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The Sum of All of Your Stress — What to Do When It Becomes Too Much

 

After four months of this, I am not ok. Are you?

I started writing an article this week about carbohydrate cycling. If you had asked me my thoughts on carbohydrate cycling a few months ago, I would have excitedly dived into a more detailed explanation than most would likely want to absorb. You see, I am really into health, wellness, nutrition, and fitness. So, I’m the type of guy who finds a coffee table discussion about carb cycling or the ins and out of ketoacidosis invigorating. The issue was that I couldn’t get past the first paragraph of my exciting carb cycling article. Somehow, I just couldn’t find my taste to write about something that, presently, feels so mundane when compared to everything that is happening in the world right now.

This was something of a wakeup call for me. Honestly, if I’m not up for writing a good article about carb cycling, something must be seriously wrong. Here’s what I realized; I am not ok.

It dawned on me that the moment lockdown was announced, I started sprinting forward. The day the gyms closed in Phoenix, AZ I immediately organized a daily HIIT session with my family in my home garage gym, hit the grocery store and stocked the freezer with enough food to cook healthy home meals for months, got to work with my wife setting up a home school structure for our kids, took on grocery shopping for my parents, and kept on working at my day job (telecom) and attempting to run my side businesses (nutrition specialist and Airbnb host). These were all necessary tasks to get through quarantine intact physically and financially. What I didn’t take into account was getting through quarantine intact emotionally. Ah shit, the 205lb fitness and nutrition guy just used the ‘E’ word. Stop reading now if you’re uncomfortable.

Type A Personality in Crisis Mode

I am the type of person who will run forward when things get intense. I generally won’t stop to look around and acknowledge the intensity. I’ll just go into a kind of auto-drive state, find a routine that works, and defend that routine with prejudice from anyone who would try to deviate me. While in many cases this can be very useful from the perspective of utility. It can also be very damaging emotionally as I rarely take the time to absorb what’s happening and accept those feelings. This may go unnoticed for weeks or even months, but ultimately the lack of concern for my emotional well-being always catches up to me.

I call that moment the tipping point. The nature of the tipping point always differs, but the consistent thing is that after a few months of running on auto-pilot, something overtly stressful will happen that will throw me off of my routine and it will feel like a tidal wave has crashed down on top of me and I have to kick and fight not to drown. By the way, if you’re wondering what the tipping point was this time, it was something as simple as a really stressful week at work.

“Joey, enough of the pity party, where are you going with this?” — said my internal monologue.

Allostatic Load — The Sum of All of Our Stress

This is where I’ll come to my point and bit of advice for this week’s entry. There’s a phrase I feel we all should familiarize ourselves with, “allostatic load”. The folks at Precision Nutrition define it as such: “The pile of straw — the cumulative total of all the stuff in your life that causes physical, mental, and/or emotional stress — is known as your allostatic load.” You can get more of their thoughts here: Good Stress, Bad Stress.

I think if everyone on the planet right now stopped and wrote a cumulative list of their total stress load (allostatic load) as it stands today and then were able to compare it to the same list from the onset of 2020, they’d be shocked at the difference. I would venture a guess that for many of us our total stress levels have increased significantly in the past 6 months.

Therein lies the problem. If we do not stop from time to time to acknowledge the sum of our stress while carrying on with our lives, then we may be missing the boat on our own well-being. This is because our resilience towards new stressors diminishes in direct relation to our total allostatic load. In layman’s terms, if you keep dumping regular stressors on yourself in times of heightened stress, you very likely will begin to do more harm than good to yourself.

My Challenge to You

The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or even the next time some major circumstance shifts in your life, I challenge you to make a list that includes the following:

1. Every stressor you deal with in your life (include the minutia, like your boss being upset or your kid spending too much time on their tablet).

2. Label each item on the list as good or bad stress (for instance a workout might be good stress while not having enough money to pay the electric bill may be bad stress).

3. Next identify items on the list over which you have total control, some control, and no control (I can’t control getting extra work piled on at work, but I can control time blocking to make sure I stop to do 2 minutes of deep breathing every hour or 2).

4. Focus in on the items you’ve identified that you totally control.

5. Ask yourself if it’s possible to shift the ‘Some Control’ and ‘No Control’ items towards more control.

I believe if you do this simple exercise once a month, you may find that your allostatic load becomes more manageable and the risk of burnout will drastically diminish.

Conclusion

If you find your sweet spot, then stress can be a meaningful catalyst towards positive change in your life. However, stress is a sneaky thing. If left unchecked and unacknowledged it can wreak havoc on our well-being both physically and emotionally. If you follow the 5 steps above, I know you will be on the path to take back control of your own stress levels.

I hope you found this helpful. If you want more lifestyle tips click on the links below to learn more.

Previously published on “Change Becomes You”, a Medium publication.

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Photo credit: nikko macaspac on Unsplash

 



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