Mismanaged stress wreaks havoc on the mind and body. The Canadian Men's Health Foundation refers to it as a "silent killer" that can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, chest pain and an irregular heartbeat. The American Institute of Stress, believes it's the cause of 60 per cent of all human illnesses and three-quarters of all visits to the doctor.
Fortunately, the reverse is also true: When properly managed, stress can be highly beneficial.
The key is learning how much stress you can handle and then develop effective strategies to recover from it.
When I was an Olympic rower, the goal was always to maximize both stress output and recovery. We would maximize the time we spent at our anaerobic threshold, while making sure that recovery nutrition, therapist visits and sleep were also maxed out. By alternating dynamically between stress and recovery, my teammates and I were able to push ourselves to the limit — and win a gold medal in the process.
The stresses of sports, work and life in general are all slightly different, but my approach to winning with stress still remains the same.
Personal growth through stress
I love the metaphor of muscle-building because I'm a recovering bench-press addict. Muscles only grow after they are stressed. Delayed-onset muscle soreness after exercise is a signal that your body is adapting by getting stronger. When we stress our minds and spirits the same way, we experience growth. Growth is stressful. Change is uncomfortable. Have you ever noticed that the most peaceful people have often endured the most stressful tragedies?
The Yerkes-Dodson Law is a good example. In 1908, two Harvard researchers, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, were the first to calibrate the relationship between stress and performance. Sometimes it's nice to have a manager's prodding, a coach's devilled gaze or competitive energy from colleagues. Other times, external stresses become too much and have a negative impact on our performance.
When stress is low, so is performance. To combat this, you need more accountability in your life. Ask your manager for more feedback. Hire an executive coach. Set a goal and share it. Join a course. Train for an athletic challenge in a group setting.
On the other extreme, when stress is too high, it has a negative impact on performance. This is where you need to reach out to a mental health practitioner to find strategies and support for healing.
The key: Identifying and repeating the level of stress at which you thrive, and expanding or retracting on it as needed.
How you can improve stress tolerance? Practice.
Dr. Herbert Benson, the founder of the Mind-Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass., offers numerous insights that will bolster stress tolerance. Here's a summary of his common-sense four-step breakout principle:
- Seek results until you are in a frenzy of anxiety, fearfulness, anger, boredom or self-sabotage. Concentrate. Focus. Push your mind until you can't move forward.
- Go outside. Leave the office. Walk your dog. Sit in the sauna. Visit an art gallery. Meditate. Jog. Chat with someone. Dance. The key is to stop analyzing your problem and surrender control. Get out of your head and into your body.
- Your break should be long enough to spur an epiphany. It should be distracting enough to forget your problem. When you relax and move, your body releases nitric oxide, which stimulates nutrient delivery to the brain. You also allow your powerful subconscious to work on your problem.
- Powered by your new insight, you will resume working at a new level of high productivity.
Build your capacity
When you recover, and take breaks effectively, you can handle more stress and perform at higher levels. Just like the bench press. Work hard. Recover smartly. Make well-managed stress your secret weapon.
What recovery strategies work for you? Have questions about stress or other tips to share? Send Adam Kreek a message at @adamkreek. You can also find more stress-busting tips on the Don't Change Much website.