“You cannot change the wind, but you can adjust your sails.”

In today’s fast-paced and often overscheduled world, stress of various kinds seems to be literally woven into the tapestry of our culture’s “new normal”.  We live with it, expect it, attempt to push it aside, self-medicate…in fact, as a society we seem to have mastered everything about stress except how to cope with it effectively.

Some forms of stress are short term, perhaps associated with getting lost while driving or missing a crucial meeting.  Other times, unfortunately, stress becomes more of a long-term encounter, such as working through a difficult divorce or battling a life-threatening illness.  While it is tempting to think we can simply force our thoughts in another direction, stress actually triggers physiological changes that can place our physical health in jeopardy.

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Learning how to effectively manage anxiety has become an area of such importance that the month of April has been declared National Anxiety Awareness Month.  Not to be confused with mental health issues or diagnosed psychiatric disorders, anxiety nonetheless comes with its own consequences to our well- being.

When one’s stress level skyrockets, anxiety will take over, and with it a myriad of dangers to our overall health.  “Stress is associated with just about every chronic disease we know, “ claims Jill Goldstein, PhD, Director of Research at the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Among the conditions known to manifest themselves as a result of stress are:

  • Headaches
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Lack of energy and concentration
  • Poor eating patterns
  • Sadness
  • Anger/anxiety
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure
  • IBS/cramping/bloating
  • Diabetes

During periods of intense anxiety, the sympathetic nervous system suppresses vital bodily functions such as digestion and the overall immune system.  This is one main reason why chronic stress can render us infinitely more susceptible to illness. In addition, an increase in the hormone cortisol in the bloodstream tends to cause the body to store additional abdominal fat. The American Psychological Association released data indicating that 75% of Americans feel overly stressed on a daily basis. Armed with this potentially crippling dilemma, we as fitness professionals owe it to our clients to educate them in ways of managing anxiety, thereby providing them with optimal chances of improving their lives.

We are acutely aware that physical exercise can go a long way towards alleviating anxiety. Cardiovascular movement in particular seems to play a key role in encouraging the brain to produce that ‘feel-good neurotransmitter” known as the endorphin. Similar to what is often described by marathoners as Runner’s High, endorphins enable to body and mind to shed daily tensions. The explanation for this is fairly straightforward. Cardiovascular activities encourage the heart to pump more blood to the brain. Since blood carries oxygen wherever it goes in the body, this increased oxygen helps the brain cells remain well nourished.  Scientists have recently observed that vigorous workouts can cause active brain cells to produce excess amounts of a protein known as BDNF, or brain-derived neurotropic factor. The role of this particular protein seems to be that of preventing the breakdown of brain cells upon repeated exposure to stress.

Dr. John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  In it he reveals that by engaging regularly in cardiovascular activities, the dynamics of the brain begin to change; over time, more and more stress will be necessary to trigger the familiar fight-or-flight response. Dr. Ratey goes so far as to refer to exercise as “…Miracle-Gro for the brain.”  Dr. Robert Leahy, Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, feels that “…exercise is like free medicine.”

Vigorous activity can have even greater potential than simply the physical aspects. As stress deteriorates, it may be replaced by the realization that we have more energy and feel less pessimistic; a sense of calm emerges, helping us remain more focused.  In a similar fashion, endorphin release facilitates concentration capabilities.  By fostering optimism and a sense of self-worth, esteem escalates and with it the power to react to stressful situations in a healthier fashion.

Could it really be that easy?  Might exercise be the sole antidote to the scourges of stress in our lives?  There is actually quite a bit more that can be done cognitively to increase our chances of staving off the chronic disorders that seem to accompany our anxiety-ridden lives.  One of the first steps we can take is recognizing when we have lost control over a situation.  While there may be no immediate manner of diffusing the scenario, we can minimize the stress by choosing how we respond.  By knowing what makes us feel calm and in control, such mindfulness can be harnessed, practiced, and will over time become an inherent part of life.

Before delving into additional ways of coping with anxiety, it bears highlighting some of the more commonly reported stress triggers in people’s lives. Internalizing feelings, rather than allowing them to be expressed — holding back tears, for example — commonly induces stress symptoms.  David Spiegel, a Behavioral Sciences Professor at Stanford University, explains: “Avoidance is not a good strategy….Avoiding makes {the situation} like it isn’t happening – and the more you avoid it, the worse it gets.”  By allowing yourself to acknowledge and feel anxiety-producing encounters, the more skill you will acquire in developing mastery over them.

Most of us realize that there is no such entity as perfection.  However, for those select individuals who set out to achieve unreasonably high standards, all in the pursuit of perfection, self-created stress dominates their very existence.  By striving for excellence instead of perfection they might find themselves in a better position to cope with daily life and still feel both highly competent and productive. Some experts suggest such personality types engage in gratitude exercises, reminding themselves of all that is excellent in their lives.  In this manner, anxiety will over time be diminished, and with it, a healthier sense of self can be allowed to emerge.

I’ll admit to being guilty of this next trait.  Research has shown that women are at least 42% more likely to over-analyze a given situation than men.  It is precisely this “overthinking” that drives our anxiety levels. Sure, we can blame it on hormones; but in truth, the best way to reclaim control over one’s life and emotions is by taking charge of the body and all its process, including the cognitive element.

Now that we have explored some of life’s major contributing factors to anxiety, stress and their potentiality for impairing good health, let’s look at some tried-and-true solutions to set your clients on a path of awareness and development of coping strategies.  Since goal setting is a commonality among individuals who are prone to experiencing ongoing stress, suggest they think in terms of setting SMART goals.  SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-limitedSimply engaging in the practice of creating such an agenda, on a weekly or monthly basis, will enable most people to find creative means of reducing anxiety.

If one of these goals is to increase physical activity, clients might think about hiring a baby-sitter in order to attend a favorite cycling class.  Sometimes committing to working out with a friend can be a strong motivating factor to get to the gym on a more regular basis. A recreational runner may choose to sign up for a 5-K as a means of setting a SMART goal. Conversely, a competitive athlete might decide to change up his/her routine and try a yoga class for 6 weeks. Switching gears from high-intensity training to a gentler exercise format can in itself lower one’s stress level.

If your personal training job encompasses various times of the day, suggest that clients try to work with you when their energy is at its peak. An energized individual will work harder, with the result being an elevated mood and a more relaxed state of mind.  On days when clients engage in activities without the guidance of a trainer, stress the importance of selecting any activity that they find enjoyable and invigorating.  This does not necessarily have to be an organized “sport” – gardening, mall-walking, or even tossing around a Frisbee with the dog can bring about a sense of purpose that almost certainly will lead to an optimistic outlook.

Sadly, stress is always going to be a factor of modern society.  The more we interact with others, the greater the potential for interpersonal dynamics to occasionally become escalated. You have a choice in how to react to such situations. The wind may pick up and become blustery; however, you are the Captain of your ship and can adjust the sails for a smoother voyage.

Want more help with stress? Check out this Ultimate Guide to Stress Management, and relax.

REFERENCES

  1. http://www.beliefnet.com/Wellness/Galleries/10-Ways-to-Celebrate-National-Stress-Awareness-Month.aspx#
  2. http://stressawarenessmonth.com
  3. http://www.amerihealth.com/worksite_wellness/employer_toolkits/stress_awareness.html
  4. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-stress/art-20044469
  5. http://www.helpguide.org/articles/exercise-fitness/emotional-benefits-of-exercise.htm
  6. http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/mind-body/stress/stop-stress-for-good-exercise-to- fight-stress/