‘Stress is Killing You (and your sex drive)’.
‘Top 5 Tips for a Stress Free Day’.
We have been brainwashed into thinking that stress is bad for us. But stress can be both the hero and the villain, we just need to know how it works and how to use it to our advantage. Once we understand this, it can help us reach higher levels of physical and mental performance.
We know that the common stressors of life include pending deadlines, exams and presentations, family problems and financial difficulties. But stress can also come in the form of exercise, what we eat, how we sleep and how we think. The body doesn’t differentiate between stressors but responds in the same physical and chemical ways to them: increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, sweating, changes in levels of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This response is known as our Sympathetic Nervous System, and is often referred to as our ‘flight or fight response’. Without this reaction our ability to avoid threats and perform demanding tasks significantly diminishes.
We need stress to perform. We need stress to grow and get fitter, smarter and stronger. Stress is our friend.
There is no avoiding stress. It is inevitable. What we can do, though, is focus on our ability to handle stressful situations and ensure we bounce back quickly. This is resilience.
Conventional wisdom says that our degree of resilience is based on how much and for how long we can withstand sustained stress. However, this is not the case. This approach will only work for a period of time before your body and mind tap out and say enough is enough.
In order to combat the effects of the Sympathetic Nervous System, our body triggers the Parasympathetic Nervous System, also known as the ‘rest and recovery response’. Our bodies are designed to spend the majority of time in this mode, and only activate the ‘flight or fight response’ when posed with a life-threatening situation. But because the body doesn’t differentiate between real and imagined stressors, we tend to stay in a prolonged Sympathetic Nervous System mode. As the great American author Mark Twain said:
‘I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.’
Stress is a hero in that it is necessary in order to make us not only stronger and fitter but also more focused, productive and resilient. However, it can quickly become the villain if we are in a prolonged state of stress. This is also known as chronic stress. The model we use to demonstrate this phenomenon is ‘Supercompensation Theory’.
This theory highlights that in order to increase our resilience we must first stress the body. The body will then slightly degenerate/fatigue, but with good recovery will start to compensate and increase our threshold to future stress. Our body then suspects we may face the same stress in the future and actually gives us a bit of an added buffer, which we call supercompensation.
But if we constantly stress our bodies we will only get weaker and sicker and we will perform worse. This condition is called over-training or burnout, and it will decrease the body’s immune function leaving you susceptible to illness, increased muscle tension (leading to a high probability of injury) and an increase in cortisol (thereby slowing fat metabolism and brain function).
For instance, say you have an important deadline for work. You are getting four to five hours of sleep a night, you are skipping meals because you are too busy to eat, and your muscles are feeling tense and tight from the stress and long periods of sitting at the computer. The absolutely worst thing you can do is put your body through more stress by doing a very demanding workout. The best thing would be some low-demand exercise to stimulate blood flow, stretch your muscles and refresh the mind.
Resilience isn’t about how much stress we can take; that really falls under ego. It is our ability to switch on and off. In scientific terms, it’s our ability to switch from our sympathetic nervous system to our parasympathetic nervous system. Our ‘flight or fight’ response—with increased heart rate, release of hormones and heightened sense of awareness—helps us to fight off immediate threats. Our ‘rest and regenerate’ response counteracts those effects. The problem is in today’s world, with technology and working demands, our ability to switch from fight and flight to rest and regenerate has been impeded. The world has become so fast we need to learn to slow down.
So, resilience isn’t about how much stress we can take but how well we recover from stress. It’s akin to the way your body can grow muscle from lifting weights. The muscle doesn’t grow while you’re lifting the weight, it actually grows while you are resting.
This is an edited extract from Sweat Equity by Greg Stark (Simon and Schuster). In his book, Stark focuses on the four pillars of performance—mindset, movement, nutrition and recovery—to show you how to challenge and nurture your body to reach peak proficiency at work. It includes methods backed by science and research as well as testimonials and case studied of lawyers, accountants, company directors, entrepreneurs, and elite athletes. Available now.
Sweat Equity Book Launch
Wednesday, April 22, 2017
6:30 – 8:00 pm
lululemon ivy, 330C George Street, Sydney