If you’ve been stressed lately, you’re not alone. According to a recent survey from the American Psychological Association, two-thirds of Americans currently feel stressed about “the future of the nation.” More than half of the respondents also said the current political climate is a significant source of stress. All the time spent checking our phones and Facebook feeds isn’t helping. On a 10-point scale, the overall stress level for people who constantly check email, texts and social media is 5.3, compared with 4.4 for those who don’t check their phones as frequently.
That much stress can have negative consequences for our health, well-being and even our athletic performance.
“It definitely has an impact,” said Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, a clinical exercise physiologist at Yale and an adjunct professor at Columbia University, who has extensively studied how stress affects people’s health and performance. There’s no doubt it takes a toll.
When our brains are fatigued or placed under stress, it tends to have a physical and emotional component. We physically feel terrible, and studies have found we perceive the same workout as more difficult than when we are not under stress. “Everything seems to feel more effortful,” said Stults-Kolehmainen.
Stress has been shown to change behaviors, too, he said. One theory is that we operate with a limited ability to self-regulate, and when that is taxed we often don’t have enough willpower left to do things that are harder. This goes hand-in-hand with an increased desire for foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
Stults-Kolehmainen has found stress even impacts recovery, especially after a hard workout or race. “Even if you’re able to do the workout, you have a more prolonged recovery,” he says.
Here are five ways to cope:
1. USE EXERCISE AS STRESS RELIEF
It’s true that exercise can help reduce stress levels, though that benefit tends to come from light workouts or just getting outside and moving.
If you’re strung out and stressed — a bad day at work, bad news, everything’s going wrong — and don’t feel up for working out, Stults-Kolehmainen recommends simply extending your warmup and then seeing how you feel. It’s been documented that stress tends to make perceptions of effort harder and make it more difficult to ramp up quickly to intense efforts. A longer warmup can be enough to get yourself moving. If you’re still feeling too beat up at the end of the warmup to do a hard workout, then an easy version can help offset the stress.
2. REFRAME YOUR STRESS
It’s important to remember: “Not all stress is bad stress,” says Patrick Cohn, a mental-training expert at Peak Performance. When you’re stressed before a big race or an important work presentation, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means all the right biological mechanisms are firing to pump you up. Think of it as your body getting ready to kick butt.
“Many people get stressed over stress,” says Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” which is a waste of energy. So stop doing that. When it comes to objectively stressful life events, though, how we respond is a highly individual process that depends on the stressor: whether it’s threatening or controllable, if it has high social consequences and if we can find a way to cope or reframe the situation. There are some people who are exceptionally resilient. Some people will even take a stressful event, like losing a job, and find a way to reframe it as an opportunity. Resilient people are often those who have more resources (literally and mentally) and have learned coping mechanisms, such as dealing with the problem directly, finding external support or re-focusing on their larger goals.
“It’s really hard to predict who’s going to be resilient,” says Stults-Kolehmainen.
3. PLAN AHEAD
“The best way to deal with stress is to anticipate it,” says Stults-Kolehmainen. Stressful situations we don’t anticipate — and especially ones we can’t control — tend to have the worst effects.
One of the reasons we often feel stressed out, emotionally or mentally, isn’t really because of stress, it’s because we didn’t plan ahead. Sit down, says Eyal, and figure out what matters to you, what your priorities are, and then plan those into the calendar. But be honest, not everything can be a priority. “You probably have too many priorities,” says Eyal.
“People have more free time than ever,” Eyal says, so if we’re feeling stressed out, it may actually be that we’re using our time to do other things like watch TV or flip through Instagram. “Is it really stress or is it an excuse?”
4. COMPARTMENTALIZE YOUR WORRIES
Even if we’re great at planning, and we tackle all of life’s challenges with gusto, there are still days in this 24-hour news cycle where it can all just seem overwhelming. That’s when it’s time to compartmentalize.
“If you can’t do anything about it, you shouldn’t be worried about it,” says Eyal. If you can and want to do something about whatever you’re worried about, then do it. But if not, then it’s not worth worrying about, he says.
“You have to be able to park what’s going on in your life for the next two hours,” says Cohn. He’ll have athletes make a list of the things that are on their mind, set it aside — leave it in a locker room or the car — and then choose to focus on the task at hand. Know you can always come back to that list later.
Mindfulness can also be extremely beneficial in athletic performance, says Stults-Kolehmainen. More research is finding the simple the act of being present in the moment, with purpose, and letting thoughts pass without judgment, can make you perform better, faster, stronger.
OK, so you know it’s probably a good idea to put the phone down and stop refreshing Twitter, but you just can’t. Eyal has found two useful tricks that work for him.
He’s gotten out of the internet cycle of constant worry over the latest news by subscribing to one — and only one — actual paper newspaper. That way, he savors and enjoys it, and he doesn’t fear he might be missing something.
The other thing he does is called “temptation bundling” — pairing something you don’t want to do with something you want to do. He wants to stay engaged and online, but he doesn’t want it to take over his life. So he’s deleted Twitter from his phone and only lets himself log in on his desktop, which sits over a treadmill desk. That way he walks a few miles while getting his social media fix for the day.
Want an easy way to feel less stressed? Leave the smartphone at home and go outside!