Stress is Not the Enemy
"Stress gets a bad rap. We try to minimize stress all throughout our lives, relationships, and jobs. When something doesn’t go our way, it stresses us out. We avoid having difficult conversations. We set the bar lower than we are capable for fear of failure. We rationalize the easy way out. We settle for 'good enough.'"
Stress gets a bad rap. We try to minimize stress all throughout our lives, relationships, and jobs. When something doesn’t go our way, it stresses us out. We avoid having difficult conversations. We set the bar lower than we are capable for fear of failure. We rationalize the easy way out. We settle for “good enough.” Few of us will ever reach our potential because we’re too busy avoiding stress. It’s that nagging thought that a dream is too far-fetched, too difficult, too time consuming... whatever. We all have plenty of reasons, why not. Our natural inclination to avoid stress is our body protecting itself.
At the same time, uncomfortable situations stretch and challenge us such that we usually emerge from them stronger and more resilient. If you want to run faster, speed work and strength training are the ticket. If you want a bigger bicep, you’ll lift heavier and literally tear down that muscle before your body rebuilds itself stronger. If you want to be a better stand-up presenter, you won’t get there merely watching other presenters; no, you’ll have to take the stage yourself, no matter how terrifying that may be. If you’ve fought a serious illness, you’ll probably emerge from that with a renewed passion for what’s important. If you’ve jumped in the water with three-thousand people, and at the end of the day—140.6 miles later—Mike Reilly says you’re an Ironman, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Stress makes us better. The harder the fight, the sweeter the victory, right?
Without stress, we do not improve. Your bicep won’t grow if you lay in bed and eat bon bons all day (although that would be cool, wouldn’t it?) Sustainable change occurs when we are challenged in manageable doses. If we stress the bicep day in and day out, and never give it the rest or nutrition it needs to repair, we are likely to injure it. Imagine applying this same principle to other areas of your life. You’re shooting for micro tears, not trying to rip tendons off the bone.
Stress, without rest, is a different story. Chronic stress has an undisputed negative impact on our immune system, longevity, and overall health. According to the Heart MD Institute, you can literally die from stress. While there are numerous mindset techniques to help you combat stress, it’s not purely in your head; stress has a physiological impact on your body, affecting your hormones (especially cortisol levels), heart rate, breathing, blood sugar, inflammation, and much more.
Constant stress in any dimension—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual—without rest, is non-productive stress. This is why we take vacations from work: because no matter how much you love your job, there’s huge benefit to unplugging. This is why even professional athletes take rest days, or have an off-season. Neither the body nor the mind have endless energy to perform at the highest level constantly.
Often, the main difference between the good stress that makes us better and the bad stress that wears us down is recovery, or the lack thereof.
Are You Overtraining?
Enter the dreaded trap of overtraining: and I don’t mean purely physical overtraining, but mental, emotional, and spiritual too. When we want something so bad, we turn a blind eye to stress. With a big race or an important business meeting around the corner, we work longer and harder than normal. We tell ourselves, after this event, or this milestone, or this promotion, we’ll take a break. Perhaps we stress ourselves incredibly hard mentally and emotionally, and not at all physically or purposefully. It’s like saying, “after this [quarter-end, marathon, project, ________, things will slow down and I’ll have time to [spend time with my family, get healthy, go back to school, __________ ]”—over and over again until we die. Is that really how you want to live?
Sure, it’s normal for high performers to continually move the finish line even after they cross it—isn’t that the very definition of success? Continuous improvement means better, faster, stronger. And that’s all good—until it breaks you. The key is seeing the breaking points before you get to them. Before you’re burnt out and hate your job. Before you have severe tendinitis. Before your family resents your 15-hour training weeks.
Following are some ways to recover from stress and invest in areas that bring you joy. Again, the key is to implement these daily or on a regular basis—not solely when you’re at a breaking point. By making recovery a habit, you will see greater benefit from training stress, and keep chronic stress away.
Many people (not triathletes, of course) undertrain in the physical dimension. At the same time, movement often helps us recover from mental and emotional stress. In any case, recovery strategies like these can help us make gains from workouts or unwind after a very long day:
- Soft tissue work: foam rolling, massage, stretching
- Epsom salt bath (try essential oils; and avoid fragrance and perfume chemicals)
- Plant protein shake (my favorite is F2C Nutrition Vegan Pure)
- Organic juice or vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables (cold pressed carrots, orange juice, pineapple, and fresh ginger is a great anti-inflammatory blend!)
- Sleep!!! You literally can’t go wrong here.
- Take a break from your fitness watch (oh, the horror...)
Mental and Emotional Stress
- Box breathing (I first learned of this from Mark Divine’s book, Unbeatable Mind—game changer)
- Movement that is fun (not “training”)
- Get out in nature
- Designated no screen-time
Investing in Spiritual (Purpose)
- Most people under-train—not overtrain—in the Spiritual dimension; reconnecting with your purpose is tremendous recovery if you’re taxed mentally, emotionally or physically.
- Connect with friends or loved ones
- Read scripture or values-based texts
- Volunteer in your community
- Practice gratitude (journal, thank you notes)
- Random acts of kindness
- Create a vision board
Habits and Rituals
Add to this list any strategies that you connect with and you have a go-to menu of activities to get your heart, mind and body in the right place. In order for a new behavior to become a habit, of course, you’ll have to work at it. For maximum impact, think about how these techniques might fit into your daily rituals.
A ritual is a sequence of actions you complete the same way repeatedly. Rituals are often performed at a certain time of day, like drinking a glass of water each morning when you wake up, or going to bed at the same time each night. Many professional athletes follow the exact same protocol each day, on race morning, or after their hardest efforts. You might design a special routine for rest day, so that it is celebrated rather than dreaded.
Success is not an accident. Habits and routines are the key to accomplishing all kinds of goals for good reason.
The Long Game
To quote ultra-athlete and author Rich Roll, “Most people over-estimate what they can achieve in a year, but wildly under-estimate what they can accomplish in a decade. So stop looking for short-cuts. Embrace the journey. And play the long game.”
What’s your long game? What do you imagine life will be like when you are old—if you are fortunate enough to live that long? Are the habits you have today aligned with the dreams you have for tomorrow? If not, where is the disconnect? Start there. Start somewhere. Even if it is a very small step. Over time, your small wins have a multiplier effect.
Written By: Sarah Vita, Tri Sirena Siren Luminary
Follow Sarah on Instagram @sarahvita316
How do you deal with stress? Let us know in the comments below!