Stress is slowly killing you – here’s how to stop it

In today’s busy world, and especially over the last year or so, more of us than ever are feeling under some kind of stress. Whether it’s the daily pressure of a demanding job, not being able to see loved ones because of lockdown and travel restrictions or not feeling like a good partner/ parent because you secretly yearn for a moment away from the family, stress is all around us and some of our usual stress relievers (perhaps going on holiday to get away from it all) are not currently available to us.
So what’s the answer?  We can’t remove all stressors from our lives, nor would we want to (yes, there are good kinds of stress too), so it seems our only option is to work out a way to manage our stress and perhaps even see ourselves thriving as a result.
In this article we’ll explain what stress is, how it might be affecting your life and what you can do about it.  We’ll give you all the tools you need to be able to deal with it in a positive way.
It might surprise you to know that stress itself is actually neither good nor bad. Think of it simply as a necessary stimulus to provoke an action or response; in other words a factor that has to be present for change or adaptation to occur. For example, if you want bigger muscles, you need to create ‘targeted stressors’ (in this case it might be certain exercises) in order for your muscles to work harder, recover from that extra work and then learn to adapt for next time. In any situation, adaptation (and therefore performance at a higher level) should follow recovery, and recovery should follow stress:
Our bodies produce a stress response no matter what kind of stress we are under. It could be:
  • Positive (thrill-seeking like skydiving, or the excitement of a tough physical workout or complicated mental debate)
  • Negative (worrying, feeling anxious)
  • Mental (relationship issues, personal obligations)
  • Physical (muscle damage, broken bones or sickness)
…or it could be a combination of more than one of the above. The important thing to remember is that all stressors compete for the same resources within our body and we have only a limited capacity for recovery. Each stressor has a recovery period that we must respect in order to regain optimal health.
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for involuntary functions of the body and is split into 2 parts; the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). PNS is responsible for homeostasis (keeping things in our body the same, so for example making us sweat to cool down if we are too hot as well as helping us to rest and recover) and SNS is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response to a perceived threat (our stress response comes under here too).
Remember, your body is using either one or the other at all times.
Although we know that it is a reactive reflex rather than a proactive decision, it is also important to consider that our stress response is really only designed to be used acutely, since a significant short term spike in mental and physical performance eventually takes its toll on our physical and mental well-being. Frequent or chronic stress is very bad for us, and can lead to a host of problems, including an increased appetite (and more cravings), poor blood sugar management, a reduction in sleep quality and increased inflammation in the body.
Frequent stressors are those events which don’t always last very long but which trigger your stress response on a regular basis. For many, this could mean:
  • An alarm clock going off while you are in a deep sleep
  • Caffeine (multiple cups of coffee throughout the day to give you a buzz
  • Poor nutrition (grabbing a donut on the run or a chocolate bar to keep you going)
  • A crowded hurried commute, pushing and bustling, worrying about being late for work
‘Chronic’ refers to the duration of your stressor. If you are continuously exposed to a stressor, your body will start to produce a low level of stress hormones. Chronic stressors might be:
  • Poor lifestyle (obesity, low quality sleep, lack of exercise, highly processed diet)
  • Negative relationships
  • Food sensitivities (for example if you have a dairy sensitivity and continue to eat dairy)

How stress impacts you

If the first step is recognising that we are stressed, and the second step is identifying our stressors, then logically the next step is for us to work on ways of alleviating them. However, we should bear in mind that step 1 is not as simple as it might sound. There are some people whose personality type allows them to notice and speak freely about their feelings, so if you are one of these people you can move quickly to step 2. For some, however, personality or circumstances make it very hard for them to speak up or even recognise that they are experiencing stress. If you are concerned about a loved one or even not sure if you are stressed yourself, then noticing some of the following signs in lifestyle or behaviour may help you to get a clearer idea of the situation:

Emotional Symptoms
  • Overwhelmed
  • Irritable
  • Anxious
  • Low self esteem
Physical symptoms
  • Low energy/ always tired
  • Dependence on caffeine/ alcohol
  • Bloating/ poor digestion
  • Always ‘wired’
  • Low sex drive
  • Frequently sick
Let’s look now at how we can deal with stress. There are really only 2 options; one is to remove or eliminate the cause of the stress and the other is to improve our capacity to cope with it.
In many cases, it is not necessarily feasible to eliminate the stressor – as much as we might entertain the thought of leaving our jobs or moving to a desert island we all still have bills to pay and personal obligations to fulfil. However, there are many more cases in which we can make a huge difference in lowering the amount of stress we are under. Even tiny alterations in some of the choices we make every day will have a knock-on effect and it can be a lot easier than you think:

Causes of stress and what to do about them:

StressorWhat you do wrongSmall changeBig change
Poor sleepLate nights, checking your phone or watching tv in bedSet a time for bed and stick to it for at least 4 nights per week. Read a book instead of watching tv in bed, buy an alarm clock instead of using your phone alarm.No electronic devices or tv in the bedroom, bed by 10pm every night, even if it means postponing social events for a while. Keep to the same sleep schedule, even at weekends.
Poor nutritionGrab fast food on the way to workPrepare a portable breakfast the night before (overnight oats/ yoghurt and a banana/ boiled eggs)Plan your breakfasts for the whole week, batch cook if necessary or keep food options at work as a fallback (protein powder, oats, nuts)
Lack of exerciseTell yourself you don’t have timeSet a daily step goal, use stairs instead of an escalatorCommit to 3 months with a personal trainer, join a sports team or start a daily walking/ running habit
Feeling always ‘on’Constantly check phone for work emails, always have it on the table at a restaurant. No time to yourself between work, friends & familyCharge your phone in the kitchen or living room so that you can’t reach for it as soon as you wake up. Take 15 minutes each day just to sit and breathe, or go for a short walkUse your lunch hour to go for a walk without your phone. Practice meditation, telephone friends instead of texting or better still meet them for a meal or drink without checking your device
ObesityAvoid thinking about itTry to be a little more active and eat more vegetablesInvest in a personal trainer/ coach who can help you learn better habits and get to a healthy weight
In order to improve our capacity for stress, we need to allow ourselves to be open to exploring some options that might not come naturally to us.  For some, they can seem silly, or a waste of time but they are scientifically proven to have had beneficial effects so don’t knock them until you’ve tried them!

Meditation/ breathing

  • Even 3 minutes a day can make a difference
  • Takes practice so try guided meditation to start (apps such as Headspace are a good starting point)


  • Acknowledge something you are grateful for each day. If you feel upset or angry, immediately listing 10 things you are grateful for can shift your perspective surprisingly quickly!
  • It really is hard to feel down when there are so many things to be grateful for


  • A tool for organizing and clearing the thoughts in your head. It doesn’t have to be beautifully written; the more you do it the better at it you will become and the easier it will seem
  • Journaling has been shown to be associated with drops in depressions and anxiety and increases in positive moods, social engagements and the quality of close relationships


  • No matter what your hobby is, there are numerous benefits to having one! These include Community (a sense of belonging), Passion, Joy, Skill Development and Down Time (almost like meditation)
  • Regardless of other benefits, hobbies are an important tool in physical and mental wellbeing


  • Improves physical and mental health
  • Try to commit to at least 3 days per week (in addition to your daily steps)


  • Rest, relaxation, exposure to sunlight, time to be alone or to connect with your travel buddy
  • Be mindful of eating and drinking excessively, as this can lead to more stress on your mind and body!

Mindset/ Visualisation

  • Building mental strength – visualisation, planning, self-reflection and positive self-talk
  • Mental strength is of huge value and importance not only to our performance but also our daily lives

Stress will always be a part of all of our lives. However, with the right mindset we can work to recognise it, accept it and even use it to our advantage. It’s always the right time to make some positive adjustments. Why don’t you try implementing some of the suggestions above, starting today?

Note: this article is based on education elements from the ATP Personal Training Coach Curriculum