Sussex Performance Centre

3 Methods To Help You Tolerate Stress Better

Here we’ll dive into the mechanism of stress, the differences between acute and chronic stress and their impact on health, 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 exercise, 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.          

Exercise and general life are a carefully balanced system of stress and stressors. In terms of exercise; 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. 

The same principle goes for working long hours, lack of sleep, excessive alcohol consumption, bad nutritional habits, lack of exercise and/or lack of social occasions. All these can result in long term chronic stress which has hugely detrimental effects on your long term health. 

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. 

Breathing

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.

Cold Water 

Done correctly, deliberate cold exposure can positively affect brain and body health. Below, I detail some of those benefits and how best to access them. 

Safety

Never get into a dangerous body of water. Also, never do deliberate hyperventilation before or during cold water (or any water!) immersion. Start slow (warmer than colder)—as cold shock is possible; just as with lifting weights or other forms of exercise, you’ll need to find the right temperature for you, yet prioritize safety.

How cold?

This is the most common question we hear, and it makes sense to ask that. However, it is truly impossible to answer, as some people tolerate cold better than others. The key is to aim for a temperature that evokes the thought, “This is really cold (!), and I want to get out, BUT I can safely stay in.” For some people, that temperature might be 60°F, whereas for others, 45°F.

Here is the key: the colder the stimulus (water immersion, shower, etc.), the shorter amount of time you need to expose yourself to the cold. One study showed significant and prolonged increases in dopamine when people were in cool (60°F) water for about an hour up to their neck, with their head above water. Other studies describe significant increases in epinephrine from just 20 seconds in very cold water (~40°F). The good news is that as you do deliberate cold exposure more often, you will be more comfortable in the cold at all times and can start to use colder temperatures with more confidence, just like exercise.

Ice bath or cold shower?

Most of the studies use ice baths or cold water­­­ immersion to the neck. Those are best, but cold showers can work too (and are more accessible to most). 

Results?

Deliberate cold exposure causes a significant release of epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline) in the brain and body. These neurochemicals make us feel alert and can make us feel agitated and as if we need to move or vocalize during the cold exposure. Cold causes their levels to stay elevated for some time and their ongoing effect after the exposure is to increase your level of energy and focus, which can be applied to other mental and/or physical activities. 

Enhancing your mood

While not true of every stress, cold exposure causes the prolonged release of dopamine. Dopamine is a powerful molecule capable of elevating mood, enhancing focus, attention, goal-directed behavior, etc. Even short bouts of cold exposure can cause a lasting increase in dopamine and sustained elevation of mood, energy, and focus. 

What protocol to follow?

Consider doing deliberate cold exposure for 11 minutes per week TOTAL. NOT per session, but rather, 2-4 sessions lasting 1-5 mins each distributed across the week. Again, the water temperature should be uncomfortably cold yet safe to stay in for a few minutes. You can do more, but this should be the minimum to achieve the benefits of cold exposure. You can do very cold, very brief exposures for adrenaline release too, but the 11 minutes is based on a recent study that explored a range of effects and is a good solid, basic protocol for ongoing use.

Day or night?

After cold exposure, your body heats up—yes, HEATS up! Body temperature increases tend to wake us up, whereas body temperature decreases tend to shift us toward sleepy states. Thus, I suggest using deliberate cold early in the day and not too close to bedtime. Sometimes it’s better to do it late than never, but not if it perturbs your sleep. If deliberate cold affects your sleep, try doing it earlier in the day, or not at all.

Social Network

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.

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