Healthy Habits Are Hard to Keep When Stressed

I am a person who likes to get things done quickly. I develop a plan and stick to it, with 110% effort and enthusiasm. It’s been great for achieving goals. But sometimes I wonder, at what price?

As I age, I am noticing how setting my mind on a goal definitely can be beneficial, but with such rigid firmness comes drawbacks, especially depending on how much stress and friction it causes my life.

Stress. Looking up the word in the dictionary, there are multiple definitions, but two definitely stood out for me: 1) importance attached to a thing; and 2) the physical pressure, pull, or other force exerted on one thing by another.

The importance to a “thing.” Hmmm, importance on things, don’t like that. “Pressure” and “force.” Another hmmm, just thinking those words invoke stress!

I was recently reading a Precision Nutrition blog post and I really liked Coach Craig Weller’s advice:

(Clients say) “I was doing great with my workouts but then this thing happened and I got stressed / overwhelmed / busy and I stopped.” Coach Craig explains that there’s a reason for this: It’s neurobiology. Research has found that stress literally changes the parts of your brain involved in decision making, pushing us away from goal-directed behavior (“I do this, I lose weight”) in the direction of habitual behavior (“Me tired, me stay on couch”). No amount of lecturing or motivating will break the cycle of a bad habit. (We need to) help clients out of their anxiety, and they’ll have a brain that’s capable of making goal-oriented decisions instead of habitual reactions.”

Interesting, eh? Do you remember a time when you had a goal, but then life got busy and work got stressful and you just didn’t have the mental power to stick with it? Or did you stick with your goal, but were just super grumpy about it all the time?

A good amount of stress is needed to propel us forward, however, too much stress has detrimental effects on our health. So what do we do about it?

Planning ahead for those busy phases in our lives can be helpful. Perhaps something in your schedule has to give until the busyness lowers to normal levels again.

Carving out a small amount of time per day for quiet seems counterproductive, but it can help us cope with stress. I enjoy waking up 30 minutes earlier than the rest of my family for solitude. I have an English Breakfast tea, with my adorable dog Sophie on my lap (when my 90lbs dog tries to sit on my lap, it’s a bit more of a distraction!), and I pray. Whether you make space for prayer, meditation, gentle yoga/stretching, a walk in nature, or reading an inspirational book—it doesn’t matter the activity—what matters most is your enjoyment.

In the ACE Personal Training manual, they devote an entire chapter on mind-body exercise. The ACE manual states “in its most unadulterated form, mind-body exercise is perhaps best characterized by low-to-moderate intensity physical activity performed with a meditative, proprioceptive, or sensory-awareness component.”Proprioception is the sensation and awareness of body position and its movements.

Any level of physical activity can be mind-body, but less intense may provide a preferable platform for cognitive benefits. As the ACE manual states “mind-body exercise can also be described simply as physical exercise executed with a profound inward mental focus”. Yup, that sums it up nicely.

Studies are suggesting that this kind of exercise changes our normal stressful patterns in our brains. Certain muscle-brain pathways carry sensory information from the muscle and joints to a variety of thalamic (regulation of consciousness, sleep, and alertness), limbic (emotion centre), cortical (meaningful perceptual experience of the world) structures in the brain, which form a body-mind conduit, which directly connects muscular activity to the mechanisms of perception and cognition.

The ACE manual states “figure 13-2 depicts the fundamental neuroendocrine ‘mind-body’ interactions involved with meditative and breathwork activities. Two key hormones of behaviour CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone) and ACTH (adrenocorticotropin hormones) inextricably bond brain (hypothalamus and higher brain centres) and body (pituitary and adrenal glands) together and play an extensive role in mind-body visceral and cognitive responses. This hypothalamus-pituitary CRH interface is truly the consummate ‘mind-body connection.”

Pretty cool stuff eh? So mind-body exercise can reduce your stress levels in your brain and positively change the way you think.

I teach functional yoga flow. I don’t think of yoga as a spiritual endeavor; it’s just a low to moderate intensity form of physical activity. Yoga is simply body movements linked with mindful breath. I am so fortunate to see the results of its de-stressing properties in my students. At the end of every class all the students have relaxed grins, rosy cheeks, and calm, limber, restful bodies.

But if yoga isn’t your cup of tea, it is not the only option. A walk in nature. Easy stretching. Light bike ride. Strolling on the beach while watching the waves roll in. All have the same effects.

So to keep on track with our health goals we need to be less stressed. To become less stressed means making plans ahead of time to reduce stress when it arises. Even though it seems we don’t have time for those de-stressing activities, it’s actually the opposite, and we need those de-stressing activities to make us more productive in our day to day duties.

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