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

Is Convenience Always a Good Thing?

“Somewhere along the line we seem to have confused comfort with happiness. “― Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner

We always seem to rush towards convenience, efficiency, and comfort. We like apps and devices that are more convenient to use. We like squishy, comfy sofas for watching movies. We like food that gives us a quick burst of energy and can be eaten anytime, anywhere.

But maybe we should ask ourselves “What do I need to be convenient?” Some things make us healthy, happy and productive when made more convenient. On the other hand other things make us sick, anxious, and lazy. For example, when healthy food is accessible in one’s house, you are more likely to eat it. But if highly processed, sugar laden foods are accessible we are more likely to eat this sort of junk food.

So we want to make health, happiness, and productivity more convenient, while making compulsive, unhealthier habits less convenient.

Do more of the following really make us more happy, healthy, and productive?
-Social media, email, and other distractions (I am not anti social media but constantly being distracted by notifications is not a healthy, happy, or productive way to live)
-Eating cheap, nutrient poor, processed food
-Passive input activities: web browsing, Netflix binge watching, and following a link to another link to another link…until an hour of life has passed and can never be reclaimed.

An important caveat, I am not suggesting that things like Netflix and potato chips are terrible! It’s just that they are very easy to use in excess and we tend to do so when they are more convenient. On the other hand there are things which take a bit more effort than unwrapping a package or opening an app. We don’t tend to do them naturally and will avoid them when possible.

So we should focus on making the following more convenient:
-Eating quality, natural whole foods (especially vegetables-almost nobody, including myself, eats enough of these)
-Intimate conversations with friends and family
-Reading time tested books like “Letters from a Stoic”
-Creative output: writing, painting, music, dance, etc.
-Physical activity and exertion (only 20% of the U.S. population meets the recommended amount of weekly physical activity )

Convenience, efficiency, and comfort are nice, but make sure they are applied to the right things.