Why We Need Some Stress, But Not Too Much

“Much of modern life is preventable chronic stress injury.” -Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nowadays stress seems to be as bad as sugar, inflammation, and gluten. It is something we need to “cure” with meditation? Or is there such a thing as good stress? And how much is too much?

I realized there is such a thing good stress after reading Nassim’s Taleb Antifragile. Taleb discusses show there are positive acute stressors which strengthen us and negative chronic stressors which weaken us.

For example, if you place 300 lbs on your back and squat 10 times and wait a week, you will be able to lift 302 lbs. The stressor of the added weight has caused you to overcompensate and be able to lift more than 300 lbs. However, there is a limit to how much stress we can take. If you take 3,000 lb and try to squat it 1 time, you will be crushed under the weight. So with acute stressors, such as exercise, the dosage must be right along with the recovery time. Unfortunately, recovery is under appreciated, but this is when the response to a stressor occurs! Consider, that many of the performance enhancing drugs used by athletes are meant to accelerate recovery so the athlete can train again, more intensely.

Acute stressors not only make us stronger, but when deprived of acute stressors we become weaker. Most people have heard that while in space astronauts lose significant bone mass, connective tissue integrity, and muscle mass. These negative effects occur because they lack the stress of weight bearing activity on Earth.

On the other hand, there are other chronic stressors, which gradually wear us down. These include daily traffic, exam pressures, and 24 hour negative news cycles.

So in general we need to 1. Eliminate the damage from chronic stressors, 2. Add healthy acute stressors, and 3. Enhance recovery from these stressors. 

We regularly need to experience acute stressors such as:
-Fasting
-Intense heat exposure, such as a sauna
-Intense exercise (such as interval training or heavy strength straining)

And reduce chronic stressors such as:
-Sitting in traffic
-Financial worries due to a high cost lifestyle (i.e. mortgage, fancy car, a boat, beach house, etc.)
-Constant consumption of negative news
Sitting excessively (this creates excess stress on areas such as the low back and neck)

And enhance recovery from stressors with methods like:
-Acupuncture, massage, or even self care tools like the Nayoya Acupressure mat
High quality, sufficient sleep-this is likely the most important recovery tool.
“Forest bathing”: this is a practice coined by the Japanese which is essentially taking a walk in nature. A 2011 study found that walking in a forest actually led to a larger decrease in blood pressure and stress hormones, than a walk in the city.

Management of stress is not just for today-it may be the most important tool to help us stay functional into old age. Although we may not be quite as sharp and strong as when we were in our 20’s, I am skeptical that old age must be a slow decay towards death.

“We observe old people and we see them age, so we associate aging with their loss of muscle mass, bone weakness, loss of mental function, taste for Frank Sinatra music, and similar degenerative effects. But these failures to self-repair come largely from maladjustment-either too few stressors or too little time for recovery between them”. -Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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