How can stress ruin your body and mind?

How can stress ruin your body and mind?


It’s three o’clock in the morning and you’re lying in bed. You have something immensely important or challenging to do the next day – a meeting at work, several lunches to make for the kids or an early morning workout that you can’t miss.

You think to yourself, ‘What if I don’t hear my alarm and sleep in. I’ll miss that meeting, my kids will starve or I won’t get time for my workout and I’ll be in bad mood all day’. Next thing you know, the alarm goes off and you were only asleep for a couple of hours.

You are incredibly tired but pull yourself out of the bed, get some coffee, tea or caffeinated drink, go to work, eat something sugary or stimulated to wake you up more, power through the day only to fall asleep in front of the TV for 20 minutes from pure exhaustion before everyone else gets home.

You wake from your short catnap, jump up, make dinner or go to the gym – finally catching your second wind. Then 11pm arrives, you settle down to bed only to find yourself staring at the ceiling for the second night in a row. Sounds familiar? This happens for two or three days in a row and then it hits you – a cold, flu or just a general feeling of being run down and being extra tired. Your energy is sapped, you find it even harder to get up in the morning and you are counting down to the weekend so you can sleep in. Looking at it, it’s pretty easy to determine that this probably isn’t the optimal way to get into a great shape and have more energy.

Nevertheless, this was my life pattern for nearly four years when I worked as a primary school teacher in London. I would lie awake in the bed on a Sunday night worrying that I would miss my alarm the next day and my whole week would be ruined.

Sleep, anxiety, worry and stress are something that have affected me a lot during my life. Thankfully, since understanding what was happening on a physiological and neurological level, realising that there was nothing actually wrong with me and that those feelings were pretty common has allowed me to find strategies to ‘hack’ that stress, worry or anxiety in my own life.

I’m not a physiologist or a clinical psychologist. I am just someone who was interested in finding out why I felt so anxious, worried and stressed all the time. As it had a direct impact on my health, energy and fitness and of those with whom I work, I always found myself fascinated by the psychology and neuroscience about what happens on a physiological level. Over a five-year period, I read and studied everything I could get my hands on to try to educate myself as to why I felt this way.

The section will talk about how stress, anxiety and worry can negatively affect your body’s ability to get in shape. I hope it will help you as much as it helped me.
Understanding cortisol
Cortisol is your body’s natural response to stress, and it can be a good or  a bad thing depending on when it’s released. Cortisol is a hormone released from the hypothalamus in your brain (a gland that connects your endocrine and nervous systems), pituitary gland (an endocrine gland at the base of the hypothalamus) and your adrenal gland (an endocrine gland on top of your kidneys).

All three of these glands work together as  an axis while utilizing other hormones and precursors to make and release cortisol in times of stress. We can be pretty thankful for our body’s ability to make cortisol because if you needed to run away from a sabre-toothed tiger thousands of years ago, you needed that instant energy that cortisol produces by engaging our fight, flight or flee response.

Just like any other hormone, there is a delicate range of how much our bodies can handle – too little or too much and things start going haywire. Too much stress in your life keeps the cortisol pumping and can have negative effects on your body, mind and physique. For anyone trying to stay healthy and look good, this can be a critical factor that you haven’t thought of yet. Stress is the figurative ‘death by a thousand cuts’ – you can get everything right with your nutrition, training and supplementation, but if you are in a constant state of fight or flight, stress or anxiety, you are going to struggle to hit your own natural potential.
What causes stress and how to deal with it
Perhaps the best way to begin is by making a mental list of the sort of things that you find stressful. You would no doubt immediately come up with some obvious examples – a partner, family, friends who are always negative, or something more abstract, things like traffic jams, the gym at rush hour or work deadlines. You might even find things like ‘not looking a certain way’ or ‘comparing yourself to others’ as your main stressors; two areas I had issues with personally.

Thinking about these people, situations or events can trigger an automatic release of cortisol throughout our body. Has someone ever made you so mad that even the thought of them sent blood running through your veins? That’s cortisol. Have you ever found your brain racing at 3:00am because you are worried about not waking up from your alarm – yeah, cortisol showing up. How about seeing that guy or girl that you find attractive who you just can’t bring yourself to talk to?

That’s cortisol again.

As I’ve mentioned, cortisol in short bursts can be incredibly beneficial. You actually release cortisol when you exercise, and it’s needed for your body’s ability to release glucose from the cells. However, chronic cortisol or stress can be detrimental to your physique, your health and your mindset. The next section is dedicated to understanding all the stressors that can secretly hinder your progress: anxiety, worry and some practical life tips that have supported me throughout my life in reducing cortisol and stress.