Imagine yourself in your office (at home or in the city) and your eyes glaze over while trying to submit the latest report to your superior. You chest feels a bit tight, but that’s not weird because it sort of always does, and if you laid back in your chair for just a minute you’d likely end up falling asleep.
Maybe you don’t have to image this. Maybe because it happens daily.
When we think of stress, we’ll think of things like:
- A temper bomb that goes off when your entire day goes sideways
- The jitters right before giving a large presentation
- The days leading up to a large event you’ve been planning
We think less about the underlying stress that’s lurking beneath the surface, causing us more problems than we might realize.
The din of construction or city noise, the uncertainty of a global recession, the scars we’re trying to heal from past trauma, the pressures of the workplace, finances, parenthood, and marriage.
The thing is, these stressors are a part of our “normal.”
“That’s life,” you may say to yourself.
Over time, these stressors will leave you feeling bogged down, lethargic, unproductive, unmotivated and even bloated and sore.
Have you ever heard of “adrenal fatigue”?
I remember the first time I heard about this and when learning more about it, it all sounded plausible.
The adrenal-fatigue theory went like this: Chronic stress depletes the adrenal glands, reducing their ability to pump out the stress hormone cortisol. This adrenal-fatigued state left people drained.
Then two doctors from the Adrenal and Hypertension Unit of the Universidade Federal de São Paulo in Brazil decided to take a close look at the research. After carefully examining and poking hundreds of holes in 58 different studies, they concluded:
Adrenal fatigue is not a thing.
Their exact words: “Adrenal fatigue does not exist.”
And actually, when testing for the condition, cortisol levels were mostly normal. Their adrenal glands were anything but depleted.
So… what’s going on?
It all has to do with something called HPA axis dysfunction.
In simple language, HPA axis dysfunction means the stress response doesn’t work as it should.
HPA stands for “hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal.” And the word “axis” means those things are all connected, specifically:
- An area of the brain, called the hypothalamus, interprets stress, secreting a hormone called corticotropin secreting hormone (CRH).
- CRH tells the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH).
- ACTH instructs the adrenal glands to make the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Once your adrenals have pumped out some cortisol, they tell your brain “we did our job,” and your brain flips off the stress response.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
But when we face too many stressors too close together for too long, this intricate system can malfunction.
Your adrenals either don’t tell your brain “we did our job,” or your brain doesn’t hear the message. The end result: Cortisol production stays on when it should be off.
Though more research is needed to completely unravel that mechanism, some functional medicine experts believe that this constant flood of cortisol makes the body resistant to its message.
Ok so why does this matter and how does it affect you and your ability to perform and, well, get sh*t done.
If you’re suffering from this malfunction, you might not feel rested even after sleeping more than 8 hours. So you turn to caffeine, sugar, salt, and fat as energy-sustaining (and coping) substances.
And if you ignore your body’s messages to “take it easy” and instead try to power through a workout, you’ll likely find that you can’t pump out as many reps or lift as heavy or run as quickly as you used to.
We might even get injured or sick.
You may start to turn in poor quality work, miss deadlines, or become less sharp in meetings and conversations at work.
Now, for the good news.
If you’ve been beating yourself up because:
- your workouts are lack luster
- you’re having a hard time getting up and going in the morning
- you’re relying on coffee to get you through morning meetings
- you’re trying to “just get through the day” more often than not lately
understand that you’re not lazy. It’s a bad cycle we can get stuck in when our stress levels are so high all the time. We start to develop habits that suck us even further into the hole - like mindlessly scrolling social media when you’re supposed to me working.
It’s time to give yourself a break.
Let’s dive into what’s happening inside our bodies when we’re chronically stressed and what we can do about it.
Here are 7 symptoms that can range in severity:
1 - Everything hurts: Tight muscles and sensitive nerves are common when cortisol is running high
2 - Brain fog: Poor sleep leaves you forgetful, touchy, full of self-doubt. It’s harder to concentrate or focus on important things, and you’re much more likely to make impulsive decisions
3 - GI Issues: Changes in digestion can cause heartburn, diarrhea, and stomachaches
4 - Frequent sick days: White blood cell levels drop and inflammation goes up, so it’s harder to fight infections. Blood vessels constrict and resting heart rate increases, increasing the risk for diabetes, heart disease etc.
5 - Little energy for movement: Lack of sleep and stress will hinder your ability to recover from a workout.
6 - Struggling with weight: Levels of ghrelin - our hunger hormone - rise while levels of the satiety hormone - leptin- drop. This boosts cravings and your metabolism will slow
7 - Low sex drive: decrease in sex hormone production
What can we do about it?
First recognize that there’s a huge difference between being stress-resistance and stress-sensitive and that sensitivity to stress may be what’s weight on you.
When you’re stress resistant, you:
- have a strong support network
- have a sense of control
- have an optimistic and go-with-the-flow attitude
- spend time in soothing environments (get out of the city, spend time with family and loved one, head to the lake, go on hikes)
- have coping skills like breathing, meditation, journaling, painting
When you’re stress sensitive, you:
- feel isolated or like you have no one to talk to about how you’re feeling
- are maybe dealing with trauma, whether recent or early life experiences
- have a pessimistic, reactionary attitude
- spend too much time in go-go-go settings (at work in the office)
- have few or zero coping skills
6 Steps to addressing the problem:
1 - Rule out other problems: Yes, there are other reasons why you may be feeling this way like anemia. And this is actually what most people will jump to. Why? Because we want a simple and sensible answer to all the chaos. More often than not, though, your blood work will come back clear and you’ll have to do the hard work in addressing your environment. The unfortunately reality is that most people would rather take a supplement to put a bandaid over their problems than get to the root of it.
2 - Look for hidden stressors like:
- Frequent use of social media
- High caffeine intake
- High alcohol intake
- “Always on” texts & email
- Long commutes in traffic
- Unhappy relationships
- Lack of confidence
- Frequent travel
- Intense exercise 3+ times a week
- Food intolerances
- Excessive noise
3 - Log your stress: For one week, keep track of your symptoms. Each morning, long how you feel when you wake up, how you slept, and what your resting heart rate is. Keep track of what you eat and how you feel throughout the day, and each evening, log the time you go to sleep and how you feel going to bed.
4 - Remove stressors:
- Talk to a therapist
- Limit exposure to news
- Work in a new environment 1 day a week
- Establish technology boundaries
- Reduce sugar, caffeine and alcohol intake
- Speak with a supervisor a work and ask for help
- Seek out workplace wellness resources
- Automate less important decisions (ex. eat the same thing for lunch every day)
5 - Add stress relievers:
- Meditation, yoga, tai chi or deep breathing
- Stretching or light exercise
- Have meaningful relationships and conversation
- Take a hot bath, steam room or sauna
- Read, play music, paint
- Write about your problems, journal
- Take walks, spend time in nature, play recreational sports
- Gratitude journal
To make the integration of these as effective as possible, use 1 at a time as an experiment. I’m all about collecting data and using that information to determine your next steps. Pick one practise to try, track your mood, energy levels, sleep quality/quantity every day for 14 days and then review. How is it working for you? Repeat the process with another.
6 - Embrace small changes for long-term success: We don’t want a band-aid, all-or-nothing, solution. Look at your nutrition, your exercise, your sleep and your self-care. How can you dial each up just one notch?
Go to bed 10 minutes earlier? Take a longer walk to work? Spend 10 less minutes on social media today? Eat one serving of veggies at lunch?
Your changes need to be small in order for them to stick.
Always remember that it is your duty and responsibility as a busy professional to take care of yourself. Not only does your performance and workplace success depend on it, but your friends and family do as well.
If you’re navigating your personal health and weight loss journey and need some guidance, here are some next steps for you:
1 - Join our community Facebook group. It’s one of the most high-value and engaging facebook groups out there sure to help you create some next steps on your path to a better you.
2 - Book a free 10-minute discovery call to see if you’d be a great fit for our coaching program
3 - Email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss getting our workplace wellness program inside your workplace