No one likes the feeling of being too stressed. It leads us to react in ways we are often not proud of, it damages our relationships, and leads us to make poor decisions.
Whether we like it or not, though, stress is a part of all our lives.
Conventional wisdom says that stress is bad for us. Conventional wisdom is often wrong.
Without stress we do not grow, we don’t improve, and we don’t achieve anything. Really, stress is a critical ingredient to being successful.
Our issues with stress really are twofold:
The amount of stress we have is simply too much at times.
Our recovery strategies to balance out the stress ranges from subpar to pathetic.
What Too Much Stress Looks Like In Athletics & Beyond
Physical stress and mental stress feel different, but cause a similar set of problems for us.
Physical stress results from too much exercise, repetitive exercise, or going too far beyond your current abilities in a short period of time. It can also come from injury or illness.
Mental stress comes from a variety of sources – academics, work, relationships, fear of upcoming events, and so on.
Too much physical stress is more commonly referred to as overtraining. It’s signs are injury, deep fatigue that can’t be resolved within a day or two, illness, and lowered performance.
Not surprisingly, mental ‘overtraining’ can lead to the exact same symptoms. The mind and the body respond quite similarly when taxed to their limits.
It is also important to know that stress in one area can affect others. As an example, if you are stressed from school, work, or social issues it is going to lower your ability to perform physical tasks. And vice versa.
In our world of fitness and athletic performance we see a common case of overtraining – the person who sees gains from their workouts and then cannot shut off their desire for more exercise. It becomes harder to rest than it does to work out, so they continue down this overtraining path for months or even years before finally burning out completely.
How Too Little Stress Can Be Damaging
The area many of us slip into, often without realizing it, is the zone where we place upon ourselves too little stress in pursuit of our goals.
The book “Peak Performance”, by Brad Stulberg and Christopher Lane, gives an example of how this works. They use the example of a basketball player who learns to dribble with each hand. Today most if not all NBA players can do this, but 50 years ago even the best ball handlers almost exclusively dribbled with their dominant hand only.
Today’s elite players go through the challenging steps of practicing, failing, and practicing more until they can get the skill to work on autopilot. Stulberg and Lane refer to this as System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 is autopilot, System 2 is where everything is still hard and forced. In other words, System 2 is where practicing the skill is stressful
System 2 is where most of us give up and say ‘This is impossible!’ or ‘I’m just not good enough.’
But the rare few who can handle the stress of working outside of their comfort zone are the ones who go on to thrive in their chosen area of practice.
Skills come from struggle.
Without the struggle, we don’t become more than what most people can do naturally. You never separate yourself.
It is the stress you go through and overcome that will make you elite. But that will never happen if you live a life with too little stress in the areas you truly want to succeed in. Getting faster, getting an A in math, being skilled enough to get that promotion, they all come from your ability to withstand stress and struggle.
Your Real Enemy: Poor Rest Strategies
The best athletes in the world take their rest time as seriously as their training time.
They know how to use light exercise days to increase their results.
They have detailed rituals to help them relax and de-stress.
And that is why when it comes time to push as hard as they can, they do so over a long period of time with great success.
Why does rest matter? For athletes it is when your body can adapt and make you better. Repair and regrowth cannot happen in a constant state of elevated stress, it can only happen during prolonged periods of rest.
Rest is just as critical for mental stress. People who work endlessly need powerful strategies to rest and recover to sustain themselves for the long run.
Here are a few key tips, taken from the book “Peak Performance” to improve your rest strategies:
Sleep is the #1 recovery strategy. All elite athletes take sleep time seriously, and no athlete can sustain elevated success for long without it. Those who are very active may need 10 hours of sleep per day, but for most of us 7-9 is best.
Taking a little bit of whey protein, about 15-20 grams, before bed time enhances protein synthesis and speeds up recovery.
Positive social interaction does wonders for stress relief. Read “Peak Performance” for more specifics, but essentially stuff happens at the chemical level inside you when a fun, relaxing social event occurs that can be huge for your recovery.
Those who get stressed out before games, tests, and other big events should begin to re-frame these events more as challenges. Don’t fight the fear and nervousness inside you, because it saps your energy. Instead acknowledge that these feelings are perfectly normal (which they are) and use it as a fuel to help you succeed. See stress as a positive sign that you are about to improve, not a negative feeling to avoid.
In addition to that mindset shift, develop a pre-game or pre-event routine that is exactly the same every time you perform. Simple things like light exercise, meditation, stretching, and specific meals can give your mind some consistency which makes the stressful event seem much less daunting over time.
If you are prone to avoiding rest because you are addicted to work or exercise, reframe rest as ‘recovery training’. Stay mindful of the fact that rest now fuels greater success later. Rest is not a passive event.
The type of rest you take is key. Scanning the internet or social media does not dial down your stress levels at all, but taking a walk absolutely does. Especially if you get outside in a peaceful setting. Surprisingly, a brisk walk stimulates your creative mind and often times is when people stuck on a work/school task have breakthrough moments that save them tons of time later on.
You can handle more stress if you have a sense of purpose to what you do. You’ll push farther than you would for yourself if you can relate your stress to a bigger cause. A team goal, doing something for someone else, etc. Find a purpose beyond yourself and the same amount of stress won’t seem as overwhelming.
Stress + Rest = Growth
Certainly there are situations where stress has a profoundly negative impact on our lives – poor health for yourself or a loved one as one example – but in the vast majority of cases the level of stress we deal with is not our biggest issue.
One is the TYPE of stress. Is the stress you deal with leading to a destination you wish to arrive at? If so, you’ll be able to handle more than you ever thought possible.
Do you have powerful recovery strategies in place? If not, you are letting a lower amount of stress put you into the burnout category at a level far below the potential you know you have inside of you.
Remember the biggest differences between the elite in all fields and everyone else are the elite rest better than everyone else, and they dial their stresses in to their long-term goals. Get those two things right, and the amount of stress you can handle will multiply.