It was a typical Wednesday in February of 2014. I was working as the Assistant Athletic Director at a small Maine college, our women’s basketball team was winning their way through the playoffs, and I was settling into what I thought was going to be a long career in college athletics.
Until the dean of students pulled me into her office for a conversation.
“We've done the budget for next year,” she said “And your job isn’t in it.”
She talked for a few more minutes, trying to soften the blow, but all I heard was the murmur of Charlie Brown adults as the news sunk in.
Finally, I interrupted her.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I need to go have a meltdown in my car.”
And that’s exactly what I did.
I chased that with a further meltdown into a draft of Miller Lite, trying to figure out exactly how, after years of searching for meaningful work in Coastal Maine, I was going to find not just a job, but a career-focused job.
A few days after the news, in preparation for both additional time on my hands and the impending depression that was sure to follow, I decided to hire a coach, not just for strength training, but for nutrition as well. I wanted something to focus on besides my unemployment, and despite the expense of a coach (200 bucks a month), I felt that I couldn’t afford to not have some guidance and accountability. And quite frankly, structure to my days.
One of his requirements was that I take a “before” picture.
Here’s that picture, which I swore that I’d never ever share.
I was about 158lbs here, and somewhere around 28% body fat.
For the most part, my diet was 70% compliant, and I was working out three to five days a week in the months before this photo was taken.
Below is a photo from last November.
I weighed in at 135lbs and 23.5% body fat. My workout regimen is about the same as it was three years ago and now I’d say I’m closer to 80% compliant with my diet.*
The biggest difference between then and now?
My stress level in the months leading up to the time the first photo was taken three years ago was as high as I can ever remember. I’d been married a few months prior, had finally gotten around to coming out to my family, and had just lost my job.
Basically, I’d just checked off three of the top five life stressors in a matter of eight months. And my body showed it.
Now, I’m happily employed in a career, and while I still have the day to day stresses we all have, I’m managing them a little better. I’m meditating, putting more emphasis on quality of sleep and yes, I have a therapist I see who helps me keep things in perspective.
When clients come into our gym and fret over their lack of results, we first talk nutrition, and then fitness, and then we go right to sleep and stress. Because if your diet and exercise are on point, but you're still carrying that little extra around the middle, then it might be time to look at other lifestyle factors.
There are a lot of different pieces in play when it comes to understanding stress. But for now, let's talk about cortisol.
Cortisol - the stress hormone
I think about what my life looked like during the days and months when I was unemployed. The first thing I noticed every day when I woke up was that vague sense of worry and anxiety that was percolating in my body. I was chronically worried.
I was chronically stressed.
Cortisol is good in small doses. Produced by the adrenal glands, which are right atop the kidneys, cortisol is designed to help us handle certain situations. You may have heard cortisol referred to as the fight or flight response.
If you are being chased by a saber-toothed tiger (I'd speak to the zoo manager first of all), your adrenal glands cover your body by releasing both cortisol and adrenaline into the body. These hormones provide extra physical energy and strength from stored carbohydrates and fats. (And if you watched the "Incredible Hulk" back in the day, they help you pull cars off of people).
But that's small doses.
When we spend our days worrying, about money, our kids, relationships, jobs, whether or not the Steelers' secondary will improve next season; our adrenal glands are still kicking in like we're being chased by that saber toothed tiger. And now our body is all out of whack. (As I've said before, we want to be in whack. Whack is where it's at).
Those chronically elevated cortisol levels can also trick bodies into believing we've burned more calories than we've actually burned, and so we're hungry. We look for ways to relieve our stress, so we turn to comfort foods that are high in sugar and fat and alcohol to wind down at night. These high levels of cortisol also cause our blood sugar to rise, so insulin is produced to control this by turning the sugar to fat - and it's the high levels of insulin that cause the build up of belly fat (also known as visceral fat)
Aside from what your body craves, your defenses are down. In other words, when I’m tired, stressed and sleep deprived, I’m much less likely to reach for a banana, quite frankly because I just flat out don’t give a sh**. I want a comfort food. I’ve suffered, I’m suffering, and I want what I want because I want it.
Check back later this week for part two on ways to manage chronic stress.
*I do spend more time on my feet now than I did when this photo was taken, and I’m sure that’s a factor in my current build.