Science Wednesday: The solution to constant stress? Take a guess.

No joke: Chronic stress is a killer. And, no joke: exercise and eating well are hugely helpful in combating the effects of chronic stress.

This is your brain on constant stress: always slightly anxious, fearful, tired...or all of the above. Guess what you can do to combat constant stress? Read on. (Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
This is your brain on constant stress: always slightly anxious, fearful, tired…or all of the above. Guess what you can do to combat constant stress? Read on. (Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

I’m thinking about stress right now because I’m developing training tools and keynote talks on this subject for 2015, and I’m aware just by reading the news every day as I look for articles on the latest health studies that it is entirely possible for us to live our lives in a constant state of low-level chronic stress. And that means we’re basically constantly sick, tired, and really, really distracted.

There are just so many causes of stress out there in the big, wide world.

I think most of us wake up every morning worried about something. Whether it’s the job we may not be super-happy about going to…or not having a job to go to and wanting one…or caring for a family…or wishing we had a family to care for…or navigating difficult situations…or just being inundated with bad news. We are confronted, day in and day out, with happenings that could cause a whole lot of chronic stress.

Here’s how the American Psychological Association defines stress:

“[A] feeling of being overwhelmed, worried or run-down. Stress can affect people of all ages, genders and circumstances and can lead to both physical and psychological health issues. By definition, stress is any uncomfortable ’emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes.’ Some stress can be beneficial at times, producing a boost that provides the drive and energy to help people get through situations like exams or work deadlines. However, an extreme amount of stress can have health consequences and adversely affect the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems.”

From “Understanding Constant Stress,” at APA.org

I’m always amazed when I see workplaces that just get it all wrong about how to help their people be productive, happy, and satisfied with the contributions they are making in the world. I have seen “screamers” who yell at people, thinking that motivates them, when all it does is make them not want to engage. Chronic stress: having to report to a job where you could be yelled at, at any moment.

I have personally had a manager tell me I wasn’t “hurting” financially and so didn’t deserve a raise after creating a significant amount of value for his company over the previous year. (Note to all managers who make compensation decisions: Employees don’t get compensated based on whether you have an opinion – informed or uninformed – about whether they are “hurting.” They get compensated based on their value to their employer, and their skill set. If you tie compensation to your opinion about whether that employee “needs” the money, you’re going to lose that person. You’ll never get their best work again, even if they stay in the job, because you will have lost their trust.) Chronic stress: having a job where you feel undervalued.

I have had to break the habit of reading the news first thing in the morning. As a trained journalist, I know that the adage “if it bleeds, it leads” tends to be true. And there can sometimes be attempts to sensationalize the news, too, so that skimming the headlines makes it sound like the world is coming to an end, on a daily basis. Chronic stress: being inundated with the world’s problems, knowing that we don’t have the power as single human beings to solve all of those problems at this exact moment. (In groups, we can do a lot to help. But not first thing in the morning, alone with our coffee or tea and our thoughts and our just-waking-up worries about our own lives.)

That’s your brain on constant stress. Guess what the answer is?

Yes. This is the answer.

(Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
(Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

And this:

(Image courtesy of tiverylucky at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
(Image courtesy of tiverylucky at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

And this:

(Image courtesy of stay2gether at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
(Image courtesy of stay2gether at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

There you go. Movement is the answer to chronic stress. Sweat. Miles. Laps. Dance tunes. Reps. However you measure your exercise progress, whatever type of exercise you like to do. Move, and things start to happen in your brain, in a really good way.

Want the science? This is your brain on exercise (just one of many wonderful points made in this article from the American Psychological Association, The Exercise Effect):

The exercise mood boost…offers near-instant gratification. Therapists would do well to encourage their patients to tune into their mental state after exercise, [Michael] Otto [a professor of psychology at Boston University] says — especially when they’re feeling down.

“Many people skip the workout at the very time it has the greatest payoff. That prevents you from noticing just how much better you feel when you exercise,” he says. “Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts. That’s the time you get the payoff.”

The entire article is well worth your time. It’s utterly amazing what exercise does for stress reduction, brain health, giving us a healthy and positive outlook on life…it’s a miracle drug. There’s nothing else like it out there.

Now get out there and get your workout on.

Yesterday’s Every48 workout: A fantastic, mood-boosting 6-mile RUN. Done before 8:30 a.m. Loved it.

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