“Epidemics are a stress test for a system…the issue is how much resilience is built into those systems.”
– Dr. Michael J. Ryan, WHO Informal Advisory Group
Stress test, to me, takes me back to my late childhood. “Your dad is going in for a stress test,” my mom told me, “they want to make sure his heart is healthy.”
Could be kind of scary right? Why the heck would your dad need to do a stress test? Is he going to have a heart attack?
Well here’s the thing, a stress test puts STRESS on the vascular system to see how much strain the heart can handle and if anything is susceptible of failing when a high level of stress is placed on it.
Typically, it’s an exercise stress test. Get on a treadmill and start ramping things up so you breathe harder and see how the blood pressure changes, what your sinus rhythm looks like and if any irregularities are noticed.
Okay, so let’s bring this all to our situation right now. Not only is our health system being put through a stress test: seeing how much it can handle with us doing our part to make sure it isn’t overwhelmed; WE too are being put through a stress test during this pandemic.
Economic impacts, unemployment, homeschooling, anxiety about going out in public, the list could go on and on.
It can truly be overwhelming at times. And it’s hard for anyone to say they haven’t had a day, or many during this Pandemic, where they felt almost crushed by those feelings.
But I am here to tell you, there is hope. We are a resilient species, often way more resilient that we give ourselves credit for. We just have to build that resiliency up. Sitting dormant does nothing but make things worse.
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Marcus Aurelius
Stress: What the heck is it?
“Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Stress is a normal part of life. You can experience stress from your environment, your body, and your thoughts.” 1
This is straight out of a google search for “what is stress?” But here’s the thing we often fail to understand, stress isn’t all BAD. In fact, stress is anything that causes the body to have to adjust it’s balance, let’s call it homeostasis, just for fun 🙂
Because here’s the thing about that definition that people will often overlook because we don’t like to read anymore (some of us) and we don’t usually read the whole thing, just what we want to see.
Here’s the last bit of that statement on stress, “Even positive life changes such as a promotion, a mortgage, or the birth of a child produce stress.” 1
So stress causes a shift in balance, let’s call that allostatic load (again, just for funzies), and forces the body to adjust and ultimately become more or less resilient against that stress, creating a new and different balance (homeostasis).
I want to stop here for a second and clarify something. For the purpose of our discussion today:
Stress = Load
To me, this makes the word seem less overwhelming and maybe less negative. And it will be helpful later on.
Now, to simplify, there are two types of stresses per Dr. Hans Selye, distress and eustress.
Distress is bad stress and what we typically associate with the word “stress.”
However, eustress is good stress: positive changes that will disrupt homeostasis and force you to adapt.
Distress = Bad Load
Eustress = Good Load
So the question becomes, “how do I get more eustress and less distress?”
And the answer is, you work for it!
Creating Load in Training
We talk frequently in the strength world about progressive overload. Put simply, develop a process of continually increasing load on the human system with enough time to adapt and regenerate between and you will build a stronger system (that’s harder to kill!).
So basically, when you train in this fashion, you are STRESSING your body every time you go through a workout.
And, if you do it right, you create a sense of euphoria and pleasure afterwards. You have accomplished something, “you just got better.”
Euphoria, Eustress, see a pattern? It’s all good baby 🙂
Okay, so training the body is not only pleasurable but causes a positive stress on said body.
What is even more fascinating about stress created in this way is that the body has to adjust. Homeostasis changes and the body’s capability to handle stress, assuming it is being administered on a regular basis, must increase.
Think about it this way: recall the last time you started a new training routine.
The first workout was HARD, you were exhausted, everything was sore almost immediately. And the next day, F*CK, you can barely get out of bed and the toilet seat looks like it’s resting on the floor, “how the heck are you going to get down there!?!”
However, you keep going and each session is a little easier. And you are still sore but sooner after the workout and not quite as long anymore.
Your body is adapting to allostatic load, or stress, you are putting on it. It’s creating a new balance or homeostasis. A better balance! A STRONGER balance!
Making you harder to kill
I would like to believe that if you are still reading you are pretty intelligent and can see where I am going here.
Even so, I want to lay it out just so we are crystal clear.
How does training help me cope with the distress in my life and maybe make me less susceptible to contracting something like COVID-19 OR be better prepared to handle the stress of it?
ie. Harder to kill!
Robert Sapolsky has done immense research on stress and how it impacts the human body. However, his research covers more than just our species.
“All vertebrates respond to stressful situations by releasing hormones, such as adrenalin and glucocorticoids, which instantaneously increase the animal’s heart rate and energy level…The stress response is incredibly ancient evolutionarily.” 2
So basically, we respond to stress the same as any other vertebrate, and that hasn’t changed since we became humans. More importantly, the response we have is the same for ALL stress, both good and bad.
Therefore, one could make the argument that if one causes intentional eustress to the body, say through training, and allows the body time to respond and adjust homeostasis, it will become more resilient to ANY distress that life or family or a Pandemic throws at it.
There is however, one catch. To continually create a greater and greater resilience to stress on the body, however it originally manifests, one needs to continually stress the body.
To illustrate, let’s go back to that new training routine example again.
Now you are 6 weeks into your new program. You have been super consistent, crushing the workouts every time. But, it’s starting to feel stale, boring AND you aren’t sore at all, nor are you seeing results.
What do you do?
If you are like most people I know, you are going to add something more to make it hard again!
And honestly, that is a good approach, when done intelligently.
This is when a good strength coach or personal trainer comes in. Too much stress from training can have the same negative effects that too much stress from life can have. There is a balance and maintaining that is critical for your resiliency.
Basically, we need to create load to force our body to fight against it but not so much that we try to run away. A good coach will help you push yourself further than you often would and hold you back when you are trying to go too far.
It’s all about finding balance: challenge, adapt and evolve.
Bringing it all back together
Now that you have an understanding that YOU are the only one truly in control of how you handle stress in your life, what are some simple takeaways as you start to build your resiliency and make yourself harder to kill?
- Adjust your training program every 3-6 weeks. Any program will go stagnant sometime in this window for almost all individuals. There are VERY few exceptions and it’s not likely you are one, sorry.
- When you train, focus on nasal breathing. It will demonstrate to your nervous system that you can handle the stress you are throwing at it. Breathe in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth. If you are sucking wind and can only breathe in through your mouth, stop and rest until you can gain back control. Overly simplified: Nasal breathing = fight Mouth breathing = flight. We want you to fight, not fly away!
- Do some sort of reflection. Some like journaling, some like meditation, some like talking to themselves in the car (me!). This will help you understand better how you are coping with the stress that is sometimes out of your control. As you create more intentional stress in your life, you should start to recognize a shift in how you respond to uncontrolled stress.
Folks, here’s the deal. The approach our health care system takes is one of reactiveness. But that is NOT your system. You have control and you have the ability to be proactive and create a more resilient system, YOUR BODY!
One that is challenged regularly through training load, forced to adapt and evolve to a better version of you capable of handling anything thrown it’s way.
Strive for this and you will truly be harder to kill 🙂
References Cleveland Clinic. Stress. Cleveland Clinic Medical Professionals, Feb. 5th, 2015, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress Shwartz, Mark. Stanford Report. Robert Sapolsky discusses physiological effects of stress, Stanford News, March 7th, 2007, https://news.stanford.edu/news/2007/march7/sapolskysr-030707.html