#7: How does Stress Affect my Fitness?
Updated: Sep 15, 2021
As you can probably tell by the lack of recent posts, it was a stressful few months as I pushed myself to do my best work and take an extra class senior year (on top of the stress that comes from living at home as a 22 year old.) Frankly, stressful is understatement. I had to finish the term 3 weeks early with perfect grades --which I've never done before -- to be able to enjoy Arizona and spend time with friends as they come home from school and earn Latin honors.
School is always my first priority, which means that I have feel good about my homework to feel comfortable at the gym, although homework is still not an excuse to miss a workout. I used to think that I was great at knowing when I’m overwhelmed, but it turns out that it's one of my biggest weaknesses. I could never figure out why I would randomly cry, eat everything in sight, or not eat at all for days or weeks. I learned recently that these are signs that I'm overwhelmed, but once I notice the signs it's already too late.
How does this stress affect my fitness level? A few weeks ago, I attempted my usual box jumps and front squats. I was out of breath from the jumps and the warmup weight was RPE 10, but I couldn’t figure out why. Any gym rat knows how frustrating it is when even the warmup weight feels heavy. I became angry with myself for being frustrated, and that made everything even more difficult. After several minutes of huffing, puffing, and tears for everyone at the gym to see, it occurred to me that the huffing and puffing was an anxiety attack. I don't have many anxiety attacks anymore, which means I don't remember how to stop them.
I wish this cycle of anxiety and frustration was a one-time occurrence, but it happened three times in the past two months. The first time, I quit halfway through my workout and left the gym crying. By the third time, I predicted it and told myself that I'm not allowed to quit. Once the panic started, I switched to a volume workout instead. I felt so guilty the day that I quit that I spent the rest of the day debating if I should go back. I hate that guilty feeling. It feels like there are literally bugs crawling all over skin and my brain won't rest. I hate letting myself off with an easy workout, but it's much better than feeling guilty.
A stressful situation I can't resolve makes me want to eat more. Stress about a situation that I can improve makes food completely unappetizing to me until I resolve the situation. I hate eating when I don't want to eat, which led to more than one series of days where I wouldn't eat unless I needed immediate fuel for the gym or to focus. It takes more than one good meal (a few days) to return to “normal” and be able to lift the weight I expect myself to lift. This feeds into the cycle of becoming angry with myself that I’m having a terrible workout, wanting to give up and preventing me from making progress but being too stressed with schoolwork to eat more and break the cycle. The weight I can lift was incredibly inconsistent over the last few months. As the semester ends and I turn in most of my assignments, I noticed drastic improvements in my lifts. I hit my first PR in forever last week for 2x210 pounds on conventional deadlift, but I know that I’m capable of far more.
Not having the fuel for a proper workout will always be a problem, but at least in the future I know how to lower my anxiety. I continuously get upset with myself because I’m afraid to hold myself to a different (lesser) fitness standard for a short period of time to maintain my mental health while accomplishing other goals. Let's say I have 100% mental effort to allocate across all activities in my life. I learned that there are times when I need to shift 20% to 30% more of my effort to school or work for special projects and restore the balance later. If I attempt to create an extra 10% out of thin air and function at 110%, I fall into the cycle of stress and anxiety attacks. By the end of the term, I got much better at working until my brain was fried and then burning off my anxiety in a workout.
This stress caused me to lose an extra 10 lbs. (I gained 5lbs due to different stress first semester anyway.) I never intended to lose this weight, and I know it made many people worry about me. I used to be jealous of the people who would lose weight with stress. I wished that was me, rather than stress binging. It was toxic of me to wish I could be that person. The high stress and lack of fuel made me sub-human most days. I spent most of this semester as a shell of myself, wishing that I could enjoy food again so that I could workout and have the energy to see friends. With that being said, I'm incredibly proud of the work I did this semester, and in a twisted way, the extra weight that I lost. (I won't lose anymore.)
I constantly remind myself that the end of the semester will be a definite end to this stress, and I will refocus on making progress in the gym. I'm nervous to navigate similar stress with children or in my career because there aren't designated breaks like there are in school. I understand adults get out of the habit of working out and never find the time or energy to return. I need to learn to manage myself better during these times so that I don't fall off the wagon for good--- suggestions always welcome!