By Dr. Jeremy Girmann
This month’s column will be based on a question from Performance Press reader, Alex:
“Will stress kill my gains?”
Stress equals elevation of cortisol, which equals less muscle, more fat, and potential for getting sick, right? Not necessarily. First, we should recognize that there are different forms of stress. Mental stress might be experienced when taking an exam or working on a difficult project at the office (or writing a column for a bodybuilding magazine…). Physical stress would be experienced during a long day of yard work or during an intense workout. Psychological/emotional stress could be experienced when a boss gets upset, relationship troubles are experienced, or when a loved one becomes ill.
Despite the form, there are two factors that determine whether stressors benefit or harm us: duration and perception of the stress.
Let’s consider duration.
We are wired to be fearful and vigilant creatures, and historically, this served us well. It allowed for our survival. Imagine venturing through a forest before the age of cities and suburbs. We had to be ever watchful of our surroundings, looking and listening for potential predators. Occasionally we would come across a bear, or leopard, or something else with a mouth full of sharp teeth…
This encounter was likely to invoke fear, and for good reason. Our limbic system, a primitive brain center, would ignite a fight or flight response that would prepare the mind and body to get the heck away from the imminent danger.
Let’s consider another example. When we exercise, we subject our bodies to physical stress. Muscle tissue is traumatized, lactic acid accumulates, cortisol rises, and inflammation sets in. None of this sounds particularly healthy.
An important thing to note about these scenarios, however, is that the stress is short-lived. Once we were far enough away from the predator in the woods (assuming that we were successful in our escape), the stress response would lessen and we would resume life as usual. Likewise, we do not exercise for 10 hours at a time, but rather rest after a relatively short training session.
Acutely, our systems respond in a positive way to many stressors. Many cellular mechanisms are upregulated to encourage repair and fortification of our bodies and minds in order to make us more resilient in the face of future stress. Liken this to an army that is attacked. It is likely to respond by recruiting additional soldiers and arming itself with bigger guns.
Trouble arises when acute stress becomes chronic. Thankfully, most of us no longer need to spend our days worrying about being attacked by a bear. Instead, however, the threat of acute danger has been replaced by more chronic stress, which we’re less adept at handling. Just as water can carve canyons as it drips slowly over rocks day after day, year after year, so can chronic stress erode our health (and our gains). In our modern, fast-paced society that demands ever more productivity, are we all we doomed? Hardly…or perhaps “hardy”. Let me explain…
The second factor that determines whether stressors benefit or harm us is our perception of the stress. It has long been known that in the same environment, individuals are likely to experience different levels of stress because of the ways in which they perceive the potentially stressful situations. Dr. Suzanne Kobasa would describe this as one’s “hardiness”. In 1982 she published a seminal paper entitled Hardiness and health: A prospective study in which the “hardy personality” was described as possessing the three C’s: Control, Commitment, and Challenge. According to Kobasa, hardy people think of themselves as the managers of their environment rather than being subject to the “way that things are”. Also, she argued that hardy individuals are committed to face problems and pursue them with persistence until a solution is reached. Further, hardy people view change not as a threat, but as a challenge.
In her study, Kobasa found that hardy people seldom experienced illness when compared to non-hardy individuals. This demonstrated that our psychological state and perception of our experiences has a very real and meaningful effect on our health and wellbeing.
Be not afraid of potentially stressful situations. Instead, attempt to limit the unnecessary things in life that might create chronic stress. Even more, seek to change your perspective. Know that at times when we are challenged, we are presented with an opportunity to strengthen ourselves – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. One of my favorite quotes is by Martin Luther King Jr.: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”