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My Top Nine Secrets for Performing Your Best During High-Stress Times

My Top Nine Secrets for Performing Your Best During High-Stress Times

It’s pretty common knowledge that persistent stress is bad for us. We hear all the time about how it reduces brain function, increases our disease risk, and makes us more likely to overeat and gain body fat. And I should know!

One of the ways stress hurts us the most is in our athletic abilities. Studies show that both maximal strength and endurance are tremendously reduced when our stress hormones are elevated. If that’s not bad enough, long-term trials show that we gain less muscle and strength with training when we’re under intense life stress.
The reality is that no matter how bad stress is for us, or how many times we hear that we need to avoid it, it is never going to go away completely. Therefore, practical tips for coping with high-stress times are in order.
In fact, having such skills is what allows elite athletes to outperform less experienced athletes. The most successful athletes are able to directly reduce their body’s stress response when they are anxious.
This article will give you the secrets of winning athletes so that you take advantage of those windows of opportunity and get through high stress times with your brain and body in peak form.
#1: EAT.
It’s so easy to think you have no time to stop for a meal, let alone hunt out a nourishing one of protein, fat, and veggies when on the go.
Plus, when you’re in the thick of it and you have stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline pumping through your body, hunger is often reduced. It’s only later that hunger hits with a vengeance.
Eating can reduce the negative effects of stress by resetting your hormonal cascade and improving your body’s biological circadian rhythm. After you eat, cortisol is reduced, as is the hunger-causing hormone ghrelin, which allows for an increase in the hormone leptin, blunting hunger.
Don’t worry. It won’t take away your drive to get stuff done, but it will help you feel steady, in control, and less frantic.
#2: Turn to protein, beneficial fats, veggies, and fruit during the day.
Have you ever fought stress by eating high-carb foods, experienced a sugar crash, and turned to caffeine and more carbs, only to feel terrible, hungry, and anxious?
If so, that’s because what you choose to eat is just as important as remembering to eat because stress hormones activate parts of the brain that make you crave sugar. When under stress, you’ll rarely crave steak and salad, but will be overwhelmed with desire for a bagel, cake, or other high-carb delight.
By planning frequent meals of protein, fat, and low-carb veggies and fruit, you’ll head off cravings and balance your hormones. The higher quality nutrition gives you a larger pool of amino acids that can be used by the body to repair tissue and produce hormones.
In addition, protein has been found to activate energizing regions of the brain involved in cognition and drive to be physically active, whereas high carb foods have a sedating effect, reducing energy expenditure and making us sluggish.
Here are some examples: A piece of steak or fish, turkey slices, an egg, yogurt, beans on a salad, sautéed or steamed greens or cauliflower, cucumbers and carrots, nuts, or a mixture of berries. Keep a protein and a greens powder handy for super busy times.
#3: Eat some whole-food carbs at night.
There’s a funny myth that says that carbs shouldn’t be eaten at night because they’ll supposedly turn to fat.  This idea is nonsense, although it is discouraged to binge on processed carbs that are packed with sugar because doing so will activate pleasurable parts of the brain that are associated with increased calorie intake.
Here are a few ways whole food carbs can help you fight stress:
•    Berries, leafy greens, and other colorful fruits and veggies provide an array of antioxidants that fight free radicals that result from high stress hormone levels.
•    Higher carb plants such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, beans, and whole boiled grains will trigger a prolonged insulin release, which can help to lower cortisol levels at night for better sleep.
•    The higher carb foods mentioned above also provide the raw materials for the body to synthesize the neurotransmitter serotonin that helps you sleep and boosts your mood, but is depleted during high-stress times.
#4: Understand how caffeine affects stress and use it wisely.
Caffeinated coffee can be a blessing. It provides antioxidants and can radically boost cognition and exercise performance, making it extremely useful when you’re under pressure and need to perform.
However, it can also be a curse if you overdo it or are suffering a lot of anxiety along with your stress.
That’s because caffeine will elevate cortisol. Now, this is not always a problem, but in certain situations it can make your experience of stress worse. Here’s how it works:
•    New caffeine users, or those who don’t use it daily, experience a large spike in cortisol that lasts throughout the day.
•    If you drink caffeine in the morning and then consume additional caffeine in the afternoon, cortisol will be elevated, indicating that chronic use throughout the day is problematic for stress hormone regulation.
•    Worst of all, in people who are anxious or mentally stressed, caffeine raises cortisol levels higher than they would be in the absence of caffeine.
#5: Work out, but adjust your training if necessary.
Pretty much everyone will agree that working out is a great stress reliever because it allows you to get out your aggressions and think through problems.
What a lot of people don’t know is that the body has a built in stress management system, which can be enhanced by strength training. This system centers around the activity of a molecule called glutathione, which will get rid of factors produced by stress that damage cells. Studies show that strength training will elevate resting levels of glutathione, improving your natural defenses against the onslaught of stress on your body.
Another cool thing about working out for coping with stress is that it helps to balance hormones. Doing strength and interval workouts will prime your endocrine system so that it’s ready to respond when you need it.
Working out is pretty much always worthwhile unless you’re legit sick. But if you’re going through immense life stress, or are completely exhausted from burning the candle at both ends, you may want to give yourself a break and modify your training. Here are some suggestions:
•    Try a short maximal effort workout that’s super short. Push a weighted sled for 2.5 minutes straight, or do a Tabata workout in which you do 20 seconds max effort with 10 seconds rest, repeated for 4 minutes.
•    Do single-set training to failure to simplify things and give your brain some relief.
•    Go for a walk or run with unplanned intervals.
#6: Play by your circadian rhythm.
We perform at our best when we play by our circadian rhythm, which is most simply described as the natural time that we sleep and awaken. Circadian rhythms are regulated by hormone release in the body and they are affected by when we eat, how much light we expose ourselves to, our physical and social activity, and how we experience stress.
This means that it’s possible to reduce our stress response and improve hormone balance by eating the most nourishing foods at the right times and training and recovering optimally. Here are additional things that help you play by your circadian rhythm:
•    Set a consistent bedtime and stick to it as closely as possible when going through high-stress times.
•    Sleep based on your chronotype, which is your natural tendency to be a morning or evening person (yes, often hard during busy times but if you’re a morning person, for example, you could try to go to bed as close to your normal bedtime as possible and get up early to finish a project rather than staying up late to finish).
•    Avoid bright light exposure at night-time. The biggest culprit is blue light from computers and phones, which has been found to reduce release of the restful hormone melatonin and inhibit sleep.
#7: Remember to supplement and hydrate.
Water is a much underrated stress reducer. Hydrating is the number one thing you can do for recovery from intense exercise because it aids body temperature regulation and affects cortisol release in the body.
It’s easy to forget to hydrate when you’re crazed. Drink from a 1 Litre water bottle and make it a habit to have to fill it up at least three times a day.
It’s also easy to skip supplementation, either because you don’t have supplements with you or you’re just too busy. Key nutrients to consider that are depleted by stress are magnesium, taurine, vitamin D, B vitamins, and fish oil.
#8: Use adaptogens that fight stress and boost performance.
Adaptogens are certain nutrients that are used to help the body recover from excessive stress.
For example, holy basil is a herb that has been found to fight fatigue and lower cortisol. Rhodiola is a herb that suppresses cortisol secretion and helps restore normal eating and sleeping patterns after high-stress times.
Then there are nutrients that have stress fighting properties, though they are not what we typically think of as adaptogens. For example, creatine is extremely effective at replenishing brain stores of phosphocreatine when you’re sleep deprived for enhanced reaction time and cognition.
Whey protein reduces inflammation and improves insulin sensitivity—something that is degraded when cortisol is high or you’re sleep deprived. It also raises your internally produced antioxidant, glutathione.
Green tea is well known for being high in antioxidants and lowering stress. For example, studies on rodents show that supplementing with green tea can prevent a buildup of stress and the corresponding behavioral and cognitive deterioration from extreme swim training.
#9: Do deep breathing or other mind-body activities.
Mind-body activities that bring you into the moment and help you connect with what really matters are extremely effective for boosting resilience during stressful times. Here are a few to try:
•    Meditation, even for a few minutes a day, has been found to lower cortisol and improve balance of hormones like testosterone and growth hormone.
•    Martial arts practice can decrease markers of stress in the body by improving the antioxidant system and raising glutathione. A series of studies have shown that practices including judo, tai chi, tae kwon do, jiu jitsu, and aikido all decrease stress.
•    And my favourite – Deep breathing and guided self imagery can reduce stress and improve sleep in people with insomnia.