How to Turn Stress Into a Strength
7:30pm on a Thursday night. My high school exams were two weeks away. The ominous results could determine my future. The dull light of the television flickered in front of my face as I rejoiced in the numbing of my brain. “What are you doing?” my mother shouted from the other room. “You should be studying!”
“I’m already done,” I replied. Remember, Jewish families are known for shouting from room to room. My mom’s reply was less than encouraging.
“Fine, if you want to fail, then that’s up to you.”
Even after the mandatory Jewish mother guilt trip I was nonplussed. Through basketball finals, the trepidation of asking out girls (although I was hopeless at it), exams, assignments, and life’s general suckiness, I’ve rarely been one to tear my hair out. My sister on the other hand, was a completely different story. During her exams she suffered high blood pressure. One night we found her passed out. She had gotten up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and fainted. She spent a week in hospital on an IV drip, the stress of the situation having ravaged her body, causing an Internal Code Red.
In a world where kittens ride unicorns through rainbow fields, we would frolic stress free. Unfortunately, for the average person life is filled with experiences and encounters that leave us physically and emotionally drained. Let’s call these stressors - an agent, condition, or other stimulus that causes stress to an organism, shifting it out of homeostasis. These stressors are an important to our survival. Without them, our Neanderthal ancestors would have sat around, unstressed as a saber-toothed tiger pillaged their caves. Likewise, lifting weights applies a significant stressor to the body, causing it to adapt and grow.
However, 43% of all adults suffer adverse health affects from bad stress. These affects include, but are not limited to, headaches, metabolic disorders, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and anxiety.1
Research indicates that children who are born to stressed mothers are also more likely to be bullied at school. Becoming stressed releases a flood of neurohormones that can change the stress response system of a fetus, making it more receptive to stressors and more likely to emotionally or physically respond to acts of bullying.2 Children who are stressed as a result of their parents fighting may develop an impaired parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system responsible for ‘feed and breed’ responses such as sexual arousal, salivation, tears, digestion, and disposal of food.3 Basically, stress sucks if it is left unchecked and allowed to ravage your body and nervous system.
But what if I told you there is a way to avoid all this, and instead, thrive under stressful situations while also ensuring that you keep continually making gains? It’s a well-known fact that stress leads to cardiovascular disease, resulting in death. Hell, I said it just before. But maybe stress itself isn’t the devilish monster we demonize it as. Instead, it may very well be the belief of stress as being dangerous that can raise our risk of a heart attack by up to 50%.4
Imagine this, your boss amicably leans on your desk, forcing you to quickly exit the Breaking Muscle website. “Tyler, remember, I need that report tomorrow,” he smugly smiles as he takes your apple and walks away. (Seriously, I have no idea why you still work there. The guy’s a prick.) The report? You completely forgot about it. Your pulse starts to race, your breathing quickens and a light condensation mists your forehead. That’s two weeks work you now have to cram into eighteen hours. Soft curses slip through your lips but then, in your darkest moment you stare stress in the face and slap it, hard, showing it whose boss. The stress fuels you, fires you forward, keeps you up most of the night until, finally, exhausted, you slam the report onto your bosses desk, defiantly munching on an apple right in front of his face.
You’re no longer scared of stress, it’s yours to mold to your will.
But, while stress has allowed you to complete an insurmountable task in an impossible timeframe, we all know that the stress may have just knocked a year off your lifespan. Your arteries have started to restrict, causing less blood to reach your heart. Too much of this and you’ll be filling out your last report.
However, the increased pumping of blood and influx of oxygen to our brains that occurs in times of great stress is preparing you for what’s to come. Research is now showing that stress only becomes unhealthy when we view the situation as a threat. If, before a particularly stressful situation, you are taught to view the typical stress responses - sweaty palms, dry mouth, increased heart rate and so forth - as beneficial, the same stress that could cause your heart to stop can actually open up your arteries, eliciting a similar reaction as when we experience joy or bravery.5
Learning to deal with stress places you on the precipice of Mount Doom, threatening to fall into the fires of Mordor. It’s a tightrope act that would make Nik Wallenda proud. When dealing with stress, there are a few tried and true strategies, and some new ones, that we can employ to make sure we get the best out of ourselves day in and day out:
- Look on the bright side of life. Studies show that optimists tend to have a more positive reaction to stressful situations, which ties into the aforementioned example. While pessimists are busy demonizing cortisol, blaming it for an early death, optimists recognize it as the "get up and go hormone," channelling its power for good.6
- Be mindful of yourself, and your surroundings. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that practicing mindfulness training, and in particular working on your breathing patterns, can decrease stress and bring you back into the moment, instead of where you were, tumbling with your inner stress demons.7
- Compartmentalize your life. Home is home, work is work, and the gym is the gym. Keep them separate. Learn to switch gears depending on where you are. Avoid bringing your work home, keep your mobile phone in your gym locker, and if you find you are stressing over macros at home, simplify it.
- Auto-regulate your training. There’s no point in trying to smash a new deadlift record on four hours of sleep. Continue to rip the bar off the ground, but once your speed drops and start to struggle, then move on.
We are taught to ward off stresses and cortisol with iron crosses and glasses of chamomile tea, fearing a breakdown of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. But it seems as if by doing this, we are holding ourselves back. Growing up, maybe the biggest difference between my sister and me was that all those basketball finals, girls, and exams taught me to look at stress as a catalyst for change and growth instead of pain and sickness. Maybe that’s the biggest difference.
1. "The Effects of Stress on Your Body," WebMD.com.
2. University of Warwick (2012, November 14). Babies born to stressed mothers more likely to be bullied at school. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 24, 2013.
3. Society for Research in Child Development (2013, March 28). Marital conflict causes stress in children, may affect cognitive development. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 24, 2013.
4. European Society of Cardiology (ESC) (2013, June 26). People's perception of the effect of stress on their health is linked to risk of heart attacks. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 13, 2013.
5. Top of FormUniversity of Rochester (2013, April 8). Reframing stress: Stage fright can be your friend. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 8, 2013.
6. Concordia University (2013, July 23). Optimists better at regulating stress. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 8, 2013.
7. University of Wisconsin-Madison (2013, August 28). Mindfulness training can help reduce teacher stress and burnout. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 8, 2013.
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