I’m going to start this by stating that stress is a normal and sometimes necessary and desired consequence of life. For instance, physical exercise creates a state of self-induced muscular and cardiovascular stress that, with proper nutrition and recovery, enhances the strength and health of the body and mind.
Take progressive resistance training with a barbell. If you are able to lift and press sixty pounds above your head ten times this week and, before your next workout, you add another ten pounds to the bar, the additional weight will increase the stress upon your body, particularly the muscles of your shoulders, chest and back, and, because of the added weight (stress), you may only be able to press the barbell above your head eight times. Yet, with adequate rest and nutrition (recovery) and practice (regular training) you will ultimately succeed in pressing the barbell ten times, at which point more weight should be added to the bar, to progress the resistance; progressive resistance is one of the oldest forms of strength training. Your progression includes creating greater resistance, and that resistance may be equated to stress. Yet, there is a factor here that is often overlooked and misunderstood: If you trained every day, using the same exercises and the same muscle groups, working until muscular failure (the inability to perform another repetition) without adequate recovery, your body would enter a catabolic state (breaking down), becoming weaker as blood sugar supplies diminish and muscle tissue is consumed as a source of energy; in other words: your body would be eating itself up, losing muscle, becoming exhausted and finally falling prey to injury and disease. More is not better.
The key to all stress, whether that stress is physical or psychological, is management and recovery.
It is not stress that injures or kills us; it is our inability to understand and deal with it.
All stress, whether intentional as in weight training or intense exercise, or unintentional as in a life crisis, triggers the ‘fight, flight, freeze,’ response — preparing the body to either fight or run from the situation, and in some cases when the stress or fear is totally overwhelming, the brain triggers the body to freeze, like a deer in the headlights.
During the fight or flight phase — when the body prepares to fight a perceived threat or run from it — the hypothalamus region of the brain signals the adrenal glands to release hormones: adrenaline to increase the heart rate and divert blood and oxygen to the muscles in preparation for action, norepinephrine (similar in action to adrenaline) to increase awareness, focus and responsiveness and cortisol to signal the liver to release glucose (blood sugar) and increase energy levels while suppressing the immune system. This is our survival mechanism; it is the way our system is supposed to work.
Problem is, too much stress, physical or mental, sustained over a long period of time — WITHOUT RECOVERY — results in the body remaining on ‘high alert’, either in or on the cusp of fight or flight. In this state of prolonged preparedness — CHRONIC STRESS — adrenaline sporadically surges, elevating heart rate and blood pressure while cortisol encourages higher blood sugar, often causing weight gain, while suppressing the immune system, making us susceptible to illness and disease. If glucose is not available, cortisol turns to other sources, catabolizing, or eating muscle tissue for energy. When action or resolve does not come and fear and anxiety continue, hormonal imbalances escalate as testosterone supplies diminish and cortisol levels rise even higher, causing excessive inflammation while breaking down both body (catabolism) and mind.
No one avoids stress over the course of a lifetime. There is the inevitable drama and tragedy, illness and bereavement, good times and not so good. That’s life. Tears are a form of stress relief, as is laughter, exercise, music, meditation, conscious breathing, and intimate contact, among many other things.
Again. It is not stress that kills us; stress is inevitable… It is the way we deal with it that affects our lives.
In order to become stronger, stress is necessary, whether that stress is physical or psychological. The body and mind must continually face and resolve stressful issues in varying degrees, whether in the weight room or the boardroom; and provided that the stress is not totally overwhelming (freeze response), and resolution, rest and recovery follows, both body and mind will become stronger.
Exercise of any kind, mental (game of poker or chess) or physical, is a form of stress, and the art and science of exercise is to find and control the balance between stress and recovery.
In other words, we want to spend more time relaxing than running from the tiger or worrying about the shark in the water. This means more time in the parasympathetic (rest and digest) than in the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system.
Wellness is a balancing act, and the key to this balance is the conscious control of the central nervous system, and one of the keys to that control is … conscious breathing.
Conscious breathing may begin with the simple seated exercise of breathing quietly and slowly through the nose while counting breaths. Feeling the cool air enter and the warm air exit. Be patient. Start with 7 breaths in one sitting — counting each complete inhalation/exhalation as 1 complete breath — then progress to 11 breaths; only after you have remained mindful during the 7 — followed by 21 breaths, practicing towards 108 conscious breaths. This exercise, repeated over time, will foster an awareness of breath during day-to-day activities, like walking or driving a car, and re-train the body to use nose breathing, which originates naturally in the belly and employs the diaphragm.
Repetition makes the master.