Here's a De-​​Stressing Routine that Can Work for Anyone

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The All American Stress Shoot event at Fort Bragg is designed to measure the physical fitness and shooting capabilities of a paratrooper in a stressful environment.
Sgt. Joseph Klemen, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Battalion, 504th Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, participates in the All American Stress Shoot event at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on Oct. 21, 2021.The event is designed to measure the physical fitness and shooting capabilities of a paratrooper in a stressful environment. (Spc. Emely Opio/U.S. Army photo)

Here is an email from a security officer I have known for a few years who primarily does personal security details nearly every day of the week.

Stew, I am trying to get back into workouts, but with 18- to 20-hour travelling security details, I barely have time to sleep before I am up again preparing for the next day. This last month has been brutal with travel, daily security details and eating like crap. I am ready to turn this around and start working out hard again. What do you recommend, and where should I start?

Have you ever heard the phrase, "Your nerves are shot?" Basically you are over stressed and need to focus on the basics right now. Truly, though, your central nervous system takes a beating when you are not sleeping well and having long stressful work days that can impact your personal life negatively and cause you not to eat healthy.

After a month or more of high stress work and lack of sleep, your sympathetic nervous system is highly activated right now. Loosely defined, the sympathetic nervous system's job is our survival response -- fight-or-flight mode -- but it continuously can be triggered by prolonged stress, multiple drinks containing caffeine, long days, sleepless nights, poor nutrition and lack of any physical outlet.

Combined, these can be deadly as you are more likely to suffer heart attacks, a stroke or mental breakdown. A way to remember the sympathetic nervous system is the "S" in sympathetic also stands for "speed up." Its job is to speed up our body so we can live. However, if there is no physical outlet such as a fight-or-flight physical response (or daily exercise), that stress stays with us and can become chronic.

You need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system for a few weeks before getting back into hard workouts again. Once again, loosely defined, the parasympathetic nervous system's job is to slow you down. Think of a parachute as it slows you down before you hit the ground. The parasympathetic nervous system also is called "rest and digest," as it slows the heart rate and increases digestive function.

If you are having digestive issues from heartburn, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, etc., it is likely due to the sympathetic nervous system getting overworked and the parasympathetic system not getting activated. By breathing deeply, either while sitting or adding in some moderate cardiovascular activity, you can help yourself relax and de-​​stress.

As an active person, it will be tough to only do this easy exercise routine, but it is a good way to get things right back in your world even if you are still working that many hours a day. Here is what I recommend for the next few weeks:

Daily cardio: Walk after every meal. Breathe deeply and just walk for 5-10 minutes. When you are done with your day or before it starts, get 15-20 minutes of some form of cardio. This can be walking, a walk/​jog mix, jogging, biking, elliptical gliding, swimming, rowing; just do something for a few minutes. Focus on big inhales and​ big exhales.

Resistance training: Keep this at a minimum for a few weeks. Do a few sets of push-ups and squats, along with a few minutes of core exercises like crunches and plank poses. Only spend 5-10 minutes doing this activity. Focus on burning off some of the "stress" of the day and breathe deeply for each repetition.

Eating right: Foods rich in antioxidants like fruits and vegetables are your best snack foods and will help you counter the negative effects of stress. Eat good proteins like meat, fish and chicken. The amino acids help you recover from stressful days, events and workouts. Eat good fats like olive oil, fish oil pills, nuts and almonds that will help you fight off some of the inflammation chronic stress produces.

Limit your sugar intake and drinks high in caffeine; they will stimulate you and make it more difficult to sleep in the evening. A good rule of thumb is no caffeine after 3 p.m. if you are trying to go to bed in the next 7-8 hours. Drink plenty of water; being dehydrated stresses the body.

Did I mention breathing? Breathing deeply is the key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system and down-​​regulating the sympathetic nervous system. When you feel that stressful moment (either real or imagined), take a minute to breathe. You should get 4-5 breath cycles in that minute by inhaling in through the nose (fully), hold for 2-3 seconds, then exhale slowly through the mouth for 10-15 seconds. This will take care of any jitters, butterflies and anxiety you may be feeling at the time. Do for a few minutes while you start to go to sleep for better results with sleeping -- our true stress buster.

Sleep: Sleep is our bodies' natural stress relief. If you are missing out on 6-8 hours of sleep every evening, you are not getting enough sleep to balance out your typical stressful day. Compound that with improper nutrition, overworking, over-exercising and dehydration, and you are now over-​stressed.

Even with the perfect nutrition program and low daily stress levels, you can be exhibiting the signs of over-stressing or over​​training if you are missing a night of sleep or more. Signs of over-stressing, overtraining or overstimulating the sympathetic nervous system include:

  • Washed-​​out feeling, tired, drained, lack of energy

  • Pain in muscles and joints

  • Sudden drop in performance

  • Insomnia

  • Headaches/high blood pressure

  • Increased number of colds and sore throats

  • Decrease in training capacity and​ intensity

  • Moodiness and irritability

  • Depression

  • Increased resting heart rate

  • Decreased appetite

If you have several of these symptoms, take a good look at your daily schedule and find out what is out of balance. This game of stress is a delicate balance of hormonal responses from the speed-up and slow-down sides of our autonomic nervous system. Even though they are automatic responses to life that are difficult to control, we can control how we deal with stress with serious thought and action.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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