The Science Of Stress & How To Manage It
By Tyler Woodward
Stress seems to have a near infinite number of definitions and seems like an extremely broad concept. There’s physical stress, mental stress, emotional stress, psychological stress, the list goes on… The question then becomes what, if any, do all these forms of stress have in common and the answer is everything…
- What Is Stress
- General Adaptation Syndrome
- Stress Is Stress
- How To Manage Stress
- Balancing Good & Bad Stress
What Is Stress?:
Hans Selye, the father of stress, defined stress as, “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it”. Meaning no matter what the stress is, the body always responds in the same “nonspecific way”.
- If you walk into a cold room (the stress) your body begins to shiver to warm up (the response)
- If you’re working out and you begin to overheat (the stress) your body starts to sweat in order to cool down (the response)
In this manner you could think about stress as an event that takes your body away from its baseline or homeostasis. Homeostasis is basically the biological word for normalcy, not too cold, not too hot, body temperature around 98.6, energetic in the morning, and tired at night .
Stress in its simplest form is anything that causes a reaction. Stress is not good nor bad. You need stress to wake up in the morning, put muscle on in the gym, learn, and even to keep your heart beating. Stress in this regard is an essential part of life and as Selye points out the only way you can be completely free of stress is to be dead.
General Adaptation Syndrome:
Selye’s arguably most fascinating discovery is his realization that the body reacts to all forms of stress in the same manner, which is known as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) or Biological Stress Syndrome. General Adaptation Syndrome consists of three phases:
- Alarm Reaction - This is the stress placed on the body that results in the infamous “flight or fight response”. Resulting in the release of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, increase in heart rate, constriction of your blood vessels, ect.
- The Resistance - You can think of the resistance as “the fight” in fight or flight. If you choose to fight, how long can you go on before collapsing from exhaustion.
- Stage Of Exhaustion - This is the collapse, the end of the road when stress overtakes your body’s ability to cope with it. When exhaustion ensues permanent damage has occurred and disease and death often follow suit.
Here’s an example to illustrate this idea more clearly.
- You're out in the African savannah and all of a sudden you see a lion only 50 yards away. At first glance you can’t believe what you’re seeing, you’re in awe. Adrenaline and cortisol cause your heart rate to increase, your blood vessels tighten up, your pupils dilate (the alarm).
- And then it happens, the lion sees you too and takes off running towards you, hoping to find its next meal. You begin to run and you run for as long and as hard as you possibly can (the resistance).
- Eventually, you cannot run anymore and you collapse, luckily the lion is nowhere to be found and it’s your lucky day (exhaustion).
It may also be helpful to understand that glucagon, adrenaline, cortisol are fuel mobilization hormones. Their primary function is to signal to the body to break down stored energy to be used as fuel.
- Glucagon signals to the liver to break down its glycogen stores (stored carbohydrates in the liver)
- Adrenaline signals to the body to break down its fat reserves
- Cortisol signals to the body to break down its muscle into amino acids
All three of these hormones are released during the “fight or flight” or the alarm stage. The resistance stage can then only last as long as your fuel reserves take to burn. Once you run out of fuel, carbs, protein, and fat you succumb to exhaustion.
Stress Is Nonspecific:
It’s also important to note that the body responds in an identical way to chronic stress, no matter what the stressor is.
- The Adrenal Gland Enlarges - The adrenal gland is responsible for secreting cortisol and enlarges as it continually pumps out cortisol in response to the stress. Cortisol is responsible for the atrophy of the lymph nodes (involved in immunity), inhibition of inflammatory reactions (think adrenaline rush) and the atrophy of the thymus gland.
- The Thymus Or Thyroid Gland Shrinks - The thymus normally regulates the “rest and digest” metabolism by secreting thyroid hormone, but in times of stress when sugar is depleted the gland atrophies due to lack of activity.
- The Development Of Gastric Ulcers - No matter what the stress if it persists for long enough, ulcers will develop
You might be thinking, then why does disease break out in various area across the body? Well according to Selye, “in a body as in a chain, the weakest links break down under stress although all parts are equally exposed to it”. Smoking may cause lung cancer, but other parts of the body are affected as well, the lungs just take the brunt of the stress. Same idea goes with alcohol.
Stress in this fashion is systemic, a system-wide problem. The stress may be focused on one tissue or organ, but there are ramifications throughout the body.
Stress Is Stress:
Any stress that you have to deal with your body responds to in the same way. It doesn’t matter if it’s your boss yelling at you, your relative getting into a car accident, sitting in bumper to bumper traffic or the thrill of a roller coaster ride.
Stress can be “good”, “bad”, neutral, or anywhere between.
Here’s why this is important…
You now understand that you can’t entirely eliminate stress and nor would you want to, but we can use these strategies to manage stress.
How To Manage Stress:
We can separate stress into three categories:
- Distress - This is “bad stress”, stress that results in no beneficial outcome.
- Eustress - This is what Selye refers to as “good stress”, these are stressors that can improve our body’s ability to handle stress.
- For example lifting weights over time strengthens your muscles, allowing you to handle more weight over time while inducing less stress.
- Stress - We’ll consider this “neutral stress” stress that has to occur in order for us to keep living like your heart beating, the stress of digesting food, ect,
While distress is considered the “negative stress”, I’d like to make the argument that not all distress is “bad”. In a sense, ‘there is no light without darkness’. The bad parts of life, although sometimes uncontrollable, also tend to be the parts that spur the most growth for us as individuals.
Wouldn’t life be boring if everything was just sunshine and rainbows?
The key to distress in my opinion is to minimize the distress that is within our control, which brings us to the three parts of life:
Minimizing distress through diet comes as a result of minimizing the things that cause stress in our diet or what can be referred to as oxidative stress. This includes:
- Polyunsaturated Fats - Polyunsaturated fats are highly unstable and likely to be broken down in the body. When these fats are broken down they result in the formation of free radicals and thereby oxidative stress.
- Alcohol - As you know alcohol is a toxin and places a stress on the liver in order to detoxify it. Alcohol also increases gut permeability allowing “bad bacteria”, known as endotoxins, to leak through the intestines which must then be detoxified by the liver.
- Gluten - The human body is incapable of digesting gluten and if gluten is able to leak through the intestinal walls it results in an inflammatory reaction, causing stress.
- Excess Iron - Iron is a pro-oxidant, meaning it is highly reactive and “attacks” things like polyunsaturated fats causing oxidative damage when it is unbound or free.
Managing lifestyle stress can seem like an uphill battle and a very difficult feat to battle. So to manage lifestyle stressors I’ll offer two strategies which we’ll refer to as “fight” or “flight”. To view these strategies, we’ll imagine that you’re stuck in traffic.
If you’re stuck sitting in traffic you more or less have two options
- Flight - You can physically leave the traffic and take a longer route home or you can make peace with the fact that you’re forced to sit in traffic and allow bygones to be bygones.
- Fight - You can continually yell and honk at the people in front of you stressing both them and the people around you further.
While the choice in this example seems quite obvious, the logic can be applied to countless other areas in your life. When your parents, professor or significant other are yelling at you for whatever reason you have the choice to “fight” and try to address the cause of the yelling and find a middle ground or “flight” and allow the yelling to go in one ear and out the other, perhaps with the intent to avoid these conversations in the future.
Remember, you always have a choice, it’s up to you whether or not it's worth spending the necessary energy or stress to “fight”. Just do your best to minimize these situations that you have to choose by surrounding yourself with the best people possible.
Exercise is a bit of a double-edged sword. The entire objective of exercise is to induce a stress on your body, so that you can recover from it and adapt to this stress such that it is less stressful in the future. When choosing what forms of exercise to do you're going to want to choose the forms of exercise that give you the most bang for your buck so to speak. Here's what I recommend
- Movement - Walking
- Building Muscle - Weightlifting or Resistance Training
- High Intensity Interval Training - Sprints or Plyometrics
The common denominator in all of these types of exercise is that we recommend avoiding endurance training. Endurance training is subjecting your body to long periods of stress and thereby large amounts all the stress hormones I mentioned above.
Think about it, 'runners high' the feeling of bliss that many people experience is just an adrenaline and endorphine rush designed to allow your body to keep going. It's quite literally a wave of stress washing over your body.
And if you're someone that truly loves endurance training have at it, just recognize that it's a stress on your body like anything else.
Balancing Eustress & Distress:
As always the key to life is balance. You have to choose the stresses you want to avoid and the stress you feel are worth doing. Take my life for example.
- Despite the effects of alcohol I still (over) indulge in drinking with my friends on the weekends.
- Snowboarding and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are far from ideal forms of exercise for the body, but I love doing them
- I occasionally eat fried foods and gluten, knowing the effects they’ll have on my body.
But I also
- Minimize lifestyle stress by surrounding myself with supportive people
- Maximize recovery by sleeping at the minimum 7 hours a night
- Consume a nutrient-rich diet that minimizes inflammatory foods 90+% of the time
- Supplement with things like Vitamin E, glycine/collagen, and baking soda to minimize the negative stresses that occur from doing the things I love.
Afterall life’s short. The answer in my opinion isn’t to get rid of distress entirely by having a perfect lifestyle, diet and exercise routine, but to pick and choose the stresses you find worth doing.
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My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good