Good stress, bad stress — understand the difference and use it to perform better
The world is complex. Everything is speeding up. Stress is an epidemic. We all know the symptoms: fatigue, anxiety, weight gain, poor sleep, digestive issues, and on and on.
What if you could get some distance from the stressors and even reap some benefits? It’s time to understand stress instead of being subjected to it. Use it to become more resilient. Don’t be a victim.
My favorite stress hacks
The cold shower. Yep. First thing in the morning. Focus on the face and upper torso, where you have the most cold receptors. Do it for three mornings in a row. You will hate me at first, but then you will notice a real sense of well-being. The cold signals your mitochondria (the powerhouses of your cells) to strengthen up to deal with the cold, and you enjoy a boost of energy as a result. Do hot, then cold, several times for extra resilience.
Reduce decision fatigue. Every decision you make throughout the day takes energy, depletes your willpower, and adds to the stress load. Simplify your life, plan, and delegate so you have fewer choices to make.
ALL IS QUESTION OF DOSE
Exercise is a stressor. Enough is enough—and too much is really too much. The latter can lead to insomnia, injury, anxiety, irritability, joint pain, osteoporosis, and even visceral fat, due to overloading cortisol. Balance and recovery are key. Too little stress is just as unhealthy and toxic to your body as too much stress.
So we all need to regularly take stock of the stressors in our life and:
Minimize unnecessary stress
Take advantage of useful stress
Plan recovery time to optimize the effects
The brain’s first order of business is to ensure survival—stress is a survival mechanism. Let’s be grateful for it.
Whenever we encounter stressors, whether they are physical or psychological, the amygdala, an almond shaped structure located near the hippocampus, signals the body: “There is a danger. I need of all my physical abilities.” The amygdala takes over control of breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc..
First, you get a shot of adrenaline, forcing the body to go into fight-or-flight mode. Heart rate and blood pressure increase. Then, cortisol (the stress hormone) increases the level of glucose in the blood to produce energy for your response.
The problem is that the amygdala does not differentiate sources of stress. You have the same response whether you’re pursued by a lion or stuck in traffic. Regardless of the situation, the adrenal glands will release cortisol.
DIFFERENT REACTIONS TO STRESS
There are three reactions to stress, and each of us tends, in general, to favor one of them.
Either you take off running. That is to say, the blood goes straight to your legs so you can get out of there.
Or you fight. The blood goes to your arms and hands to throw some punches, and to your face so you look mean.
Or you freeze. Your heart slows down, your energy drops. You play dead.
In any case, the cortex—the rational part of the brain—is completely offline. The amygdala says, “There is no sense analyzing the situation. Do what I tell you to do. Nothing more.” This is actually a good thing. Imagine the scene: a lion is on your heels, while the cortex is calculating the distance to the tree and the percentage of success reaching it compared to choosing to jump into the lake ... Your brain’s executive committee would not even get through the agenda before you’d be lion lunch.
The system works well, if a lion is chasing you. Not so much when the computer doesn’t work they way you want it to, and your anxiety rises, your hands shake and you want to take off running.
What about standing in front of your boss or a colleague, and your jaw tenses and voice rises, as you prepare to fight.
Or, you have so much work that you all of the sudden feel so tired, unable to continue and you break down in tears.
In any case, you cannot make any rational decisions ... it is at that moment that you’re mean to your spouse, or you send that email you never should have sent. It is also in these moments that you stomach aches, because the amygdala knows that you don’t need to digest food if you want to survive the lion.
GOOD STRESS, BAD STRESS
And yet, what of the principle that what does not kill you makes you stronger? In other words, where is the stress that reinforces us? According to Wikipedia, the word “hormesis” comes from ancient Greek hormáein “to set in motion, impel, urge on.” It refers to the generally favorable response the body has to low-dose exposures of toxins or other stress-generating agents or phenomena (peak temperatures, for example). It's a key process to staying in shape and it can increase resistance to a variety of stressors, not just the ones you have been exposed to. This is an essential point: temporary exposure to one type of stressor can result in adaptations that make you more resistant to other types of stressors.
Take the case of physical activity. Exercise is a stressor, and yet it strengthens us. There are others, such as exposure to hot (sauna) and cold (cold shower), for example.