Stress of all kinds (ex: exercise, accident, illness, trauma, an argument, generalized anxiety, etc.) can impact our endocrine systems both immediately and over a prolonged period of time. When our bodies sense a stressor they release both epinephrine and norepinephrine right away. These hormones dissipate rather quickly once the body perceives it’s no longer in danger or threatened. The famous “stress hormone” called cortisol is released about 10 minutes after the initial stressor and does not dissipate quickly. Instead, cortisol can circulate in the body for 1-2 hours.
Normal levels of cortisol rise and fall throughout the day with our circadian rhythms. People experiencing prolonged elevation of cortisol might demonstrate “anxiety, agitation, poor sleep, ‘wired but tired’ feeling and a fast pulse.” Over time, the constant release of cortisol causes the hormone to accumulate in the body to the point that the adrenal glands can’t produce any more of it. This is when the “exhaustion phase” begins following chronic stress and anxiety.
The Exhaustion Phase
During this period of exhaustion, the body’s immune system is vulnerable and small stressors are more difficult to manage. People might experience emotional issues, poor sleep, increased pain, slower wound healing, and other challenges that outwardly reflect the body’s dysregulated state.
I’ve lived for long periods of time in the fatigued state that follows an excess of cortisol. It happened when I over-trained in just about every exercise format while also working full-time as a personal trainer. It happened again after getting hit by a car. I also felt exhaustion rear its ugly head after postpartum anxiety plagued me during the sleep-deprived days of caring for both of my infant sons. And, just when I thought I’d never get burned out again, it happened after I endured a traumatic loss and surgery last fall.
So, take it from me [a health professional] when I say that you can set aside any shame, blame and guilt that you want to put on yourself for your stress getting out of hand. It just happens sometimes. This is life. What matters is that you do your best to learn how to manage stress better as the years pass. You can start by taking the simple steps to manage lifestyle habits that support the healthiest version of you possible. I will talk about how to do that with exercise today but I encourage you to seek a mental health counselor who can address the root of the problem and a naturopath who can help you rebalance hormones.
The Stress of Exercise
As many of you already know, exercise is a stressor. Hard exercise can become “too much of a good thing” for someone who is experiencing adrenal fatigue from the prolonged release of cortisol. If you’re currently experiencing a major life change, loss, accident, illness, stressor, or long-term fatigue, then my advice to you is to avoid exercise modalities like high-intensity interval training (HIIT), distance running/biking, competitive events, classes that focus on elevating your heart rate above 70-80% max, boot camps, and other forms of exercise that you might define as intense or very intense. Now isn’t the time! Set aside the long workouts, the twice a day workouts, the intense workouts, and even the everyday workouts. Make sure you have at least two rest days a week.
Here are the healthy options for exercise that will help you recover from prolonged stress (and beat stress in general)!
Exercise that Feels Fun and Uplifting
This is about as straightforward as it can get: HAVE FUN. Exercise formats and routines that you find enjoyable will help you stay committed and lift your mood too. Try a dance class or ballroom dancing lessons if you used to dance when you were younger or have always dreamed of getting better at it. Try walking or jogging a local trail that has a great view or outdoor exercise equipment stations that you can play around on. Go for a gentle bike ride with your kids or sign-up for a family fun run. Whatever sounds exciting – and not too rigorous – is what you should pick first! Challenge yourself in a positive way without overdoing it.
Get Outside for Exercise
Exercising outdoors is a great way to help boost feel-good hormones. Science shows us that being outside helps to raise both serotonin and dopamine: “Serotonin is responsible for many functions such as memory, sleep, behavior, and appetite. Dopamine affects movement, emotional response, and your ability to feel pleasure.”
As you can see, so-called “outdoor therapy” is real! One of the best ways to get a dose of it is through a walk in nature, a hike with a friend, beachside yoga, a country bike ride, and other soul-soothing physical activities. Just be wary of conditions that make the exercise strenuous such as high heat, heavy humidity, dehydration, inappropriate apparel/gear, planning a route that’s overambitious, etc.
Do More Stretching
Stretching can help your body release tension and activate a relaxation response. This is helpful when you’re feeling the physical effects of stress such as tense muscles, a tight jaw, a racing pulse, intestinal distress, poor sleep, etc. Stretching is also a great time to focus on deep breathing which can help you calm your mind and progressively relax your muscles. I like to tell people to stretch at the end of a workout for their nervous system’s sake, not just their muscles. Taking a few minutes to stretch can help calm the nervous system down from sympathetic overdrive and can help the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) kick in. Your PNS helps regulate and slow down your heart rate, breathing and mind so that you can reach a more calm and peaceful state.
Practice Mind/Body Exercise Formats
Just because yoga and Pilates are considered mind/body disciplines doesn’t mean that they’re easy. Pick a class level that’s appropriate for your energy and beneficial for your healing. Personally, I love really gentle hatha yoga classes where I can just melt into comfortable poses and focus on my breathing. I find these experiences to be highly rejuvenating.
Yoga and Pilates instructors will help you pay attention to your body’s alignment, internal cues, breathing, and more. We often take these aspects of the classes for granted, focusing instead on mastering headstand in yoga or getting ab definition in Pilates, but the body awareness and progressive relaxation is the best part – especially for people who are chronically stressed!
Play More Sports and Do More Recreational Movement
Even if you never made varsity back in high school you can still enjoy sports as an adult. Pickleball courts are sprouting up left and right, and there is always a rec league accessible if you’re willing to be brave and dust off the sneakers. Find an adults league for soccer or a local pool where you can swim laps. Play a round of tennis or golf with a friend, or find a court where there is pick-up basketball happening regularly. If you’re short on sports options then seek out other recreational movements through a climbing gym, martial arts or kickboxing studio, boathouse that rents out kayaks and canoes, or anything that allows you to enjoy movement without the pressure of performing sets and reps all the time at the gym.
Choosing any of these options will help you enjoy exercise, sports, mind/body formats, the great outdoors and an active lifestyle for many years to come and without the added toll to your system that comes with other rigorous fitness options.
Yours in health and wellness,