Research Paper By Meike Sperber
(Life and Career Coach for Expat Partners, Hong Kong)
Stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. In my personal experience I perceive stress as a big tension and my first reaction normally is to put on my running shoes and go for a run. Almost all my clients are struggling with stress, no matter what their original topic of coaching is. Surprisingly, only a small percentage of them actually does exercise, which led me to the question if it is only my personal way out of stress or if exercise can be used as an universal tool to fight and overcome stress.
Seven out of ten adults in the United States say they experience stress or anxiety daily, and most say it interferes at least moderately with their lives, according to the most recent ADAA survey on stress and anxiety disorders.
According to a recent ADAA online poll, some 14 percent of people make use of regular exercise to cope with stress. Others reported talking to friends or family (18 percent); sleeping (17 percent); watching movies or TV (14 percent), as well as eating (14 percent) and listening to music (13 percent).
While all of these are well-known coping techniques, exercise may be the one most recommended by health care professionals. And among ADAA poll takers who exercise, a healthy percentage is already on the right track: Walking (29 percent), running (20 percent), and yoga (11 percent) are their preferred strategies.
While this is data is coming from a poll, there is scientific proof to peoples first coping strategy, the exercise: Work in animals since the late 1980s has found that exercise increases brain concentrations of norepinephrine in brain regions involved in the body’s stress response. Norepinephrine is particularly interesting to researchers because 50 percent of the brain’s supply is produced in the locus coeruleus, a brain area that connects most of the brain regions involved in emotional and stress responses. The chemical is thought to play a major role in modulating the action of other, more prevalent neurotransmitters that play a direct role in the stress response. And although researchers are unsure of exactly how most antidepressants work, they know that some increase brain concentrations of norepinephrine.
Endorphins are often classified to be the happy hormones. Any form of physical activity leads to the release of these “feel-good” neurotransmitters. The increase in endorphins in your body leads to a feeling of euphoria, modulation of appetite, the release of different sex hormones and an enhancement of immune response. This helps combat the negative effects of stress.
Whether building muscle or stamina, all types of exercise relaxes tense muscles and tissue. These can strongly contribute to stress-related aches and pains such as neck or back pains and headaches. The produced endorphins act as natural painkillers and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress. Meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy, even breathing deeply can cause your body to produce endorphins.
But some psychologists don’t think it’s a simple matter of more norepinephrine or endorphin equals less stress and anxiety and therefore less depression. Instead, they think exercise thwarts depression and anxiety by enhancing the body’s ability to respond to stress. Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. It forces the body’s physiological systems — all of which are involved in the stress response — to communicate much more closely than usual: The cardiovascular system communicates with the renal system, which communicates with the muscular system. And all of these are controlled by the central and sympathetic nervous systems, which also must communicate with each other. This workout of the body’s communication system may be the true value of exercise; the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies in responding to stress.
Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects. In one study, researchers found that those who got regular vigorous exercise were 25 percent less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years.
For most healthy adults, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity (such as brisk walking or swimming) or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity (such as running). You also can do a combination of moderate and vigorous activity.
With this knowledge, it is save to say that exercise is a great supporting tool to coaching for stress management. Facing the challenge, that clients often see “having” to exercise as an additional source of stress, there are ways coaches can support clients towards exercise for better stress management.
- Doing something they love: Although for example running, triathlon or CrossFit are popular amongst a lot of people, its not the right exercise for everyone. Doing something they are not enjoying or not (yet) capable of, will result in a higher risk of injury and less motivation. So instead, clients should build up fitness levels slowly, perhaps start with 10-20 minutes initially and work their way up to an hour over three months.
- Celebrate success: Finding a good reward for a long time commitment or change is a great tool to keep motivated, as well the ongoing support and acknowledgement of the coach
- Making commitments: A lot of success is purely coming from the commitments clients make towards their coaches. Alternatively, a successful way is having clients to commit to others, whether they find exercise partners or talk about their goals to friends and family
- Make appointments: Support clients in time management if needed. Simply blocking the calendar for an hour in the morning or evening is a good start.
- Barriers: A good coach prepares with the clients ways out of potential barriers, may it be an unforeseen event, a one-time skipped session or external barriers, e.g. weather. Important is to ensure there is a strategy in place to not loose track.
- Change perceptions: Instead of a stolen hour per day, the client can discover new views. A coach can help with the right technique to explore that via visualisation or reframing perspectives. New perspectives can be the gained energy, the better sleep which will lead towards better health or an ‘excuse’ to spend time just for themselves, without family or job responsibilities.
- Don’t set too high expectations: Your client should not feel the need to prepare for a 5 k run, neither to start with a 60 minutes workout session. Short, 10-minute bursts of activity that elevate the heart rate and make them break out into a sweat can help to relieve stress and give more energy and optimism. Even very small activities can add up over the course of a day.The first step is to get up and moving at all.
- Discover easy, personal ways to get moving: Dancing in the own house, take the dog for a faster walk, walk or cycle to the grocery store can be options.
- Considering and exploring alternatives, like Tai Chi or Qi Gong
- Remember a good exercise experience: A brand-new, 2014 study found that people can use memory to enhance motivation. Study participants who described a positive exercise memory were not only more motivated to exercise, they actually exercised more over the next week than those who weren’t prompted to remember. So help your client to stash their medal from the 5K when they ran their personal record, invite them to pack their power walking playlist with songs from the wedding where they danced all night, or tape a picture of the view from the summit of their favourite hike.
- Don’t aim to ‘exercise’, instead, play a sport: A 2005 study found that when participants were asked about reasons for playing a sport, they thought of intrinsic reasons, like enjoyment and challenge. Reasons to ‘exercise’, however, were extrinsic and focused on things like appearance, weight, and stress management. Intrinsic motivation makes people more likely to start and stick with a new habit.
- Support your client to stop thinking of themselves as lazy. The human psyche goes to great lengths, sometimes unconsciously, to be consistent with one’s identity. So thinking of themselves as a harried, stressed-out person creates a self-fulfilling prophecy with little room for exercise. But thinking of themselves as a really busy healthy person might create just the tweak their mindset needs.
- Find a real Reward: Treating themselves to a smoothie or an episode of their favourite series afterwards. Psychologists describe creating a neurological ‘habit loop’, which involves a cue to trigger the behaviour (setting out your spinning shoes next to your bag), the routine (making it through spinning class) and then the reward. It simply increases the odds the routine becomes a habit.
- Visualisation: Devotees of positive thinking have long promoted visualising the benefits of a behaviour as a motivational strategy. After imagining the obstacle, they can figure out what they can do to overcome it and make a plan.
The challenge is to discover with the client, what really motivates them. Competition, nature, self time, goals, weight loss, exercising with people or dedicated “me-time”.
However, the purpose of coaching is that only the client knows and goes his or her personal path. The above mentioned ideas are not meant to be seen as a collection to give to clients, but rather as a knowledge base for coaches to know what generally motivates people. With this knowledge it will be much easier to support your clients in their own way towards better stress coping strategies.