So far our recovery blog series has included articles on the basics of recovery, optimizing nutrition, and sleep environment and hygiene. Now we’ll dive into the mechanism of stress, the differences between acute and chronic stress and their impact on performance, and useful strategies to manage stress.
The Stress Response
To understand stress management, you must first understand the mechanism of stress. To quote Dr. Andrew Huberman, “Stress is a generic system used to mobilize other systems in the brain and body to respond.”
Stress is simply a hormone-regulated physiological response to stressors (things that stress). This means that the general response to stressors does not differentiate between mental and physiological stress, a concept that is often misunderstood in the training process.
There is a difference, however, between acute (short term) and chronic (long term) stress.
- Acute stress: The main hormones that regulate the stress response are epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine—fast-acting stimulators also known as the “arousal hormones”—and cortisol, a slower acting hormone that is known as the “stress hormone.” These hormones are how the sympathetic nervous system regulates the “fight or flight” response. Heart rate increases, rate of breathing increases, and perceived energy increases. Acute stress is necessary and should be encouraged during training, but should be managed so that it does not turn into chronic stress.
- Chronic stress: Chronic stress results when the sympathetic nervous system is constantly active, due to the inability to downshift into the parasympathetic nervous system after a stress response. When the sympathetic nervous system is constantly active, the parasympathetic nervous system cannot put on the brakes and lower cortisol levels. Chronic stress and high cortisol levels can cause high blood pressure, reduced injury healing, severe fatigue, and other undesirable effects.
Training is a carefully balanced system of stress and stressors. If you don’t acutely stress the system at all, there will be no adaptations. Stress the system too much without recovering, however, or undergo a massive acute stressor without having enough stress tolerance built up, and suffer the consequences.
Stress management can be as simple as this: Monitor acute stress and progress as needed to allow the system to tolerate more stress; regress as needed to allow the system to recover.
Stress Management Strategies
You can facilitate recovery from acute stress to prevent chronic stress and chronically high cortisol levels with simple strategies to encourage parasympathetic nervous system activation. You can’t control your physiology and your hormones, but you can control systems that massively affect them.
Firstly, the most effective tool to recover from stress is quality sleep. Sleep deprivation is correlated with elevated cortisol levels and a higher risk of injury. For more information on improving sleep, please refer to the sleep environment and hygiene blog.
Another applicable tool to downregulate the stress response is breathing. When breathing at rapid rates typically associated with stressors, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, but when breathing rates are slowed, there is more parasympathetic dominance.
One such strategy to slow breathing rates and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system is “The Physiological Sigh”—taking a large inhale through the nose, and then another large inhale through the nose before exhaling, followed by an extended exhale through the mouth, repeated several times. This strategy can increase oxygen levels in the blood and slow the heart rate, helping the parasympathetic nervous system take over.
Lastly, a key strategy for managing stress is establishing and connecting with a healthy social support network. Having healthy relationships with others in your life can help minimize stressors outside of training, as well as have very positive hormonal effects.
Having a social support system that you spend time with is strongly correlated with lowered cortisol and blood pressure, whereas having limited social contact with friends and loved ones is linked to higher cortisol levels, a lowered immune system, and increased rates of depression.
This is because spending time with people you have deeper, more positive connections with releases serotonin, a neuromodulator hormone that increases feelings of well-being and helps with sleeping and digestion (parasympathetic nervous system).
So, saying “I can’t hang out with my friends or family because I need to focus on my recovery” typically is not correct. As long as your relationships are healthy and don’t negatively impact your sleep or any other healthy habits, spending time with people you care about could be one of the most vital recovery modalities you have.
Written by Brice Crider and Zach Settles