Being a 30yr old single working mother I pride myself on my ability to multitask, take on new challenges, run a family single-handedly and go above and beyond in ever challenge life throws at me thanks to my never-ending enthusiasm. I love life, put 100% into all that I do and try my best to give my children what I never had. If somebody asked me if I think I handle my stress well then I’d probably say I’m pretty good at it as I’ve survived this long without every breaking down, feeling depressed or having dark thoughts despite having so much on my plate; yet up until now I’ve never tried to measure the volume or presence of stress in my life nor address the effects it has on my health – until I met Michael Adu of StressLess Fitness Collective and my results are absolutely shocking!
StressLess recognise that everyone deserves the right to be happy and healthy with their aim as a company to deliver effective methods to increase the quality of life of their clients, build strong human relationships and be a force of good change in the world. It’s all about looking and feeling good inside and out. Using the latest brain-activity technology Muse they have taken the guess work out of meditation by using instant neurofeedback to track and reduce stress whilst also targeting fitness and nutrition for a complete lifestyle overhaul – something that’s never been done before.
Seeing as I’m a personal trainer and natural bodybuilding professional I’m quite happy working out at the gym several times a week, training from home and studying for my level 4 nutrition exams. Being a very active, healthy and fit vegan I have the fitness and nutrition side of life covered but my mental health and excess stress is where I really need to focus my attention. I’m a keen fan of yoga and love meditation but my StressLess test has shown me that my brain activity is almost off the scale and it’s the quality of peace and calm that counts when looking to reduce my stress, not the falsely perceived quantity of the relaxation I’m getting. Therefore the aim is to build my mental body to relax and focus my mind as everything that starts in the mind is manifested into reality and can have a severe impact on our health. I often hear white-noise when I close my eyes, notice a heartbeat in my ear and clench and grind my teeth as I struggle to sleep and switch off.
My introduction to the StressLess programme began with a questionnaire to asses my health, diet, level of fitness and lifestyle. On paper I’m a very healthy active woman yet the weight of my responsibilities as a working mother is taking a toll on me and chronic stress has led to exhaustion as I’m not recovering mentally which prevents me from shutting off from my thoughts and sleeping properly at night. It quickly became apparent that when asked how I feel I automatically reply with “fine” or “I’m ok” but when addressing my thoughts and feelings on a deeper level I realise how frantic, stressed and constantly pulled from pillar to post I am. I misinterpreted my ability to multitask on a daily basis with my ability to handle stress well, thinking the more that I do the more capable I become but eventually there will come a time when enough is enough and something has to give.
I rarely discuss my feelings and as a result I realise that I’m emotionally detached the majority of the time. Being a single parent I have to put on a brave face, remain calm and in control at all times in order to care for my children and set a good example yet below the surface I stress about bills, juggle a work/home life balance and have nobody to look after me when I spend all of my time and energy helping others. I rarely cry, yet when I do it seems to be a tidal wave of emotion typically around my period and everything comes out at once in an overwhelming mess – sadly we’re all guilty of bottling things up and putting off our problems.
Lifestyle habits create a picture of you as a person and many people use unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress such as food, alcohol, drugs and cigarettes which only worsen the situation longterm as addressing the cause of our stress and strengthening our ability to recover from stress must instead be the main focus. I find when dealing with heartache my appetite disappears entirely, yet when something is troubling my thoughts I reach for junk food and sweets to comfort eat. I often reach points of exhaustion when it comes to the evening which I put down to leading a hectic life and taking regular exercise to help me to sleep well at night but the quality of my sleep is very poor which effects my body’s recovery as stress keeps me awake and causes tension.
In order to reduce stress the programme features on addressing physical activity to strengthen the body, cleaning up the diet through nutrition to assist in weight loss and relaxing the mind through meditation to find peace and calm for recovery thereby keeping the body mind and soul at optimum health and reducing the risk of serious illness. Most noticeably as nutrition improves and we become more active we have more energy, sleep better and become more aware of ourselves and our lifestyle. Suffering from chronic stress can lead to feeling constantly emotional, uneasy and on the brink of not being able to cope. As people we’ve lost the ability to communicate openly and honestly by showing our true emotions as we don’t want to be perceived as weak or unable to cope. I now recognise by tackling the causes of stress and reducing their effect on my health then I can have a much better quality of life.
Change takes time and small steps are the best way to make a longterm difference that is sustainable. It starts with talking about your thoughts, feelings and concerns and then releasing your emotion. In recognising what causes us stress we can take steps forward to reduce and heal from it. Fitness, nutrition and meditation must work together hand in hand to achieve a healthy balance, whilst I’m not looking to improve my fitness or diet as I’m already fit and healthy I desperately need to face the damaging effects that stress has on my daily life.
There are 5 precursors of chronic stress; fatigue, anxiety, sugar cravings, weight fluctuation and appetite. No amount of poor sleep can cure the exhaustion from anxiety and mental fatigue, you have to deal with the cause of what’s keeping you from resting first. Often it’s down to lifestyle, is work related, an activity overload or constantly juggling responsibility. Addressing all issues and dealing with any unfinished business is the first step to recovery. Sugar cravings aren’t always caused by hunger but also the insulin realised by the body’s response to stress through cortisol levels causing a craving for glucose which leads us to reach for junk food, cookies and sweets. By lowering the level of stress the cravings will subside and we will regain the conscious ability to choose healthier meals rather than unconsciously turning to bad foods for comfort. Therefore no quick fix or diet can cure sugar cravings caused by stress, it’s something that must be treated through the reduction of stress.
Stress releases cortisol causing the body to go into fight or flight mode which results in the body shutting down digestion as processing food is seen as low priority when the focus is on keeping vital organs such as the brain heart and lungs working. As a result of this body fat is stored and our weight fluctuates as toxins remain unprocessed and our risk of illness, obesity and cancer increases. A way to manage the effects of stress on our weight and appetite is to practise fasting by controlling the timeframes that we eat and allowing the body adequate chance to digest food and recover. Michael recommends working up to only eating between 12:00-7pm daily whilst drinking water in-between and fasting for an entire 24hrs once a week – although this isn’t something you can immediately adjust to and must be implemented gradually over time.
If our human needs aren’t met we become anxious about the future, feel uncertain and stress. The goal is to be able to manage stress even when something goes wrong, because it certainly will, but it can always be fixed and we can develop the self control needed to know that no matter what we go through it won’t kill us but instead make us stronger because it’s not the end of the world. When looking at the bigger picture the things that trouble us today will not be a second thought in years to come because when it strip it down the individual stresses are so small and can be easily overcome, we just have to stop letting them build up and learn how to deal with them.
We followed our in-depth discussion with a stress test using the Muse device which is a smart bluetooth headband worn above the eyebrows and behind the ears to measure brain activity via instant neurofeedback. In essence it tracks how active your mind is reporting back to an app on the phone and uses audio prompts to signal your level of calm by playing heavy driving rain for a very active mind, a gentle breeze and rustling of trees for neutral and birds tweeting for prolonged periods of calm which you aim to achieve. This instant audio notification of your brain activity allows you to recognise heightened activity, let go and unwind reaching a deeper level of meditation and therefore reducing and recovering from stress more effectively. Recoveries are also measured as a way to track your ability to take an active mind back down to resting state and meditation periods range in length with 5mins a good time to start with.
These are the test results for my first two meditations taken around two weeks apart. For my first test I believed I’d do quite well as I’m a keen fan of yoga and enjoy meditating but the results show my high level of brain activity and from 5mins I only managed to become calm for 2secs remaining stressed throughout. Moving to my second test results it’s clear to see that my brain activity levels have reduced and sit more comfortably within the neutral zone and I was thrilled to reach 17secs of calm. Taking my percentage of calm from 1% in test one to 6% in test two. During my first test I was in a quiet room without any distractions and for my second test I had my son jumping around, playing with his iPad and talking which gave me the added distraction but allowed me to then test my skills of recovering from activity and returning to calm which I can apply to my everyday life. Without the distraction of my son Michael suggested my second test may have reached 8-10% calm and but the end of this 4wk programme I could see 15-20% calm through daily meditation which is a major improvement from where I started although individual results with vary from person to person.
Moving forwards I need to work on taking time out to myself to relax and unwind, following my gym sessions with a sauna or jacuzzi and having mild exposure to distraction during meditation to be able to remain calmer in a more busy environment which will allow me to build recognition of how to calm myself from any state. I will start my meditation in a quiet area to gain control of maintaining calm and then gradually add in noise and focus on recovery techniques because life will always be hectic and stressful but the ability to remain calm is key to counteracting it. Also focusing on exercise I can combine restorative exercises with exertion to burn off excess energy through my daily physical workouts and unwind through walking to relax. To enhance my nutrition I can consume stress-adaptive foods such as plants that survive in harsh terrains because their rich nutrients help to combat stress. To assist in my sleep routine I’ll be meditating for 5mins each day, turning off electrical devices an hour before bed, taking a warm bath with sea salts or magnesium flakes to relax and repair my muscles and sleeping in pitch black darkness with no stimulation or technology. The optimum temperature for sleep is between 18-22degrees and I already have a light duvet, natural cotton sheets and a temper i-cloud pillow to reduce tension.
I’ll be meeting with Michael once a week for the next month in order to take my weekly stress test, work through techniques, talk and train together. In our next session we’ll be focusing on the 6 principles of becoming better at stress adaptiveness where I’ll learn to adapt my body for the stresses for life in order to become stronger rather than weaker. Michael takes on 10-15 new members every three months so that he can understand and provide individual guidance for each persons needs on a 1-2-1 basis. When programmes are full there is also an online version you can use to get started and mobile app to access weekly meet-ups, monthly workshops, daily movements, stress management techniques and nutritional practises.
UPDATE: 12/04/18 Stress Test
Today we started our session with a high intensity 4min workout followed by breathing techniques and a meditation in preparation for my next stress test. With it still being the Easter holidays both of my children are at home and as a result of this I have very little peace and quiet and a million and one things to do as always. With my son being autistic I don’t think many people realise just how hands-on I have to be as a mother because everything revolves around my son who has endless energy, questions and needs above that of my other child. So today was already set to be a mighty challenge for Michael to help me to lower my stress with both of my children present.
I’m also on my period and have a bloated swollen stomach, bad backache and cramps which I experience every month and it causes me to toss and turn at night as I find it hot and uncomfortable to sleep during my cycle. I had a niggling feeling at the back off my mind that being in discomfort from stomach cramps today I’d find it harder to switch off and meditate and it would negatively effect my progress. I use fitness to limit my periods by working out for them to finish sooner and was looking forward to seeing the effects of exercise on stress with todays workout. Today we focused on how we can control stress with our mind and intentions. To do this we put my body under stress with high intensity exercise at full capacity followed by a breathing technique to positively effect a heightened state with meditation. After alternating between burpees, push ups and sit ups for 4mins my heart was racing, I was sweating, panting and out of breath which is when Michael showed me how to take notice of my heart and stomach. I laid on my back with one hand on my heart to feel my heartbeat and the other on my stomach to notice my breathing getting deeper, slower and lower. Breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth he talked me through focusing on my breathing and taking myself away from my hectic surroundings as my son preceded to jump about, ask questions and play games throughout as I targeted rest, calmness and relaxation.
Feeling out of breath and out of control to begin with I focused on bringing my breathing into line and gradually the noises and distractions around me disappeared from my consciousness as I knew that my son was safe with Michael and I had nothing to worry about despite the noise and actions still being present around me. We then took this calming ability into my meditation for the stress test which was 7mins long today, an extra 2mins ontop of our usual 5mins which requires even more focus and control. Of this Michael says “Calming the mind means you have more control of your thoughts and become more conscious as you can improve your sleeping patterns and the compound stresses that occur in life.”
Shortly into my stress test I heard the sound of birds – the indicator of calm for a prolonged period of time and I wanted to leap up and punch the air with pure excitement but instead tried to remain calm and collected and maintain the deepest level of peace that I had so far not been able to achieve. As the test progressed I found my body feeling lighter, breathing more slowly and drifting away from the sounds and distractions around me. My son was calling me throughout to come and play but Michael cheerfully sat talking to him as I continued to meditate, I heard their words, I heard the games and noises but I didn’t interact with the world around me, I just focused on being rather than thinking, worrying or stressing. The seven minutes passed so quickly and when I opened my eyes with a relaxed and uplifted smile I could never have predicted my results in a million years. For my first test I achieved 1% calm, my second 6% and today for my third test an incredible 51% calm! I had only 4 secs of activeness, 3mins 20secs in neutral and a whopping 3mins 36secs in calm with 20 birds!
As a mother I’m so used to constantly being tense, on high alert and worrying about my children. Being in panic mode 24/7 is what’s pushing my stress up and the needs of my mentally disabled son are something that I’ve now identified as causing chronic stress for me which is incredibly dangerous for my longterm health if I don’t get this under control. Whilst I felt awful for Michael getting terrorised by my son throughout todays session I knew that he was safe and happy whilst I stayed focused and actually it was the best hands-on training possible for me to learn how to zone out during times of distraction.
I have to conscious in allocating myself moments of rest and relaxation throughout my day and assign myself well needed down time. Now I have the techniques to control and reduce my levels of stress during moments of pure child-chaos I can implement them on a daily basis in order to make my rest and recovery a much higher quality. To be able to measure the level of stress, recognise what it feels like and how to take control of it is a fundamental ability that we would never normally come across in life nor know how to use. It takes time and practise to recognise and develop calming techniques and thanks to the feedback from my stress tests I can see that it’s working. I’m beyond elated to see my improvement, to take control of the stress that has damaged my health and controlled me for so long. I feel lifted, a great sense of freedom and inner peace for knowing that the steps I’m taking are working so well. Stress isn’t something that always automatically shows on the surface or in your expressions, it takes over your thoughts, your feelings, your reactions and decisions and changes everything about you piece by piece. It stops you from coping, stops you from smiling and fuels the symptoms of depression and anxiety and whilst I’ve thankfully never had bad thoughts or even helplessness I can see clearly how rushed and unsettled I was because of the factors that stressed me. Today everything has changed and I’ve regained control and it’s the most incredible feeling ever! I’m so thankful to have found this course and I can’t wait to see what my end results are as we continue to progress.
Today we focused on using breathing to cause stress to create a heightened atmosphere prior to meditation so that I could enhance may recovery techniques and restore calm. To do this we focused on four levels of breathing, the first being three long deep breaths in and out through the nose prior to starting followed by three increasing speeds of breathing from a hurried deep breath up to a frantic short pant for between 30secs-1min at the time.
As expected this activity raised my heart rate, left me feeling out of breath, stressed and on high alert. I also found my skin felt beautifully sensational after returning my hurried breath to a long deep and controlled intake which strengthened my body’s response to recovering from a stressful situation. I actually took a pre workout a few hours beforehand as I went for a gym session and forgot not to take it prior to my stress test – yes I was in a hurry and feeling stressed before the school run which led too an oversight in preparation for today – but actually it works out as an even better challenge for me to control and calm my mind when my body is in a highly stimulated state.
Whilst my children are at school today and I have a stimulant drink in my system I undertook a ten minute meditation in my lounge directly after 30secs of rapid breathing to heighten me prior to meditation. I didn’t have as many distractions today as last time we did the test with my son present, but as I’m leaving for the airport in an hour and a half to go on holiday I have a million and one things at the back of my mind to think off and finish before I go. Immediately as I heard the sounds of the waves and birds through the Muse meditation app during my meditation my mind flicked to thinking about holiday “I’m going to be on a beach soon!” “I wonder what type of birds are in the Maldives?” “Will I be able to swim!?” And I felt that I had to fight to not think of leaving for holiday and focus harder to clear my mind today.
A couple of times my stomach rumbled which made me think of having a snack before grabbing dinner at the airport and also a phone rang but again these obstacles were a good challenge for me to overcome. Also meditating for 10mins is far harder than 5-7mins that I’ve done so far because the longer you aim to remain calm the more likely thoughts are going to come into your mind. From my 10mins meditation I achieved 45% calm which is a decrease of 6% from my previous results but the stimulants and attributing factors have changed – likewise if I were to meditate on a busy train on the way home or in my bedroom in silence first thing in the morning my results will vary but all are valuable situations to take control of.
This time I earned 1113 calm points, had 11 recoveries and 20 birds. My results show that when I exercise first I can calm myself more easily afterwards which is a good technique to use to unwind before going to bed – minus a pre workout of course! I now know if I can’t do a workout before bed then I can use my breathing techniques to raise and reduce my activity level to bring me to a sense of peace and calm. Naturally being the inquisitive bunny that I am I wanted to see how my results compare to that of my boyfriend who gloriously beat me on our first test as he achieved 54% calm across 5mins with 19 birds. Today he attempted a 7mins meditation and scored an incredible 74% calm with 44 birds and I was astounded!
As people we are both very different, he’s laid back whilst I’m rather OCD and live by rules, deadlines and goals. I like to be ahead of time, in control and have everything planned to the last details so that nothing can go wrong which makes me totally stress out if I fall behind or something unexpected comes up. He feels as he’s not as bad in stressful environments due to his pressurised work which he handles very well. I on the hand try to avoid pressurised situations so when they do occur they hit me harder which is why using these stress techniques can make such a big difference to my lifestyle and mental health. For my boyfriend to have achieved a 20% increase in his level of calm he’s done amazingly well considering he also took a pre workout before the gym earlier today.
Despite my results not being as good as last weeks I feel very happy with what I achieved and recognise that different days have different stress factors and today is probably the most manic day of the year so far for me because of everything I’ve done and still have left to do to arrange to go away from children and childcare to food, laundry, packing and checking and printing flight details. With every second that passes I’m closer to leaving and forgetting something and it’s that constant countdown which has kept me on high alert today but I’m thankful that I achieved 5mins in a neutral state and 4mins31s of calm with just 29secs active. So now we’re off to paradise for as week I’ll be looking forward to relaxing and unwinding and practising my stress techniques to see how my results finish upon my return for my fourth and final test.
Remember to check back soon to see how I get on!
To receive a 10% discount on the StressLess programme mention my name ‘Tracy Kiss’ when booking.