Last night I gave an in-service to The Support Network, a local non-profit that deals with a lot of community distress aspects, and talked about stress management and using exercise as a management mechanism. I threw in some humour, a few fun drills everyone could do, and also dropped some “soft science” for everyone in the room who were from varied educational backgrounds on how hormones, nervous system adaptations, and psychological concepts caused people to either brush off stressful scenarios or completely encapsulate them as their own. In short, it was pretty baller, and I’m pretty sure they’ll recommend me to get a key to the city.
So today I wanted to give a brief re-cap of what I talked about, and I think it’s kind of fitting seeing as how this past Monday was somehow scientifically proven to be the “bluest day of the year” as far as depression and anxiety go. I’ll write this one in more of an “everyman” voice with less of the geek-tastic sciency stuff that gets me excited but tends to make the masses stare at me like a 2 year old stares at a stranger in the room.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t tend to get stressed out very easily. Maybe it was something I picked up from playing competitive sports as a kid, or through reading thought processes on eastern religions & philosophies (specifically through Taoism and Buddhism) which stress the absence of negative emotions and thoughts, or maybe it’s just a case of perception of what constitutes stress. Don’t get me wrong, I do tend to get stressed through things like tight deadlines, long hours at work, and trying to carve out my own little slice of world domination, but it’s never to the point of being or feeling out of control.
This is an important I mention this only because in order to be in an optimal state, you need a certain amount of stress in your life all the time. The good stress, for me being work, writing, workouts, and trying to figure out how to crack the wittiest of witty one-liners, is called “eustress,” and helps keep our systems from atrophying. This is similar to the stress on our bodies from a good workout. Not too much, not too little, but just enough. Call it the Goldilocks Stress if it makes you feel better.
“Distress” on the other hand, is the bad kind of stress that gets blamed for everything from nervous breakdowns to reduced immune function to adrenal fatigue and unicorn tears. This is the stress that is either in a type we can’t handle very well (disease), or in an amount we can’t deal with in an acceptable manner. Sort of like if I were to sit down and watch a “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo marathon and would wind up hugging my knees in the corner and rocking back and forth slowly while weeping uncontrollably.
Now the really messed up thing is that everyone will experience things as either stressful in a bad way or a good way, and that stress may change on a daily basis depending on what their emotional state is like for the moment. For example, shooting a free throw in an empty gym is pretty low stress for most people, but pack that gym and make it a tie game with only 2 seconds to go in the big championship, and suddenly the exact same shot is now immensely stressful. The same shot in the first quarter of the game wouldn’t be nearly as stressful due to the difference in emotional context.
This is why perception of the stressful scenario is the single most important concept in determining how stressful something is.
With minimal challenge to an activity and a high level of perceived skill in handling that challenge, the stress is minimal. When the challenge increases in difficulty and the perceived skill of the individual decreases, the stress increases. In addition, there’s the concept of “risk/reward” which will be a driving motivational factor to the individual. The more they have to gain or lose, the greater the stress, regardless of the level of challenge or skill. The optimal zone of stress and skill brings about a feeling of “flow” with the activity, a state of mind where the individual feels they can’t miss or can’t do anything wrong.
So how can someone reduce the level of stress in any given situation? First, the skill of the individual at handling the stress can be improved. This is done through repetition and practice. The rehearsal of the stressful situation, be it speaking in front of a group of people or performing a mind-numbingly intensely heavy deadlift, is best done in low-challenge environments with gradually escalating levels of challenge. For the example of the free throw shooter, they’ll do practice on their own, then shoot when the team has to run for every shot they miss, then when the game’s on the line in front of a crowd.
Reducing the perceived challenge is a little more tricky. The thought of speaking in front of a room full of people tends to terrify the living hell out of most members of society, making them anxious they may screw up or forget a key point or that everyone will laugh at them or not like their presentation. This again comes down to practice and rehearsal, but for any aspiring public speakers out there, I’ll give you a few tips to help reduce anxiety.
I’ll be honest, I try to make every room I’m in front of laugh directly at me at least once or twice during a presentation. It helps to relax the audience and also myself. By getting people to laugh and think of a funny story, they tend to remember more of what I’m talking about, not the specific detail, but the overarching themes, which are more important to remember anyway. The details can be looked up later by reading the notes.
Next, I’m always telling myself the same axiom before any seminar or workshop:
No one’s here to watch you fail. They’re on your side and want you to succeed.
With very few exceptions, no one will go to a seminar or meeting and hope it’s completely terrible. If so, they’re horrible individuals who should be beaten with a short length of rubber hose, and you’re not going to impress them anyways, so don’t bother. Focus on the people who want you to succeed and make them have a good time.
Lastly, pick a couple key details you want every single person to leave knowing, and make sure you go through them in enough detail and with enough emotional emphasis that if you were to ask anyone what they remembered from the presentation, each person would bring them up.
If you need further assistance in public speaking, there’s a lot of great resources out there on the topic. One of my favourites is Own the Room by David Booth, Deborah Shames and Peter Desberg.
So reducing the challenge and increasing the skill of the individual help to reduce the concept of why something is stressful. Next comes the emotional component, or the perception.
One of the best ways to modulate the emotional response is to short-circuit the nervous system and put it through kind of a re-boot. You can do this through focusing on breathing patterns, which I talk about in this video:
If you do nothing else during the day to reduce stress, focusing on diaphragmatic breathing will play a massive role in reducing the overall perception of what’s stressful and what’s not stressful and reset the entire bodies neural charge.
The concept behind this is that since stress causes an uptick in the autonomic nervous system that handles things like the “fight or flight” response of stress (things like release of adrenalin, increased heart rate, muscle tension, vasodilation, pupil dilation, etc), the conscious control of breathing mechanisms to reduce the anxiety and adrenal response can help to reverse all these symptoms and reduce the overall stress on the body during non-fighting scenarios.
Another neural re-set mechanism is to engage in some vigorous activity, specifically heavy resistance training, hard cardio or combative activities (boxing, kick boxing, MMA). The hard anaerobic component coupled with the high threshold neural demand of the activities causes a release of endorphins, which are the happy chemicals that cause people to feel so good following a workout. The endorphins work by attaching to the opiate receptors in the brain, similar to heroin and other opiate drugs, which produces that high that a lot of people get from intense activities. The good news is you can still drive a vehicle and make decisions with this kind of high.
Distance running is also a popular method of attaining this endorphin release, however it’s also got a much higher rate of overuse (or misuse) injuries, so approach distance running with caution. It also produces a lot more catabolic hormones versus the more intense and short duration activities, which in combination with high stress can lead to further breakdown, so again, exercise caution with it if you’re down for that kind of thing.
Nutritionally, we can also reduce our bodies susceptibility to stress by limiting stressful foods like processed carbs, sugar, alcohol, and in some cases acidifying foods. I’m not a big believer that people should avoid meat, but in some situations it just doesn’t agree with their system, so in those instances by all means cut it out. On the same token, ensuring you’re getting lots of fresh vegetables, fruit, and antioxidants helps manage stress on the system, plus helps to reduce the weight-gain effects of stress hormones like cortisol, which would add even more stress to the system.
So to recap:
- Stress is important, but not too much, and perception is key
- Exercise helps, but not too much, and intensity is key
- Food is important, but not too much, and quality is key.
Before I wrap it up for the day, I just wanted to let you know that Dan Trink’s new program 2 Tickets to the Gun Show is still on sale for only $14.99, but only until the end of today, so do yourself a favour and start developing some anacondas to hang out from your shirt sleeves before summer gets here and pick up your copy today.
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