail 6 strategies to lower stress levels. Make no mistake about it, this is not some well-meaning grandmotherly advice. These are research-backed real-world tactics that will keep you going strong no matter what life throws at you.
Fight or Flight: What Are You Running From?
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is part of the peripheral nervous system and governs bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion and sexual arousal. The ANS is divided into the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous (PNS) system.
Why is this relevant? If you’re a high-stress individual (SNS dominant) your cortisol and adrenaline levels are perpetually elevated while growth and repair supporting hormones are suppressed.
Signs of SNS dominance are low sleep quality, low-no libido, cognitive decline, stubborn body-fat and difficulty building muscle (=skinny fat physique). High stress also leads to a decrease in immune function.
If the above sounds anything like you, you’ve got work to do. Let’s get right to it.
1. Sleep Like a King
This is number 1 on the list for a reason.
Sleep is critical to stress tolerance. I’m not going to tell you to be in bed by 10:30 every night, because I know you’ll just roll your eyes and walk away. Luckily for you there are other things you can do to get more out of your Z’s.
For one, you want to minimize blue light exposure at night. No more chatting on Facebook while watching TV. Put the phone away and turn off all your tech devices at least 1 hour before bed. Cover every light source in your bedroom to facilitate deep, restful sleep. Sleep in complete darkness.
What you do during the day also has a major impact on your sleep quality. Getting some sun exposure in the early morning hours has shown to facilitate better cortisol balance and nightly melatonin secretion (= better sleep).
How much sleep is optimal? Six hours were enough for Arnold. I’m at my best after 7-8 hours of sleep. The quality of your sleep is more important than the quantity. Aim for 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night.
2. Lift Heavy Things
Physical exercise is a must.
Not all exercise is good exercise when it comes to managing your stress levels, however. Extended cardio sessions are notorious for increasing plasma cortisol and shattering anabolic hormones (why do you think marathon runners look the way they do?).
Resistance training is king for controlling your stress response and promoting resilience. Lift heavy objects, do some bodyweight training, perform sprint intervals, but curb your enthusiasm.
Cortisol levels rise sharply after about 30 minutes of strenuous activity. The longer the workout, the higher the spike in cortisol. Hence, you want to keep your workouts short and intense.
If you’re already dealing with high levels of stress, intense resistance training will only exacerbate your condition. In that case,
3. Go For a Walk
Feeling anxious and stressed out? Go for a walk right now.
Ever noticed how refreshed you feel after a stroll in the park? Walking has a powerful calming effect on the body (and the mind). Walking will also alleviate brain fog and improve cognition. I have my brightest moments while in motion.
When I lived in Las Vegas, I’d regularly go for brisk walks/ hikes in the desert. People thought I was crazy (they were probably right), but being out there in nature, completely isolated from the noise, always puts things into the right perspective. Make an effort to spend more time outside in the fresh air.
4. Don’t Overeat, But Eat Enough
If you’re trying to lean down, allow yourself to eat at maintenance (or a slight surplus) at least once a week. Better even, follow a protocol that doesn’t put you in a chronic energy deficit as that will keep stress levels elevated in the body.
Yes if you’re overweight, a calorie deficit will actually lower your body’s stress response. The more excess weight you carry around the more “stressed” you are. Aim for a healthy bodyweight.
5. Eat More Fat
Do you suffer from bloating and fatigue after your meals? Are you constantly hungry and frequently crave sweets?
Elevated cortisol levels disrupt blood sugar balance and lower insulin sensitivity (= carbohydrate tolerance). If you’re prone to high stress, it is imperative you balance your protein and carbohydrate intake with proper amounts of dietary fat.
Best fat sources are nuts, full-fat dairy, avocados, olive oil and dark chocolate. A good balance of macronutrients will also prevent insulin peaks and valleys throughout the day, leading to better mental performance and improved sleep quality.
6. Increase Magnesium Intake
Magnesium is often referred to as the relaxation mineral due to its powerful anti-stress and anti-anxiety effects. A diet high in magnesium is the equivalent of getting your feet rubbed on the sandy beaches of Thailand.
In addition to being nature’s Xanax, magnesium favorably modifies hormone balance.
Good dietary sources of magnesium are dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and chocolate (again, eat your fats). You can also supplement with magnesium pills or magnesium oil. Both work very well in my experience.
You know I’m not big on supplements, but I love my minerals. If you have difficulty sleeping, try 100-200 mg of magnesium pre-bed. That’ll knock you out cold.
And there you have it. Six strategies that will help you survive the holidays unscathed. Next time you feel stressed out, you know exactly what to do.
Thank you for reading