Many of us spend a lot of time and energy trying to rid our lives of stress. “Stress is bad,” we tell ourselves as we wish and wait for the day when all the stressors in our lives melt away and we can live at peace, finally.
But is it possible that stress is not only a normal part of life, but that it can actually be good for us?
Can stress be a good thing?
I like to think of stress through the lens of Goldilocks: in order to be healthy, we need the amount of stress in our lives to be just right.
Because stress really only becomes a problem for us at the extremes—too much OR too little. But when we have just the right amount of stress, it becomes a force of growth, change, and healing.
For example, if our body undergoes too much stress, we can injure ourselves. Too little and our tissues can become weak and frail. But if our body is exposed to just the right amount of stress, it becomes stronger & more resilient.
Similarly, if our mind undergoes too much stress we can become agitated or shut down. Too little and we check out. But just the right amount of stress causes our mind to become sharper & more perceptive over time.
It might be helpful at this point to clarify what exactly I mean by stress.
By stress, I mean any challenging event that causes a response in us.
It's important to note that challenging events can come in a variety of forms. They could be physical, like lifting or carrying a load. They could be cognitive, like a difficult math problem. Or they could be emotional, like receiving bad news. Most often they are some combination of all three.
And indeed our responses also occur in some combination of physical, cognitive, and emotional. When lifting a heavy load, our physical self responds, as well as our cognitive-emotional self. Such is true when doing a difficult math problem and when receiving bad news.
It’s also important to differentiate between stress (the stimulus) and being ‘stressed out’ (the response). Being ‘stressed out’ is the response to the challenging event, not the event itself.
Because we are all individuals with a unique blend of genetics and experiences, each of us will have a different tolerance to stress. What is too much for one person might not be enough for another person and vice versa.
Thinking of stress in these terms puts us on a path of balance, rather than avoidance. Instead of trying to get rid of all stress, we instead seek to find balance in the stressors that are present in our lives.
Creating a healthy relationship with stress appears to be twofold:
We avoid the extremes of stress as best as we can while allowing the stress that is in our life to be there, knowing that it is ultimately a force of growth.
Here’s a riddle for you: What’s the difference between a blister and a callus?
*Click here to scroll down to the answer (or read on)
The same stress that causes the layers of our skin to separate and fill with fluid (a blister), will cause a response in which the skin thickens to be able to withstand more stress (a callus) if given enough time.
Let’s say you dig a 3 cubic foot hole in 3 hours. You dig without stopping. At the end of the 3 hours, you have blisters all over your hands.
If you dug that same hole in 3 hours, but instead of doing it all at once you dug it over the course of 6 days (spending 30 minutes each day digging), instead of blisters, you’d likely end up with calluses.
This is because of the magic ingredient: Time.
Put simply: The right amount of stress over the right amount of time produces positive change.
Working with stress
This simple formula implies that if we can work with stress and time properly, we can drive change in our lives.
As always, the first step is noticing.
When we notice an imbalance in the stressors in our lives, we can take stock of that by asking ourselves.
In what ways am I asking too much of myself? And...
In what ways am I not challenging myself enough?
There will likely be ways in which both of the above are true.
If we feel that we are under-stressing our bodies (or maybe we can’t do as much as we’d like to) a simple way to address this is through a process called graded exposure:
Step 1: Find out what you can do right now
Step 2: Gradually increase the amount of stress over time
For example, if you wanted to be able to walk for 30 minutes,
You’d find out how far you can walk now without any negative consequences (use the activity-safety meter for guidance). Let’s say you can walk 5 minutes now.
Then you would gradually increase the amount of walking that you do. 4 days/week you walk 5 minutes. Every week you increase by 10%. If you’re able to stay consistent, you will reach your goal of walking 30 minutes in 38 weeks.
Through this process, your entire organism would adapt to support your ability to do this. Your entire mind-body would become more capable of walking for longer periods of time.
Or let’s say you wanted to be able to do a handstand on 1 finger, like this monk,
You would first find out what you can do now. Let’s say you can do a handstand on both hands
Then you would gradually increase the amount of stress. You’d start by supporting yourself on all of your fingertips, then you would gradually reduce the number of fingers supporting your body over time (which is exactly what he did)
Through this process, your entire organism would adapt to support your ability to do this. Your entire mind-body would become more capable of supporting itself on 1 finger.
On the flip side, if we find that we’re asking too much of ourselves or our body, we might need to reduce the amount of stress or increase the amount of time we give ourselves between bouts of stress (i.e. rest more).
This is not always easy to do in the midst of a busy life, but rest can pay off in dividends. I find that when I give myself proper rest I am more efficient, produce higher-quality work, and enjoy my life more.
Stress is normal
It’s important to remember that stress is something that we all deal with in life. It’s not something we’re likely to get rid of, but what we can do is come to a better balance of stress and live at peace with its presence in our lives.
Working with stress in this way, we will inevitably find that our blisters turn into calluses as we become stronger, wiser, and more resilient human beings.
Good luck out there,
*Answer to the riddle: Time (click here to scroll back up!)