How to Workout When You're Stressed

Today I want to give you some ideas of how to exercise when you’re stressed. We know that exercise can be stress-reducing, but it can also contribute to stress, spiraling the issue. I think a lot of people also avoid moving altogether when they’re stressed because they think they need to have an intense session or why bother. 

However, I’m a firm believer that the better you are at dipping and diving through the obstacles of your life instead of staying rigid, the better your life will be. And, dare I say, the better your health will be. Inevitably, we’re going to go through stressful times. It’s about recognizing when you’re in one and adapting accordingly. 

Today I’ll talk about: 

  1. Why you’re more likely to get injured when you’re stressed 
  2. Neuroendocrine responses to stress 
  3. How to recognize when you’re stressed 
  4. My suggestion for how to exercise when you’re experiencing a mentally stressful time.

Have you ever had more pain when you’re also emotionally stressed? This is a real thing, and something to take into consideration when you’re going through an emotionally stressful time. Studies show that increased levels of mental stress put you at a greater risk of injuries. Stress can disrupt your neuroendocrine system, messing with your cortisol levels, and also take your eye off the ball while you’re actually working out. Your concentration decreases, your attention narrows, and your level of self-consciousness increases. It also causes increased muscle tension and decreased coordination. All these things can cause you to be more prone to injury during a workout. 

Prolonged stress can also increase your pain levels because the body becomes inflamed due to the regulation of stress hormones like cortisol. *

This post is not intended to be prescriptive. There is not a one-size-fits-all for how much you should exercise to modulate stress and optimize your physical and mental health. 

But it’s just intended to explain the process and get you to think and experiment with yourself when you’re going through days/weeks/months of higher than usual mental stress. 

Exercise is a stress, which in moderate doses, is a good thing. In fact, studies show that those who exercise regularly are shown to tolerate mental stresses better than those who are sedentary. Exercising during a stressful time can help manage the stress. But when you’re emotionally stressed, what type of exercise is beneficial for stress reduction, and what type could be making the problem worse? And how would we know if this is happening? 

What is the purpose of stress and how can we use it to our advantage? 

Stress is anything that disrupts homeostasis, and signals that your system needs to adapt to this “danger” or unaccustomed stimulus. This signals your systems to respond to accommodate and adjust to the stressor that is disrupting your equilibrium. 

This can be good if your system isn’t overwhelmed with stress, because it makes the system more adept to handle other stressors next time. In other words, your baseline for what you can tolerate moves up. Your equilibrium becomes harder to disrupt next time. 

The Neuroendocrine System

Your neuroendocrine system is the most responsive to stress, both stress from physical and mental sources, and can give you a lot of indicators of if you are stressing your body too much or too little. Your neuroendocrine system is the connection between your brain and your hormones. It’s the reason you can think a thought and get a chemical reaction in your body. There are over a dozen hormones that are involved in the stress response from exercise, including testosterone, estrogen, growth hormone, and more. But scientists tend to focus on the hormones that affect the sympathetic nervous system which is norepinephrine, epinephrine, (ACTH), and cortisol.

How much your neuroendocrine system responds is related to the volume of your exercise: either how intensely you are exercising or how long you are exercising. The more intense and/or long you exercise, the more severe the response from your neuroendocrine system. There is a critical intensity of exercise (about 50-60% of your max exertion) that needs to be reached before circulating stress hormones are released. Interestingly, with steady-state cardio, these stress hormone levels continue to rise as the duration increases. Usually, these stress hormones fall back to baseline when during recovery from exercise, unless the exercise is too intense and/or too frequent, in which case hormone levels can get disrupted and you can adapt to overtraining syndrome. Overtraining syndrome actually leads to undertraining, because your muscles get weaker, you may start to gain weight, and you will overall feel like crap. I recently did a podcast that was released on July 15th, 2021 about how overtraining leads to under-training if you want to check that out. 

Things that can increase the neuroendocrine response, or increase the circulating stress hormones: 

  • Competition 
  • Heat or cold 
  • Higher levels of anaerobic activity - so something like HIIT where you are really breathless and near your max
  • Menstrual cycle fluctuations 
  • Nutrition and meal timing 
  • How new you are to exercise: if you’ve been exercising at a certain intensity for 7 weeks or longer, your neuroendocrine system will be less affected than someone who is switching it up

If you’re going through a particularly stressful time, it may not be the time to ramp up your training or switch it up too much, as this could tip your stress scale and you could be taking steps backward instead of forward. You actually take longer to recover if you’re trying a new workout, if it’s too intense, or if it’s a workout that’s too long. ** 

A study I read shows two groups of people. One group exercises on a bike while they are undergoing a mentally stressful computerized test. The other exercised without this. The group who exercised with mental stress had significantly higher cortisol and norepinephrine levels, which are shown to have negative health consequences when they are high for long periods of time. 

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00421-008-0852-1

People who have higher levels of emotional stress are more likely to receive fewer strength adaptations from exercise, are more likely to get sick, and have a higher likelihood of injury. They also take longer to recover from injury. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3894304/

When you have slower recovery rates because of emotional stress, you may need extra recovery days or program appropriately so you aren’t overworking a muscle. 

To quote an article that I’ll attach below: “When general stress is excessive the whole organism needs a rest; it cannot afford a struggle anywhere.” They go on to say that if chronic stress is unavoidable, which it’s life - and many times it is - that you should be even more intentional about the type of workouts you’re doing. 

https://journals.lww.com/acsmmsse/Fulltext/2012/11000/Psychological_Stress_Impairs_Short_Term_Muscular.23.aspx 

Many of you may be emotionally stressed and not even realize it, because it’s your baseline of how you operate. Everyone perceives stress differently - your 10/10 stress might feel like someone else’s normal day. 

Here are some signs that you are stressed:

  • irritability, which can be extreme
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • difficulty concentrating, or an inability to do so
  • rapid, disorganized thoughts
  • difficulty sleeping
  • digestive problems
  • changes in appetite
  • feeling helpless
  • a perceived loss of control
  • low self-esteem
  • Muscle tension/pain
  • loss of sexual desire
  • nervousness
  • frequent infections or illnesses

If you are experiencing a lot of these symptoms, I want you to start by listening to the podcast that I did with a licensed counselor, Jewel Anderson called “exercise as an emotional defense.” I think it’s really important to emphasize that using exercise to buffer, push down, or ignore emotional stresses may not be a long-term solution. I’ll give you some tools you can use and a guideline on how to work out during times of stress. But if you feel like this is something that you’re having trouble controlling, please consider seeing a licensed professional. 

How to exercise if you’re chronically stressed:

  • Keep the movements simple. Since stress reduces concentration, it’s may make completing a compound heavy-lift riskier. I recommend sticking to the more muscle isolation lifts for everyone, but it may be worth narrowing your concentration, even more, when you are chronically stressed and in tunnel vision. 
  • Reduce intensity 
  • If you love high intensity, do it. But I would recommend keeping the workouts shorter if they are more intense so you aren’t overstressing your system since you may have a hard time recovering 
  • If you hate high intensity, doing a high-intensity workout could backfire, because some people respond negatively to the high endorphins of high-intensity exercise 
  • If you’re dreading an intense workout, skip it. Studies show a gentle walk can be just as effective for stress relief, and maybe more effective if you aren’t layering on the additional stress from the dread. It’s also easier on your CNS, which may be less likely to tip your stress bucket. 
  • Choose slow, controlled movements 
  • No need to kill it with plyometrics when you’re emotionally stressed. 
  • Don’t worry about hitting a PR 
  • Consider taking an additional recovery day where you just walk 
  • Always prioritize more sleep than extra time in your workout 

* https://www.sportsinjurybulletin.com/painful-truths-the-physical-impacts-of-emotional-stress/

*https://www.sportsmed.org/AOSSMIMIS/members/downloads/education/ConsensusStatements/PsychologicalIssues.pdf

**https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2953272/

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