Learning from Stress

Stress isn’t an enemy, it’s a teacher, albeit a fairly strict one.

For many of us, our relationship with stress is a lot like this classic example of something known as the “ironic thought process”—the very act of trying to avoid something seems to manifest it, and the harder we try not to stress, the more likely we are to create additional stress. Raise your hand if there’s a familiarity to the following stress feedback loop:

  • “I’m stressed out!”
  • “Oh no, I’m stressed! I need to relax!”
  • “Now I’m stressed about needing to relax!”

That’s a pretty vicious cycle, and one that can be uniquely exacerbated by a number of factors. Stress feeds on itself, and as workouts are skipped, diets ignored, and excuses are made, the stress continues to build and we’re driven further and further from where we want to be.

The research on stress is pretty compelling, and it’s no wonder we aim to avoid it. Modern life is filled with things our ancestors never dealt with like bosses and mortgages, and as Robert Sapolsky explains in his seminal work Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, our stress response evolved to fill a short-term, acute need. Modern life presents a fairly primitive mechanism with a confusing set of signals, and when that acute response becomes chronic, chaos ensues. Everything from heart disease and hypertension to diabetes and obesity have been linked to chronic stress.

The key concept here is the difference between acute and chronic. What’s good for us in the short-term can be terrible for us in the long-term.

The Beauty of Stress

Stress is not an enemy, it’s an ally. We’re not particularly good at ignoring or avoiding stress, and it’s a good thing we’re not: in its own way stress may be as effective and powerful a change agent as natural selection. Without stress you’re weak, slow, fat, dumb, and all but indistinguishable from an adult-sized lump of clay.

Stripped of any color or judgement, stress is nothing more than a signal that you need to change. Evolution has left us a uniquely conservative and efficient machine—stress is the counterpart to this efficiency. Where evolution tells the body to slow the metabolism during a famine, stress tells the body to ramp it up and find some extra energy during a fight.

A rash is a simple and primitive form of stress; odds are you shouldn’t wear that sweater or use that lotion anymore. Blushing is another fundamental manifestation of stress in humans, and is often triggered as a way of reinforcing social norms. The heat from a flame hurts when you get too close to it; another form of stress trying to force a response. Stress isn’t an enemy, it’s a teacher, albeit a fairly strict one.

Putting Stress to Work

The difference between stress pushing us to new heights or pulling us into the abyss, classically referred to as eustress and distress, respectively, lies in its application and in our response to it. Pioneering endocrinologist Hans Selye’s early work on the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) laid out three distinct phases to the stress response: the alarm stage (stress is introduced), the resistance stage (the body attempts to adapt), and the exhaustion stage (reached if and when the body’s response is insufficient).

Rather than analyzing his methods and findings, let’s use a simple example. Imagine two people, both asked to spend three hours rubbing their hands together over the course of the coming week. The first person breaks the task up into small segments—a minute or two here, a minute or two there—and accumulated 20 or 30 minutes of stress (hand-rubbing) each day. The second person decides to attack things head on, and spends three straight hours rubbing their hands together.

Both people faced the same total amount of stress, but you can imagine the difference in results—where one was inconvenienced the other was likely injured. The stress was the same, but the response was different. The stress of training works in much the same way. I’ll spend more than five or six hours this week lifting weights this week, why not just get it all done on Monday? That would be a recipe for disaster.

Listen to Your Stress

Your stress just wants to be heard. It’s a signal—it exists to force a change, and until that change is made, it will keep poking, prodding, and nudging at you like an annoying sibling in the back seat. The solution? Listen up, and change what you can. You may not be able to skip the traffic (especially if you live in New York and have family in Boston), but there are plenty of ways you can heed your body’s primal advice.

In the words of the immortal Pavel Tsatsouline, “Change is a form of rest.” Time with family may be stressful, but it can be a break from work. Your workout is absolutely a form of stress, but it’s a chance to duck out of the house or the office for an hour. Rather than trying to avoid stressors or pretend you’re immune to them, recognize them for what they are and embrace them in limited doses.


1. Sapolsky, Robert. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 1994.