When you lift weights in the gym, you get stronger by applying stress to your muscles. You put your muscles under tension and strain, and the muscles actually break down a little bit. You don’t technically get stronger in the gym. You get stronger after the workout, as your muscles rebuild.
Stress is Good, But…
So, in this context, stress is actually a good thing. Your muscles won’t grow unless you put them under stress. But it’s not quite that simple. There are other factors that come into play.
First, if you lift too heavy of a weight, you could hurt yourself and get injured, which could disrupt your progress. The key is to use a moderate load—challenging but not overwhelming.
Second, if you work out too often, and don’t give yourself rest days to recover, you could overtrain. Overtraining happens when your body is in a constant state of getting broken down. It doesn’t have a chance to recover and rebuild. Your body works best when you alternate times of stress (i.e., workout) with times of rest and recovery.
Third, there are other things in your life that might seem unrelated, but are actually quite important. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, for example, you may not see much progress. If you aren’t eating enough nutritious foods, you may not see much progress. If you are drinking too much, or using drugs, you are harming your body and may not see much progress in the gym.
Stress in Everyday Life
I think a similar principle can be applied to everyday stress that happens in our life. We all experience stress. Usually we think about stress as a bad thing, and try to avoid it. However, this is usually a losing battle. Not only is it impossible to avoid stress (life is difficult, after all), but when we avoid stress, we lose out on an opportunity to build our character and resilience. Like building muscle in the gym, our character only has a chance to grow when it is strained.
Stress Can Be Useful, But…
But just like working out in the gym, there are other factors that come into play. If we encounter a stressor that is just too big for us to handle, it can overwhelm us. If we have too many stressors in a particular time in our lives, we can break down because we don’t have enough time and space to recover. And if something else is going on (e.g., struggling with an addiction) or we don’t have adequate levels of support in our lives, we won’t be able to use stress to our advantage.
Don’t Avoid Stress
So, what can we learn from the science of exercise to help us use stress to our advantage? First, a moderate level of stress can actually be good for you. Don’t try to avoid or escape all stress. Not only is this impossible, but you might be losing out on an opportunity to grow your character and resilience. If you encounter an opportunity that feels stressful, try to be open and pursue it. Even if you aren’t successful, you might come out the other side stronger.
Aim for Moderate Levels of Stress
Second, although a moderate level of stress is often good, an overwhelming level of stress can be harmful. Pay close attention to your level of stress, and try to set boundaries or organize your life differently if the stress level starts to get too high. I remember talking with a graduate student who was very stressed out, almost to the point where they didn’t know if they would make it in the program. We brainstormed ways to lower their stress level, and one of the interventions was dropping a difficult class that they could take in a later semester. Reducing the stress level made a huge difference—the stress level went from overwhelming to moderate, and the student was able to move forward.
Pay Attention to Other Factors
Third, other life factors impact our ability to use stress to our advantage. How is your sleep? Are you eating enough nutritious food each day? Are you drinking enough water? Are you limiting alcohol and avoiding drugs? Are you exercising regularly? Do you have supportive friends and family who you are in relationship with on a regular basis? Try to get these factors on point so you can put yourself in the best position to use your stress to your advantage.
How do you think about the stress in your life? Is it something you try to avoid or escape from? How could you use stress to your advantage?