I find stress fascinating, and I’ve devoted a significant part of my health coaching career to the study of stress. As a board-certified ADAPT Functional Health Coach, I help people work healthier and improve their health through stress reduction.
With stress, context is everything. In the right doses, and with the right mindset, stress can be a driver of performance and achievement. Stress can also be what keeps us out of harm’s way when we’re in imminent danger. However, chronic stress, whether it’s due to mounting daily hassles or dealing with difficult major life events, can have lasting consequences for our physical and mental well-being.
What do we know about stress? How does understanding stress help health coaches work successfully with clients, and what can stress management look like in practice?
Need help managing your stress? Check out this article from health coach Will Welch for a framework to help you understand and deal with stress. #healthylifestyle #changeagent #wellness
Why Is Stress Important?
Stress is a part of life. Our brain and body’s stress responses help keep us safe from danger—and that’s really important. But these responses can also go into overdrive and hurt us more than they help us when left unchecked. Managing stress is as essential to our health as good nutrition, quality sleep, or regular exercise, and the impact of stress on our health can be significant.
A study reviewing the charts of patients of Kaiser Permanente found that upwards of 90 percent of patients went to the doctor with stress-related symptoms. (1) That’s a staggering number, and it shows both the prevalence of stress and the impact of stress on our healthcare system.
We also know that psychological stress can take a toll on our physical health. Chronic stress has been linked to:
- Cardiovascular disease (2, 3, 4)
- Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (5, 6, 7)
- Obesity (8, 9, 10)
- A weakened immune system (11, 12, 13)
- Kidney disease (14, 15, 16)
- Gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (17)
A number of these outcomes are among the biggest contributors to mortality in the United States. As you can guess, stress management has the potential to play a significant role in reducing the burden of chronic disease on our healthcare system.
Stress also impacts our health habits and habit building. It narrows our attention to the threatening aspects of our surroundings, which may help us confront immediate threats, but this also makes it difficult to see the bigger picture. If you feel stressed about your job, your finances, or a relationship, you may find it difficult to focus on your sleep quality, eating well, or exercising regularly.
Stress also leads to planning aversion and reduced self-control (18), so when you’re stressed, your three-month weight loss goal is going to have a tough time against that pint of ice cream that you’ve been craving.
Maybe you already have a set of go-to health habits. Even if you’ve been practicing them regularly, stress can affect them, too. Habits require repetition and consistency to build and maintain. The things that we are stressed about tend to shoot to the top of our priority list. If you’re feeling stressed about work and it’s at the top of your list, it may be difficult to find time to be consistent with your usual health behaviors.
These are all normal responses to stress, and if you’re dealing with chronic stress, it’s OK to be experiencing these challenges. Stress management techniques can help you cope with stress and build new health habits or help you get back to your old ones.
A Useful Framework for Understanding Stress (From a Health Coaching Perspective)
I use an old-fashioned balancing scale as a metaphor for my favorite way to think about stress. On one side of the scale, you have demands. These could be:
- Being chased by a lion
- Getting a parking ticket
- Delivering a public speech
- Confronting a new chronic illness diagnosis
On the other side of the scale, you have resources. These are things like:
- Rainy day savings in your bank account
- A supportive partner
When you aren’t facing demands (e.g., you’re enjoying a sunny day at the park with friends), there’s nothing to balance and you don’t feel stressed. But when you are facing demands (e.g., you have to file your taxes), they weigh down one end of the scale and you feel stressed. That’s simple and straightforward. However, it’s the resources that you have to put on the other side of the scale to counterbalance those demands that influence your experience of stress. (19)
So what happens when your resources balance or don’t balance the demands at hand? When you have the resources to balance the demands that you’re facing, then you experience challenge: you’re up for the task, it seems manageable even if it will require effort, and there’s a good chance that you’ll succeed. In the tax example above, having a great accountant is a resource to balance the demands of filing taxes. No one likes filing taxes, but you’re confident that you can meet the challenge of this tax season with your accountant working on your behalf.
On the other hand, when you don’t have the resources to meet the demands that you’re facing, you experience threat: you feel uncertain, you get tunnel vision, and you brace yourself for imminent harm. In our tax example, if you discover that you owe more than you thought you did and you don’t have money saved to cover what you owe, then you would likely experience threat.
Two pieces of good news here:
- One, even though challenge is stress because demands are high, the body isn’t negatively impacted in the same way as when you experience threat. (20)
- Two, knowing that the key to stress management is finding and using resources to meet demands makes dealing with stress more straightforward (even if it isn’t always easy).
That second point is why this framework is so powerful. It can help you pinpoint where to beef up your resources (e.g., take a class on public speaking) or bring awareness to resources that you already have in your toolbox (e.g., tapping into your creativity).
How This Framework Helps You Manage Stress
If we apply these concepts to our lives, we can see how effective they are for reducing stress and how they connect to health coaching.
I use this framework in two ways for stress management with my health coaching clients:
- Focus on reducing demands.
- Focus on boosting resources.
It’s important to mention that sometimes it’s not actually about changing the objective nature of those demands and resources; it’s about changing how you see them. Reframing demands and resources can be a powerful tool for stress management.
There are many things that we can do to reduce or reframe demands in our lives. I often talk with my clients about what they’re ready to change, and we calibrate their next steps accordingly. Sometimes, it makes sense to take a step back and set a moderately difficult goal compared to a really demanding one.
Reframing demands can also help. How else could you see this difficult situation? What assumptions are you making that we can challenge to see these demands in another light?
On the flip side, I also talk with my clients about finding and using a variety of resources. We discuss who is there to support them, what’s helped them in the past that they can turn to now, and what personal strengths they can call upon to overcome the current challenges. Sometimes, just talking about these questions can bring awareness to the situation and remind people of useful resources that they hadn’t considered.
What Does Stress Management Look like in Practice?
In practice, I work with clients on a three-part stress management process:
- Helping them build a strong foundation of health
- Helping them simplify their lives
- Helping them develop a toolbox of powerful habits to confront a variety of demands
When people have a strong foundation of health—they are eating well, exercising regularly, and getting quality sleep—then they are less likely to experience the demands of nagging aches and pains, brain fog, or low energy. They also have more physical resilience, which is a great resource. This combination tips the scale toward lower stress. Importantly, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. I help my clients find the right steps for them to eat well, sleep well, and exercise regularly in a way that works for their unique situation.
To help clients simplify their lives, I often share the “80/20” rule. This rule says that 80 percent of your results are coming from 20 percent of your efforts. We talk about low-payoff activities that aren’t helping them achieve their goals, and then they experiment with changing their routine to see what works best. Fewer things on their plate means fewer demands and less of a need to tap into resources to meet those demands. In other words, they are less likely to be stressed. It also means that they have more time to cultivate new resources or hone old ones.
Once clients have created time for new resources, we discuss what new habits and activities could be useful for stress management. It could be:
- Starting a mindfulness meditation practice
- Spending more time with family and friends
- Picking up a new hobby
- Starting a new exercise routine
- Cooking more meals at home
With any new habit or activity, we talk about what they’re ready for, we create SMART goals, and we talk about using a beginner’s mindset. All these methods help reduce the difficulty of building new habits and make mastery more likely. As each new resource becomes routine and familiar, they can add more and more to their “stress management toolbox” so that when their stress increases, they have a variety of resources to choose from.
The ADAPT Health Coach Training Program Delivers Training That Builds the Skills to Support Clients with Stress Management
Much of what I learned in the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program helped me put the pieces of this stress management puzzle together and build them into my practice. The program provided me with a great foundation in Functional Health and hands-on training in coaching, and it also helped me craft my niche around stress management and working healthier.
When it comes to stress management, evoking awareness to clients and helping them take the next steps that they’re truly ready for are critical because stress can be paralyzing. The ADAPT training helped me build these skills and the confidence to use them with clients in a successful way.
Click here to find out more about the skills and tools you can learn with the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program.
What we learn through the process of becoming a health coach serves both us and our clients in stress management. Understanding the mechanics of stress and stress management, and combining them with a reflective and compassionate approach, can reduce stress and create room for new health habits. This is true for coaches and clients alike.
If you are experiencing stress and you need help and support, consider working with a health coach who specializes in stress management. Check out our directory for an ADAPT-Certified Functional Health Coach near you.
Whether you’re trying to improve your diet, get more sleep, manage your stress, or be more active, a health coach can help you reach your health goals. To find out how, check out the other articles in this series: