Just the word itself makes your heart race, temperature rise, and breath quicken.
The reality is, we live in a world full of it. And if you’re a Type A personality like me, you probably have a tendency to insert yourself into situations where you're guaranteed to have a lot of it.
But not all stress is bad. Some of it is actually necessary and beneficial. Without stress, you can’t grow – physically or mentally. The trouble is that most of us aren’t taught to determine or even notice the difference between the good and the bad stress.
Cultivating a mindset that distinguishes between the kind of stress needed for growth and the kind of stress hindering your growth is crucial for your success…not to mention your health and happiness. This is what allows you to get results. This is what allows you to nurture your body into transformation…versus abuse it while you force change.
So, how can you use the right kind of stress to skyrocket your success? First, you have to be able to distinguish between the two kinds.
This is what most of us workaholic over-achievers are walking around with. Constantly. At least, that used to be the case with me…and admittedly still is from time to time. This is the “no-matter-what-I-do-it’s-never-enough” stress. These are the demons that say:
If I can just cross this one more task off my list (even though you’ve already done more than expected for the day)…
If I can just squeeze in one more class (even though you're exhausted)…
If I can just make myself suffer through a little more (even though you're in excruciating pain)…
If I can just work a little harder (even though you're already killing yourself, trying so hard to do things “right” and please everyone)...
This is the stress where no matter how much you do…there is always more to be done. You think relief will come if you can just accomplish one more task, but it never does because you immediately move onto the next one. Once you hit "play" to start your day, you don't stop attacking your list of obligations (often in a worried, panicked, anxious, adrenaline-rushed, hyper-focused, strained manner) until your head hits the pillow at night.
Sure, you can get a lot done this way. Sure, it might look like you are super productive, and you probably can even fool yourself into thinking you’re hardcore, wearing your stress and exhaustion as a badge of honor. And because you are running on adrenaline and accomplishing so much, you might not even be aware of the harmful effects manifesting inside your body due to this chronic stress. What's even worse, the very problems you are trying to fix (weight gain, lack of progress, feeling stuck & hopeless) with your stressed-out workaholic efforts are actually exacerbated by this type of stress.
While it can make you feel productive, the destruction that this bad stress creates is far worse than the benefits. Not only does this kind of stress cause emotional harm by encouraging this "never enough" mindset, but it creates actual physical harm. You stop listening to your body and push it out of disregard. Besides the obvious risk of injuries, this bad stress throws your hormones all out of whack, keeping you in a prolonged low-grade fight-or-flight response.
What happens when you have an unhealthy hormonal state? Unbalanced hormones can disrupt so much of your life, affecting everything from your mood, to your body’s inability to lose fat, to making you more susceptible to injuries & illness, to decreasing your mental clarity, to inhibiting muscle growth & strength, to decreased athletic performance, to sleep disruptions, to a decline in overall health as long-term disease sets in. Sounds fun, right?
This is the stuff that actually gets you results. This can be considered a catalyst for change – the stimulus to adapt and become stronger, smarter, healthier.
Good stress is strategic and comes with intent. You have to know WHY you are challenging your body and mind...and what kind of outcome that challenge will create in your system. The quality of stress and the duration it is implemented are important factors. You want to spike your system with quality stress for a short period of time…but then allow your body to reset and balance it’s hormones afterwards.
How does this look in real life? Let’s look at two examples of how to recognize bad stress and utilize good stress to achieve your goals:
Bad stress is starving yourself in your desire to get thin. You restrict your intake and suffer through a lot of pain & emotional distress. Sure, you might get thinner. But haphazardly depriving your body of necessary nutrients, while making you lighter on the scale, also brings a lot of other undesirable outcomes – cannibalized muscle & organ tissues, mental fogginess, decreased dance performance, loss of artistic inspiration, hormonal disruption, and more. In short, your intentions are destructive. You're willing to do whatever it takes to see that number on the scale go down, including destroy your body. This stress creates change…but a negative change that you can feel (if you pay attention enough) slowly killing your body.
Good stress involves eating in a way that creates changes in your body without sacrificing your health and happiness along the way. This involves a strategic way of nourishing your body with foods that teach it to burn fat instead of sugar in order to get leaner. While this good stress may still be difficult at times, the overarching intent feels positive. Instead of harshly depleting and depriving your body of nutrients to subject it to your will, you retrain it to become a leaner version of itself through nourishment. The transformation that comes from good stress feels powerful as opposed to destructive.
Think in terms of strategic stress – stressing your body in a way that stimulates it to switch over to fat burning mode…instead of panicked starvation mode. These two modes feel very different and impact your health (both mentally and physically) very differently too. The key lies in knowing which foods to eat and the timing of when to eat those foods….as opposed to just cutting back on calories and trying to endure as much hunger as possible.
Bad stress is beating your body into a pulp thinking the more pain you can endure, the more you will be rewarded for your efforts. This involves the demons that say: I must work out every single day (even if I’m exhausted and notice my performance declining)… Bad stress is that daunting feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you wake up knowing you have a brutal exercise routine to get through day after day. You feel anxious until you can get it done and cross it off your list. But then the next day you have to put yourself through it all over again. This kind of exercise feels destructive and leaves you depleted. Plus, this prolonged low-grade stress, although it wipes you out, doesn't carry the power to make a positive impact on body transformation.
Good stress involves quality over quantity. It's realizing that the exercise itself is not as important as how effectively your body can recover from that exercise. If you dig yourself into too big of a hole with your workouts, exhausting yourself beyond repair, you never reap the benefits of the workout. Good stress is exercising with quality movement intended to create a specific change in your body. (Big difference from beating yourself into a pulp for the sake of exhausting yourself). Good stress is also short in duration - you have to let yourself recover from the stress in order to spike it again.
Instead of this mindset around workouts:
- I have to do this/cross this exercise off my list to feel good about myself.
Try this instead:
- I want to challenge my body with quality stress and specific movements designed to stimulate this (strength, stamina, function, health, etc.) particular response.
To give you a glimpse into my cross-training schedule, I only work out one or two days per week. That's when I go hard and push my body with calculated training, usually with the intent on enhancing strength. The rest of the week, I focus on active recovery, trying to minimize the bad stress that I accumulate as a natural part of hustling in life. This involves listening to my body and giving it what it needs in the moment, whether it's stretching, breath work, meditation, yoga, tai chi, getting out in nature, and just moving to feel good. None of these things are forced or done with the intent of "exercising" but with the intent of healing. Balancing my hormones. Calming my body & mind. It's a very different relationship to exercise than I used to have. Not only is it healthier, but it's ironically more effective for leveling up, too.
Eliminating bad stress isn’t an excuse not to try hard and push yourself to your next level. It’s not a ticket to Lazy Land. If anything you will have to work harder to be aware of the kinds of good stress that will really benefit you…while preventing yourself from wasting your energy and mental focus on the bad stress that will stall your success.
Do you find yourself consumed by bad stress? What are some ways you can start to change that into good stress?
Photo credit: Estilo Antunes