Can you guess the biggest health issue that our Head of Coaching Matt Duncan sees with his male clients? Chronic stress. Here’s how they can manage it for healthier and happier outcomes.
Sorry to say, but men are more likely to be in a chronically stressed state than women. In some senses, men can feel stress more “intensely”. There are 3 reasons for this:
All this adds up to a more, you could say, “intense” psychological and physiological response for blokes, and worse health outcomes.
Let’s call him “Hank”. Hank has a really big business event coming up, there’s a lot resting on it for him, so I've been tapering his training, not dissimilar to the way I would taper for a fighter or a runner before a competition.
We also track Hank’s biometric data on the WHOOP app. I do this with all my clients, and it’s a handy thing for anyone to do. We track things like RHR (resting heart rate) and HRV (heart rate variability). If RHR is going up and HRV is going down, you know the body is copping more than normal. I use Hank’s data to look for whether he has the same capacity as usual to express strength and stamina, and if he is struggling to focus.
Often clients that are overworked have trouble remembering details, they forget cues, miscount reps or zone out. During these periods it can be really frustrating for the client to try and learn new skills. Chronic stress can reduce a person’s “working memory” (the amount of information that's required for them to hold in their mind to complete a task).
Because testosterone makes effort feel good, these guys who are trying to deal with a lot in life go to the gym after work and want a high-intensity “smash themselves into the ground” workout. But I've got to get them on board with the idea that we should be using training to mitigate their stress response while not going too hard. Adding more stress on top of stress can feel good in the moment, but you lose the long game if they can’t recover from it.
There is a certain amount of stress you can apply to your body to respond positively. Training may take up half of that stress when things are normal. But Hank is now working 100-hour weeks, so the room I have to apply training stress for him is drastically reduced. So I've got to pull back with his training – that doesn't necessarily mean frequency, because I know he needs frequent exercise interventions in his days to help him mitigate the stress response – but I've got to make sure that the demand of the load and volume has a positive response, not a negative one.
To be able to manage stress, you need to first understand what’s going on in your body when triggered by a stressor. Stress is a chain reaction that begins in the brain and triggers the release of specific hormones that determine how energy gets distributed. A stressor is anything that triggers that response, something that throws you off balance.
Stressors can be physiological or psychological, real or perceived, in our minds or environment. Regardless of whether you’re injured, insulted or stood on the edge of a cliff, the response is the same, your body is signaled for action.
When a stressor is recognised, a hormone called epinephrine is released by the brain and triggers receptors that make energy instantly available within your bloodstream.
Your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises and breathing quickens to shuttle oxygen and nutrients to large muscle groups, in particular the ones that help us stand our ground or head for the hills. These preparatory mechanisms are all accompanied by a sense of agitation, a strong desire to do or say something. This system, known as the “sympathetic nervous system” (SNS) is often referred to as “fight or flight”.
When the SNS is triggered, it quickly activates certain systems, like the ones that allow for swift movement. But it suppresses others: digestion, reproduction and tissue repair are stalled because the body doesn’t see them as immediately important. Even your immune system is subdued in order to direct resources to deal with the immediate threat.
Stress itself is not inherently good or bad. It’s natural, inevitable and necessary. In the short-term, acute stress (lasting from minutes to a few hours) comes with benefits like improved focus, awareness and mental clarity, that allow us to physically protect ourselves, combat injury and infection and perform in the gym or office.
As an example, exercise is about putting stress on your body. Because then afterwards, when you rest, your body recovers and repairs to a point beyond where it was before. Same goes with challenging yourself at work or uni – you put a degree of stress on your mental abilities and your mental abilities increase.
You need these periods of doing “more than you’re capable of” (in the gym or mentally), to create the stimulus to adapt. But, in both examples – training stress and mental stress – this pay-off only comes if you combine the times of stress with time for rest and recovery. The rebuild is done in that rest state. Without alleviating the stress response and returning to a “parasympathetic” state (“rest and digest”), your body can’t repair and grow.
That’s why long-term stress (experienced for several hours a day over a period of weeks or months) is detrimental to your health and wellbeing. Chronic stress has been linked to hypertension, heart disease and anxiety disorders. And the effect of long-term stress on the immune system can leave you more susceptible to other illnesses and diseases.
Unfortunately, men are more likely to be in a chronically stressed state.
So what can they do about that?
The goal is not to cure ourselves of stress entirely, but to understand it so you can manage it in a way so you can harness the benefits of short-term stress without accumulating the negative effects of long-term stress.
With many of my male clients, this is where data – biometric proof – comes in handy. I get most of my clients to use the WHOOP app to track everything from their training to their sleep and physiological data, like their resting heart rate.
Let’s return to “Hank” – if I look at his data on the WHOOP app, I see an elevated resting heart rate, reduced heart rate variability, lower quality and duration of sleep. All this means he’s less capable of output, so he can't work as hard or for as long, and he can't recover quickly.
To Hank, being able to see this objective data is so important, because it means stress is no longer subjective. It’s not all in his mind, or an opinion. He doesn’t have to wake up and make that call, he has physiological proof that he’s not firing on all cylinders, he can recognise that he’s been going too hard. It helps him see and understand his physiological responses to stress. And that’s the first step – being aware of it.
Our system that alleviates stress – the aforementioned “parasympathetic nervous system” (PNS) – lowers heart rate, reduces blood pressure and encourages the function of those systems suppressed by the SNS.
It promotes digestion, stimulates sexual arousal and directs resources that allow your body to repair itself. This “rest and digest” state is the ying to the SNS’s yang.
One of the keys to deliberately switching from that sympathetic state to the parasympathetic state is by prioritising recovery strategies. Which is something a lot of high-performing men really don’t do.
The sort of guy that I’m talking about here is very “dopamine focused”: he’s got high testosterone, he’s “go go go”, he goes hard for a long time, but then he’ll crash spectacularly.
When I talk about recovery with these A types… I might suggest a massage – he’ll think, “yes, Thai massage, beat the [bleep] out of me!” I’ll suggest a recovery centre – he’ll go, “yes, cryotherapy or an ice bath!”. He’s an adrenaline junkie.
But when I’m talking about recovery in this circumstance, I’m talking about taking “parasympathetic” breaks. When you’re driving, you can’t just stay in one gear with the engine revving; you've got to move through the gears in your car for your car to function well. Same with your body and mind.
So R&R isn’t just a fun time – since long-term stress can impact your health and even training efforts in serious ways, making sure you take time for activities that promote calm and enjoyment can significantly improve your wellbeing and results.
The types of activity that fit this bill can vary between individuals but there will be some similarities. You’re looking to promote the release of a neuromodulator called serotonin, which gives us feelings of wellbeing.
Social connection does this – when we see and engage with someone we like and trust, we experience a release of serotonin that helps us to relax. Activities that we enjoy or find fun and incorporate play will do the same.
Stereotypically, these are all types of activities that tend to be thought of as more feminine. Men are more likely to attempt to “cope” by going out and getting hammered on a Friday night. But guys have got to accept that they need these methods of switching into the parasympathetic. They need to drop a gear so they have the capacity to come back up again.
This started off as a personal concept. It’s around this idea of optimal tension and diminishing returns – everything in life needs to be hard and challenging enough that you respond positively. I was trying to explain this to someone and I said, “If I'm operating at 93%, then I'm really good. But as soon as I get to 94, 95, 96, then what I get back from my effort just drops off, and there’s a limited amount of time that I can sustain that for.” I can go at 93% for a long period of time, but as soon as I go above that, I need to tune into some red flags or objective data or people I trust, something that helps me realise that I've tipped. For me, a red flag is my temper. I fray in places that I don't normally fray when I'm stressed, I get wound up by small things. I would normally just adapt, but if I tip the small stuff starts rattling me. There’s going to be these red flags for each person. Men are more prone to frustration, anger and aggression, because we're more likely to have a sympathetic response to a stressor. This is why it’s so important to start with awareness.