Clients often seek out health and exercise professionals in hopes of changing their eating and physical-activity habits. They may point to their late-night munching, workplace snack foods, a lack of motivation to exercise, or sedentary leisure-time activities as barriers to good health, but they rarely consider the impact stress has on their health and ability to meet their goals. Despite this oversight, chronic stress often disrupts health behaviors and has a profound impact on overall well-being.
This article explores the behavioral consequences of stress and highlights strategies coaches and trainers can use to boost clients’ stress resiliency, bringing them closer to their health and fitness goals.
Implications of Chronic Stress
High stress levels have vast implications on mental, emotional and physical health.
“My clients are often sleep deprived, angry, overwhelmed, anxious and depressed as a result of chronic stress,” says Kelly Lynch, LCSW, a licensed therapist and certified life coach. “They tend to exercise very little, emotionally eat highly processed foods, and go through cycles of damaging emotional outbursts as a result of poor coping strategies and little-to-no self-care,” she says.
“Many of my clients have over-committed themselves,” says Erin Laverone, chief life optimizer at Vitality Central, a health-coaching organization based in Austin, Texas. “This often leads to burnout and the downward spiral of “screw it” mode, where a not-so-great choice is made out of mental and physical exhaustion, which then leads to many more not-so-great choices, followed by feelings of guilt and even more stress.” Though stress itself is not inherently bad, in excess, it can negatively impact our health behaviors, specifically eating, physical activity and sleep.
Stress and Eating Behavior
Stress impacts both how much and what type of foods we eat. During the early phases of an acute stress response, hunger is often blunted. Hormones that help prepare the body to respond to stress have an inhibitory effect on appetite. However, hormones that surge during the stress recovery period, such as cortisol and other corticosteroids, stimulate appetite.
Interestingly, eating behavior in response to stress differs depending on an individual’s relationship with food. Restrained eaters—those who normally restrict the amount or types of food they eat—show an increase in consumption in response to stress, while those who do not restrict show a decrease in consumption (Sapolsky, 2004). This may be related to the increased reward value restrained eaters place on food.
Stress also changes the types of foods we crave. During periods of prolonged stress, we are biologically wired to crave foods that offer energy, such as those high in fat and sugar (Yau and Potenza, 2013). “Nutrition becomes a little more challenging for clients with high stress, because they tend to get used to eating highly processed foods, which taste great,” says Lynch.
If food is used as a coping mechanism for clients dealing with repeated stressors, and we try to alter their eating habits without dealing with the causal mechanisms, any eating improvements they create are likely to be short lived. By addressing stress as a potential underlying factor driving consumption, we can better help clients create stress resiliency practices and sustainable eating habits.
Stress and Physical Activity
Feelings of stress and the anticipation of stressful events have been shown to reduce physical activity behavior. While exercise is a well-known stress reliever, individuals experiencing stress are, paradoxically, less likely to engage in it (Burg et al., 2017). It’s also known that stress can increase the risk for developing many chronic diseases, and the reduced participation in physical activity when stressed may at least partially explain this relationship (Stults-Kolehmainen and Sinha, 2014).
Perceived lack of time, a notable stressor, is one of the most cited reasons for skipping out on regular physical activity (Ebben and Brudzynski, 2008; Erickson and Gillespie, 2000), as it makes the thought of finding time to exercise feel overwhelming.
“I always call exercise ‘movement,’” Lynch says. “Many of my stressed-out clients are very resistant to the word exercise, because it simply feels like one more obligation piled on their already overflowing plate. A simple shift to [describing physical activity as] movement tends to feel more accessible and manageable for them.”
Stress and Sleep
Anticipation of next-day stress is related to shortened sleep duration and reduced sleep quality (Akerstedt, 2006). Sleep and stress work in a cyclical manner, such that reduced sleep can increase the perception and effects of stress, and high stress levels disrupt sleep. Poor sleep quality can, in turn, affect a variety of other factors including mood, appetite, energy and exercise recovery.
“Our brains tend to function very poorly in terms of being able to process information logically when we’re tired,” Lynch explains. “With the appropriate amount of quality sleep, we better equip our brains to be able to process information we’re presented with in the most effective ways.”
With its widespread effects on an array of health behaviors, addressing clients’ stress levels and offering resiliency techniques are vital components of comprehensive coaching programs. The following evidence-based, coach-approved strategies can be used to help your clients build a repertoire of stress-management skills, allowing you to more holistically impact your clients’ well-being.
Reframe Your View of Stress
One of the most useful tools for navigating daily stressors is reframing the impact of these stressors on our lives. A stress mindset involves our attitudes and beliefs about the effects of stress. These mindsets alter the way we respond to stressors, both physically and psychologically. Those who view stress as adaptive report lower levels of depression, higher levels of happiness and greater life satisfaction than their stress-is-detrimental counterparts (McGonigal, 2015).
“I base everything around education, awareness and language,” says Lynch. “By educating my clients on the difference between distress and eustress, for example, I give them the opportunity to change their perception of various stress factors in their lives.” When we hear the term stress, we often think of distress, a stressor that is seen as negative or detrimental. Eustress, however, refers to positive stressors that motivate and propel us toward our goals.
“As awareness increases around what eustress looks like,” continues Lynch., “we then have the chance to shift the language they use to describe those experiences. We have given such a huge amount of power to the experience of stress and how negative we believe it is. However, if we shift the language we use to describe stress, we also begin to shift the experience of it. Language helps us put ourselves back in the driver’s seat of our lives, instead of letting our emotions choose the direction.”
“Reframing is a big part of my coaching practice with clients,” explains Laverone. “Your frame of view shapes your attitude and how you interpret your life. I often ask clients to look for the learning opportunities in their problems and to focus on what super powers they can bring to the situation, rather than dwelling on potential negative qualities,” she says.
Mindfulness is a hot trend in the wellness world, and for good reason. Mindfulness is shown to improve emotional regulation, reduce reactivity to challenging situations, and lower stress and anxiety levels (Hayes, 2011).
Jon Kabat-Zinn, executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” With this, any activity where an individual directs his or her attention to the present moment experience, without evaluating it as good or bad, is considered mindfulness.
Your clients don’t have to eschew all worldly possessions and sit silently for hours to reap the benefits of mindfulness. Mindfulness exercises can be done while washing dishes, driving, taking a shower, and even exercising. Further, specific techniques can be utilized to enhance mindfulness. Two such techniques are the body scan and sensory meditation:
A body scan is a tool that brings awareness to the body and its physical sensations. Ask your client to lie or sit down in a comfortable position and take a few minutes to slowly scan through his or her body. Encourage the client to notice the physical sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise, without judgment. It is normal for the mind to wander. Have your client notice the wandering and gently bring his or her attention back to the body, scanning from toes to head. For a guided demonstration, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmSKWK_Clxg
A sensory meditation involves the intentional exploration of each of the five primary senses: taste, smell, sight, sound and touch. This can be done in any space, sitting inside, walking in nature and even while eating. Clients systematically explore each sense, noticing each sensation, without judgment.
Engaging in mindfulness practices outdoors can be particularly beneficial. “Sunshine, fresh air, and the sounds of nature are very helpful in calming many people’s minds and providing some time for regeneration,” says Laverone.
The body’s stress response is governed by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the part of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for fight or flight. When activated, it increases heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and sweating, and sends blood away from the core. It can also arouse feelings of anxiety. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), often referred to as the “rest and digest” component of the body’s autonomic nervous system, has the opposite effects, reducing arousal, conserving energy and sending blood to the digestive system.
Chronic stress can lead to repeated activation of the SNS, making a person feel jittery, anxious and exhausted. Stimulating the PNS reduces these sensations and promotes restoration and calm. One of the simplest ways to stimulate the PNS is through the breath.
“In the heat of the moment, you’ve got to breathe,” says Laverone. “Being able to focus on and rhythmically gain control over your breathing is shown to have profound positive effects on your physiological state, which in turn allows you to better control your emotions, feelings and thoughts, leaving you with better behavioral control,” she says.
A variety of breathing techniques can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby reducing the perception of stress and anxiety:
- Soft belly breathing: This technique simply involves getting into a comfortable position and allowing the belly to be soft, while breathing deeply into the abdomen. For a guided demonstration, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nD_71eoxPFM
- 360 breathing: This practice involves filling the belly with breath in three different directions: front to back, side to side and top to bottom. Instruct clients to place their hands around their ribcage, thumbs facing back. Have them perform three breaths front to back, followed by three breaths side to side and then three breaths top to bottom. (Rather than shrugging the shoulders during top to bottom breathing, encourage clients to think about filling the pelvic floor with air.) Finally, have clients take three breaths in all directions.
Journaling and other forms of expressive writing have been shown to improve psychological well-being, reduce depressive symptomology, and improve blood pressure, lung, liver, immune function and pain sensitivity (Baikie and Wilhelm, 2005).
Expressive writing can be done regularly to work through daily stressors or less frequently to process bigger life events. For clients who have a penchant for writing, any kind of emotional expression in the written form can help.
Navigate Stressors to Improve Health
Stress can hinder our clients’ behavior-change efforts and diminish their overall well-being. By encouraging them to reframe stress, recognize its impact on their daily lives and incorporate strategies to increase their stress resiliency, you can help your clients improve their mental, emotional and physical health.
“The biggest point I emphasize to all my clients, when it comes to stress resiliency is that simple is better,” says Lynch. “When working with really stressed-out folks, simplicity is like a breath of fresh air.”
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