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Stress and the Body

“Stress can be psychological, chemical or physiological, but it is always biological. Whatever the source of stress, it creates measurable changes in the body.” – Kimberley Wilson (@foodandpsych)

While things are slowly beginning to go back to normal again, there is still an awful lot of uncertainty and anxiety in the world right now. With so few distractions, many of us are being forced to face issues we’ve perhaps pushed to the back of our minds and our mental strength is certainly being challenged. For me and so many people around me, the immediate response would be to exercise in order to ‘de-stress’. However, it’s become increasingly clear to me that the physical stress your body goes through during high intensity exercise will simply exacerbate the problem and it’s not what we need right now.

This became all too clear to me around 9 months ago. When entering my final year at university (which is stressful enough!), I was lucky enough to have access to coaching through the University’s scholarship programme and had more motivation than ever to get strong. The freedom of few contact hours meant I could train as much as I liked, rarely having a rest day and often training twice a day without fuelling appropriately. At the time, this didn’t feel like a problem; I was more motivated, excited and driven than ever and, initially, I had made amazing progress. What I didn’t recognise at the time was this was all a distraction from thinking about uni work, what to do after graduation and many other things in my personal life.

Only a few months later, I read an article from @minaclimbing (give it a read if you haven’t already) where she detailed her experience with Relative Energy Deficiency Syndrome (RED-S) and I began to draw parallels between her experiences and my own. Noticing the loss of my menstrual cycle along with recurring injuries, I grew concerned but brushed it off as I didn’t notice I felt particularly fatigued, I was adamant I didn’t have a problem with food anymore and I assumed you had to be under weight to be at risk. I was beyond wrong.

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Blood tests confirmed my hormones had taken a hit and I was told this was secondary amenorrhea due to overtraining and under fuelling. You could say lockdown came at a perfect time, as this allowed me the forced rest I so badly needed. I dealt with the initial panic and anxiety by further increasing my volume of training from home, but this was quickly met with more injuries and I was forced to have a rethink.

Instead, I’ve taken this time to rest a lot more and try to learn to fuel properly again (both with mixed success). The forced rest has made me acknowledge that I’d developed a dependency on exercise as a means of dealing with the stress and anxiety in other areas of my life – a very unsustainable way of dealing with problems. This time has forced me to sit with these uncomfortable feelings, address them and try to learn more about myself instead of sweating them out in the gym. It’s been a massive learning curve and I’ve still got a long way to go but I’m beginning to see signs that my body wants to play ball again. I’m sleeping better, I’m finding enjoyment in things again, I’m less fatigued and there are signs my hormones and menstrual cycle have restored.

This is a long process and it’s far from over. While the issue was only clear for around 9 months, I’m trying to break down belief systems around food I’ve had for years and that will take time. I see so many people in a similar situation and it seems deep rooted in our culture that exercise in particular should be an outlet to deal with our problems, but this isn’t always helpful.

There’s a lot of crap on social media and it’s difficult to know who to trust. If you are experiencing similar issues, I would strongly recommend checking out the work Renne McGregor @r_mcgregor does (including the TrainBrave Podcast and her ebook on training the female athlete) as this has been vital in me being able to recognise the torture I was putting through my body, consider why I felt compelled to do so and understand the steps I need to take to recover.

Life’s a bit weird at the moment, so take care of yourself x

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