Good stress, bad stress: Finding your sweet spot
Too much stress, or the wrong kind, can harm our health.
Yet stress can also be a positive force in our lives, keeping us focused, alert, and at the top of our game.
It all depends what kind of stress it is, how prepared we are to meet it — and how we view it.
People often think of stress as a dangerous and deadly thing.
Yet stress is simply a normal physiological response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your equilibrium in some way.
When you sense danger — physical, mental or emotional — your defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight or flight” response, aka the stress response.
The stress response is your body’s way of protecting you.
When working properly, the stress response helps you stay focused, energetic and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life or that of others — giving you the extra strength to lift a car off your child, or spurring you to slam the brakes to avoid an accident.
The stress response also helps you rise to meet challenges. Stress keeps you sharp during a presentation at work, increases your concentration when you need it most, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be out with your friends.
But beyond a certain point, stress stops helping and starts damaging your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life.
Stress and the allostatic load
Grab a piece of paper and write down all the things in your average day that could possibly be a stress on your body, mind, and emotions.
We’d guess your list probably looks something like this:
- Boss yelled at me
- Rushing around to see clients
- Worrying about money
- Crummy weather
- Kid woke me up early
- Girlfriend/boyfriend snarked at me this morning
- I think I might’ve eaten some bad shrimp salad
If you’re like most people, you’re a camel carrying a big load of straw with these combined life stresses.
Now imagine what could happen if you start piling on more straw with worrying about your body image, with physical stress from your workouts, or with restricting your food intake. Eventually… snap.
The pile of straw — the cumulative total of all the stuff in your life that causes physical, mental, and/or emotional stress — is known as your allostatic load.
Good stress, bad stress
Some stress is good stress (also called eustress). Good stress pushes you out of your comfort zone, but in a good way. Good stress helps you learn, grow, and get stronger.
For example, riding a roller coaster is fun and exciting. It lasts a short time, and you feel exhilarated afterwards. (That is, if you like roller coasters.)
Exercise can be another form of good stress. You feel a little uncomfortable but then you feel good, and after an hour or so, you’re done.
- is short-lived
- is infrequent
- is over quickly (in a matter of minutes or hours)
- can be part of a positive life experience
- inspires you to action
- helps build you up — it leaves you better than you were before.
But let’s say you ride that roller coaster constantly, or lift weights 4 hours a day, every day. Now it doesn’t seem so fun, does it?
This is bad stress, or distress.
- lasts a long time
- is chronic
- is ongoing
- is negative, depressing, and demoralizing
- de-motivates and paralyzes you
- breaks you down — it leaves you worse off than you were before.
One key feature that distinguishes good from bad stress is how well the stressor matches your ability to recover from it.
The stress “sweet spot”
Since stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, everyone experiences stress differently.
Each of us has a unique “recovery zone”, whether that’s physical or psychological, and our recovery zone depends on several factors.
Just as important as the stress itself is how you perceive and respond to it.
Some people go with the flow and can adapt well to what others would perceive as highly stressful events. Other people crumble at even the slightest challenge or frustration they encounter.
There are many things that affect our tolerance to stress, such as:
Our attitude and outlook — People with optimistic, proactive and positive attitudes are more stress resistant. And people who view stressful events as a challenge, and realize that change is simply a part of life, have a far larger recovery zone and are far less vulnerable to stress.
Our life experience — Past stress can build us up or break us down, depending on when the stress happened and how powerful it was. Moderate stress at a time when we can handle it generally makes us better and more resilient. However, stress at a time when we’re already vulnerable (such as during childhood, or piled on top of other stressors) can actually leave us worse off.
Our genetic makeup and epigenetic expression — Some of us are genetically more “stress susceptible” than others, especially if we meet environmental factors that then epigenetically “switch on” or “switch off” those crucial genes. For instance, one study found that older people carrying a certain gene polymorphism suffered major depression only if they had something bad happen to them in childhood. The folks with the genetic variant who had normal childhoods were fine.
Our perception of control — Stress becomes most traumatic when we feel trapped. If we’re able to successfully fight or flee, we tend to recover better. But if we feel unable to change the situation, we’ll go to the next-stage stress response, the “freeze” response. This is when we feel helpless, hopeless, and paralyzed. We may also get more stressed if we’re “control freaks” — constantly trying to grip, grab, and grasp everything tightly.
Our natural personality type — If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to influence events and persevere through challenges, it’s easier to take stressful events in stride. People who are more vulnerable to stress tend to feel like they have no ability to influence the events around them. They might also be highly empathetic and thus feel “pushed” and “pulled” by the needs and wants of others.
Our support network — A strong network of supportive friends and family members (which can even include pets) is a powerful buffer against the stress of life. Conversely, loneliness and isolation worsens stress.
Our ability to deal with our emotions — If you can’t calm and soothe yourself when feeling stressed or overly emotional, you’re more vulnerable to stress. The ability to level out your emotions will help you better handle adversity.
- Our environment — Natural environments (e.g. outdoors, spaces with lots of windows and natural lighting, etc.) calm us down, as do secure and safe environments (such as your comfy living room). Industrial environments full of stimuli (e.g. noises, machinery, artificial lights, threats coming at us quickly, etc.) amp us up and put us on edge. We also feel more relaxed in environments we think we can control, such as our homes; we’re more anxious in environments we think we can’t control, such as large public spaces or most worksites.
Our allostatic load — The larger the allostatic load (in other words, the more stuff we’re dealing with at once), the more it wears down our resilience, and shrinks our recovery zone. How we respond to stress is critical, but the cumulative load of excess stress can wear down even the most resilient and positive person.
Generally, the “recovery zone” looks like this:
If the stressor is too low — not enough to cause a reaction — then nothing will happen. You’ll go along the same as before, no better or worse.
If the stressor is too high — too strong, and/or lasts too long, outpacing your recovery ability — then you’ll eventually break down.
If the stressor is within your recovery zone — neither too much nor too little, and doesn’t last too long — then you’ll recover from it and get better. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
Balance the demands
We want enough “good stress” to keep a fire under our butts, but not so much that we break down and burn out.
(This applies to our own exercise and nutrition as well as our family lives and overall workload.)
That optimum zone depends on your allostatic load, as well as how you perceive and respond to it. Remember, this is your individual stress zone — nobody else’s.
And remember that the allostatic load is everything: mental, physical, emotional: that email from the boss… your hangnail… the weird paint smell in your office… your shockingly high phone bill… everything goes on to the “stress pile”. So consider this holistically.
If your existing pile of straw is already heavy, then it’ll take only a few more straws to break you. And if you view your pile of straw as being too large and heavy, regardless of its actual size, then again it will only take a few more straws to break you.
Thus to manage stress, we must do two things:
- learn to balance our life demands, workload, and exercise/nutrition responsibilities; and
- view these responsibilities as an achievable challenge or an interesting problem to solve, rather than some insurmountable obstacle.
Manage your allostatic load
To lead a healthy, productive, and fulfilling life, you must manage your allostatic load.
Here are some activities you can do immediately to boost your body’s happy chemicals, activate your “rest and digest” nervous system, and start building your stress resilience.
- a relaxing walk (especially outside);
- being out in nature;
- getting moderate sunshine;
- listening to relaxing music;
- mindfulness practice and meditation;
- deep breathing;
- snuggling a loved one or pet;
- yoga, gentle mobility, and/or slow stretching exercises;
- gentle swimming or water immersion (such as a hot tub);
- relaxing in a sauna;
- having sex (seriously);
- physical, non-competitive play;
- moderate, occasional drinking — 1-2 drinks for men, and 1 for women… enjoyed slowly and mindfully;
- drinking green tea.
In other words, think of de-stressing as purposefully chasing relaxation.
By the way, some recreational activities don’t count, such as:
- watching TV or movies;
- playing video games; or
- surfing the internet.
Electronic stimulation, while fun, is still stimulation. So, anything involving a screen is out.
Lets dig a little deeper into a few of these.
Meditation is one of the best stress-relievers.
Research on regular meditation shows how incredibly restorative it is, as it:
- lowers blood pressure;
- lowers heart rate;
- lowers stress hormones;
- lowers inflammation;
- boosts immune system;
- improves focus, mental clarity and attention, even when not meditating;
- improves mood; and
- improves sleep.
Being chronically over-stressed can negatively rewire your brain, increasing your risk for anxiety and depression.
Fortunately, meditation is like magic. When done regularly, it can rewire your brain in the opposite direction, to do all kinds of awesome stuff.
For example, meditation can contribute to:
- neurogenesis (growth of new neural connections and brain cells);
- emotional regulation (in other words, your ability to manage your feelings);
- memory and recall;
- development of the brain’s gray matter (even after only a few weeks); and
- our ability to regulate our body clock.
So how do you actually go about doing it?
While people sometimes think of meditation as an arcane practice best suited to adherents of the Hare Krishna sect, it’s actually pretty easy to do, and you don’t have to look or act like an aging hippie to benefit from it.
- Find a comfortable, quiet, private place.
- Sit or lie down, whatever seems most convenient. The position doesn’t matter, as long as you’re relaxed.
- Get a timer going. Set a timer for 5 minutes, and then forget about counting down how long it’s been. That’s your timer’s job. It’ll take care of you.
- Close your eyes.
- Start with a quick 30-second “body scan”. As you scan down your body from head to toe, think about consciously relaxing each muscle. Let everything sink downward. In particular, let your face droop.
- Now, focus on your breathing. Breathe in through your diaphragm, pushing your belly in and out. Observe how the air moves in and out.
- Count 10 breaths, observing each one.
- Let thoughts drift in and out. Let them wander in, then shoo them away. They’ll be back. You don’t need to hold on to them.
- Observe only. Don’t judge. There is no “should”. If you think of something, no worries. Don’t fret. If you hear a noise, or have an itch, simply think, There’s a noise or I have an itch. Make a note of it; then move on.
- Keep coming back to your breathing. There’s no rush; just keep wandering back to it. What’s it doing now?
- Repeat until your time is up.
- Finish with 5 good belly breaths to “bookend” the session.
- Open your eyes.
That’s it. Pretty easy right?
You already know that drinking green tea has tons of health benefits. At PN we have been singing its praises for years. And now you can add one more benefit to that list.
A large study in Japan found that regularly drinking green tea lowered the stress levels of those found to have high levels of psychological stress. This is thought to be due to L-theanine, a non-protein amino acid in green tea (and, to an extent, in other teas).
L-theanine is a proven stress reducer and calming agent. It inhibits cortisol, which our body releases in response to stress, and also lowers your blood pressure and heart rate as it chills out your sympathetic nervous system. And it causes all of these actions in as little as 30 to 40 minutes after consumption.
L-theanine may even change your brain function. During most of your waking hours, your brain is producing beta brain waves, which can affect concentration and focus. Green tea consumption will actually stimulate your brain to emit alpha brain waves instead, creating a state of deep relaxation and mental alertness, similar to what you can achieve through meditation.
This may occur because L-theanine is involved in the formation of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma amino butyric acid (GABA). GABA influences the levels of two other neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, producing the key relaxation effect.
Sipping a few cups of tea throughout the day can help to lower stress, increase focus (even more effectively than coffee), suppress appetite and improve your health. Not too bad.
Regular exercise is a great tool to help you handle stress. Exercise often allows you to blow off steam, and exercising regularly can boost your stress-tolerance.
However, remember that all stress fits in one bucket — i.e. the allostatic load. If you have a super-stressed out life, training your ass off 6 times a week is only contributing to that, as training stress goes in the bucket too.
Instead, balance your exercise approach. It’s not all about high-intensity, high-volume lifting combined with high-intensity intervals all the time. Training intensely as your sole approach to exercise will continually jack up your sympathetic nervous system and compound your stress symptoms.
Instead, do a mix of intense weight training, some intense conditioning, and plenty of restorative exercise — exercise that leaves you feeling more refreshed and invigorated after doing it, not drained and exhausted. This would include activities like:
- walking outside in sunshine (BSP’s favorite, especially with the dog);
- gentle mobility, and/or slow stretching exercises;
- gentle swimming or water immersion (such as a hot tub);
- a casual bike ride; or
- a casual hike.
This exercise is meant to stimulate some blood flow, get you outside if possible (because sunshine and nature are proven to improve mood and lower stress), burn a few calories, and stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Your parasympathetic nervous system is known as the “rest and digest” system (as opposed to the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system). Engaging your parasympathetic nervous system is key to lowering your stress.
There’s nothing wrong with kicking butt in the gym, but don’t let your only form of exercise be balls-to-the-wall high intensity training, especially if you already lead a stressful lifestyle.
Allow yourself some quiet and gentle exercise: You’ll lower stress, improve recovery, and — as a side benefit — you’ll also improve your intense lifting.
Other tips for stress management
- Establish a routine and some order in your life. While scheduling yourself too strictly can be confining, too much reactive spontaneity can be stressful as well. Find a balance between the two that works for you.
- Eat plenty of omega-3 fats. Eat fish, pasture-raised animals, flax seeds and chia seeds, and take fish, krill or algae oil.
- Know your limits. Know how much stress you can handle. While you can increase your stress tolerance and lower your stress by following the preceding tips, simply knowing that you can’t be everywhere at once, or everything to everyone, will also take some pressure off. Be reasonable about your individual capabilities and expectations. Remember that each person is different.
- Single-task. We often think that multitasking lets us do more work in less time. Research consistently shows the opposite: When we focus on multiple things at once, we do each of them less efficiently and effectively. Each time you interrupt one task, your brain takes about 15 minutes to get back to optimal processing speed and efficiency. Most of us don’t do anything for 15 focused minutes, so our brain never has any time to settle in and get ‘er done. Do one thing at a time, do it well, and then move on to the next.
- Unplug from the digital world. There’s constant electronic stimulation in our lives. Unplug from it once in a while. Turn off your phone. Close your computer. Go read a book, play games, and get social with other humans.
- Change your stress story. Drop the negative self-talk and work towards a more positive attitude. Telling yourself, and other people, how busy you are and how much you have to do only makes yourself feel busier, chaotic and more stressed. On the other hand, a positive attitude can actually lower stress levels. Simply telling yourself you can manage something can give you more confidence to manage it. This doesn’t mean that you can never be frustrated or sad, it simply means you shouldn’t wallow in it.
What this means for you
Don’t get stressed out by trying to incorporate all these tips. (Ha, ha.) Just focus on two key points:
All stress — life, work, family, financial, training, good, bad — fits into one bucket, creating your unique allostatic load. To stay healthy, lean, and fit, you must manage this load. Find the strategies that work best for you, and practice them on a regular basis. And keep in mind that what works best for you at this particular stage of your life may not work for you in other stages. Be willing to evolve your strategies as your life, and allostatic load, evolve.
Just as important as your stress load is how you respond to it. View stress as a challenge or an interesting puzzle to solve. Roll with the punches and have a Plan B (or C, or D). Stay open, flexible, and creative. This attitude helps you handle your allostatic load better, and mitigate the potential harm it could cause you.
To learn more about making important improvements to your own nutrition and exercise program – or, if you’re a fitness professional, to help your clients do the same – check out the following 5-day video courses.
They’re probably better than 90% of the seminars we’ve ever attended on the subjects of exercise and nutrition (and probably better than a few we’ve given ourselves, too).
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