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Healthy Stress — Is It A Myth Or Can You Use It To Your Advantage?

Does healthy stress really exist? Find out.

What is healthy stress, how is it caused and what does it mean?

Is any stress good stress?  

Nowadays, the word stress tends only to have negative connotations. It’s blamed for everything from poor health and vitamin deficiency to a lack of job satisfaction. Pop culture dictates that everybody everywhere has far too much stress in their lives, and it’s marching us all towards early graves. 

This perspective is drastically oversimplified.

Too much stress, like too much of anything, is admittedly unhealthy for us. However, stress is also our body’s natural response to certain conditions or stimuli. Without it, we likely wouldn’t get much done, and we’d lose many of the valuable instincts that keep us going under pressure. 

Not convinced? Let’s look at a few basic questions about stress and its role in our lives.

The Fundamentals Of Stress

We talk endlessly about stress. But do we actually understand it? 

Stress, above all, is a coping mechanism. It’s a natural bodily response that occurs when we are under pressure. It affects everyone a little differently depending on various subjective factors, such as heredity, trauma, or socioeconomic issues. 

When we experience pressure, whether it’s life-threatening or relatively mundane, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activates our ‘fight or flight’ response. This involves the release of various stress hormones, with cortisol being the most well-known

The Stress Effect

The purpose of stress is to give us a boost in situations where we need to function at our fastest and most efficient. From an evolutionary standpoint, stress, alongside the fight-or-flight response, developed so that we could either outrun predators or fend them off without thinking about it. It allowed us to react instinctively and immediately to ensure our survival. 

crossfit pull ups healthy stress

When the SNS puts us into fight-or-flight mode, a few fundamental bodily changes occur extremely fast. 

Our heart rate and breathing speed up to circulate more oxygen to the body, our muscles tense up, pupils dilate, and ‘non-essential’ bodily systems shut down temporarily to divert resources to the muscular and sensory systems. This is why your mouth dries up and your stomach feels like it’s tied in a knot. Your digestive system—which includes the mouth—is redirecting blood and oxygen to your muscles and brain. 

Now, while the likelihood of confronting a dangerous carnivore on your daily commute is obsolete, unlike it was a few millennia ago, this response still has several benefits. 

When Does Stress Help Us?

To answer this question, we must look at the Yerkes-Dodson bell curve

If you’re unfamiliar with this graph, picture a symmetrical, upside-down U shape. The height of the curve represents your performance, while the width of the curve represents your stress levels. At the start of the curve, both your stress levels and your performance are low. You’re relaxed, your body is maintaining a healthy internal environment, and you’re certainly not ready for any demanding tasks.

As the curve rises, your stress levels rise, along with your performance. This is your SNS kicking in, priming your body and brain for survival. Now, this state of elevation has other uses than fighting or running for your life. 

female runner sprints to build enduranceSource: Courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

It also varies in intensity, and this is what the Yerkes-Dodson curve tries to illustrate. When we approach the top of the curve, we achieve a state of optimal performance where our heart rate increases slightly, our senses become a bit sharper, we feel energised, clear-headed, and motivated. This is a healthy amount of stress that many of us rely on to achieve challenging goals. 

Are you trying to train for that 21km run coming up in a few months? Can you lift more today than you did last week? Are you trying to hit your PB in a WOD? These situations put us under pressure, but comparatively small amounts that hopefully won’t cause an overload of stress hormones. 

How Much Stress Is Too Much?

Continuing our journey along the Yerkes-Dodson bell curve, we start to dip again. Our stress levels are still increasing, but our performance is beginning to fall. This is the state of being that most people think about when they hear the word ‘stress’. We begin to feel uncomfortable, extremely anxious, we can’t think coherently, we start to sweat, tremble, we become irritable, and our bodies start to take strain. 

This is where stress begins to enter dangerous territory. 

Our bodies cannot sustain high levels of elevation indefinitely. The nature of the body’s stress response aligns with temporary demanding situations and it’s not meant to last for too long. Eventually, we must return to a relaxed state so our bodies can continue performing tasks that keep us going in the long run, like digestion and waste management. 

When we start to approach this end of the bell curve, it’s important to rest. The body needs to replenish it’s now depleted stores of energy and adrenalin; a process that requires sleep, food, water, and safety. If you continue to push past these natural limits, your body will eventually protest in the form of muscular pain, high levels of anxiety, extreme fatigue, and more. 

Rethinking Stress

As a species, we might benefit from a reevaluation of the way we think about stress. While it’s true that too much stress is not pleasant or healthy, no stress at all is even worse. Think about all of your achievements. Getting to where you want to be in life takes hard work and commitment. 

It requires us to push past our comfort zones and utilise our potential. Without our bodies kicking into overdrive once in a while, we would likely never achieve anything that requires more than minimal effort. 

The key is to recognise and respect the balance. 

There are plenty of reasons to be grateful for the stress response, as long as we manage it carefully and take time out to rest and replenish our reserves when necessary. If you’re unsure about how to get back from the brink of exhaustion and back to optimal performance, take a look at what lifestyle factors might be draining you. Exercise, eating habits and sleep all play pivotal roles in the amount of pressure we feel. 

Realising what level of stress helps you to achieve your goals versus those bordering on dangerous is a great step towards making stress work for you. So, the answer to whether healthy stress is a myth is no. But you need to know the psychology behind it to keep it on the healthy side.

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