Stress: Is it always a bad thing?

When we think about stress, we tend to think of hands running through our hair, sweaty palms and armpits, butterflies in our stomach and a racing heartbeat.  We think about our work schedule, our kids’ schedules, our crammed calendar and that visit from the in-laws coming up next weekend.  While these are all stressful things, they seem to put a negative spin on the idea of stress. We always hear about the importance of limiting or eliminating stress in our lives.  But do we really want to eliminate all stress?

Stress is actually what drives life.  It drives adaptation and survival.  Over thousands of years, we’ve adapted to different stresses in order to survive and thrive in our environment.  At its foundation, stress is neither good nor bad.  It just is.  Our body’s response to it determines whether it will build us up or break us down.  Exercise, for example, is a stress.  And I think most people would agree it’s a positive one.

When we workout, we cause damage to our muscles.  We break them down.  Our body thinks, “Hey, that was hard.  If it happens again, I better be prepared.”  So it builds up the muscle (and energy supply to the muscles) in order to minimize the damage next time.  It’s trying to build up a defense to the anticipated stress.  The same goes for building bone density.  If we are sedentary and don’t place any stress on our skeletal system, our bones become weak and fragile.  We’re much more susceptible to breaks.  But with exercise, especially resistance training or impact training (like running and jumping), our bones are reinforced to take the stress.  We are better prepared to handle a fall or trauma.

Vaccines work in a similar way.  They expose us to a manageable dose of the disease and allow our bodies to build up the proper immunity.  So the right kind of stress can be a very good thing.

Our bodies are designed to handle a certain amount of stress.  We actually thrive under the right amount.  Expose ourselves to stress, then let the body recover (rebuild), then expose it to more stress, then recover. This is how we become stronger and more resilient.  Stress is important, but so is recovery.  The problem many people run into is they pound away with the stress, but never allow for recovery.  In my opinion, this concept is a major contributor to injury and chronic disease.

When it comes to our health, we must look at the total stress our bodies are experiencing.  We each have a point at which our recovery process can’t keep up with the stress load: a tipping point.  This is when our body says “enough is enough.”  A common symptom of this would be getting sick – especially upper respiratory tract infections like the common cold.  We are exposed to the cold virus all the time.  But how come we don’t get sick each time?  When our body and immune system are healthy, we defend it like we do so many other viruses and bacteria.  But if we’re in a weakened state, we’re much more prone to experience all those annoying symptoms.

So how do we avoid this tipping point?

As much as we try, we can’t control all stress.  But we do have control over a lot of aspects of our health – exercise, sleep, nutrition, hydration.  Take care of these the best you can.  Exercise (or move) consistently.  This doesn’t mean you need to go hard seven days a week – in fact, that will put you in an overstressed state.  Get to sleep at a reasonable time.  Stay hydrated (one of the simplest, yet most-overlooked strategies).  Eat quality food.  Do 5-10 minutes of deep breathing or meditation during the day to relax.

When you notice you’re feeling fatigued and sluggish, take that as a warning sign that your body may need some extra rest.  If cold symptoms “come out of nowhere,” you probably weren’t listening to your body very well.  Usually there are days leading up when you’ll start to feel something.  Take heed and get some extra rest.  If your workout performance is noticeably weak, take a light day or two and see if you’re feeling stronger after that.  If you had a crazy weekend of drinking, eating junk and staying up until 4am, don’t try to set a personal squat record Monday.  Go for a relaxing walk or hike.  Stay active, but go easier on your body.

Our individual state of stress will be constantly fluctuating.  You will never find a perfect balance.  That’s okay.  As mentioned earlier, our bodies are designed to adapt.  But if you notice one area of your life is getting out of control, do what you can to fix it.  And consider making adjustments in other areas to keep your total stress to a manageable level.  And laugh. That always helps.