There is no way to avoid stress. It is a part of life. In other words, the only way to not be experiencing any stress at all, is if you are not alive. Human stresses falls into a number of different large categories including:
- Psychological Stress – this is what most people think of when you say ‘stress’. The big psychological stresses in this category would include things like the death of a spouse or losing your home. This category can be further broken down into smaller categories based on timing or stimulus: i.e. chronic vs. acute or time stress vs. relationship stress.
- Mechanical stress – this category includes everything from gravity and blinking to surgery and high impact traumas.
- Thermal Stress – Getting burned in a fire is an obvious thermal stress. Another obvious example at the opposite end of the thermal scale is getting frostbite or chilled. Not so obvious is that some molecules in your body (like unsaturated fats) will break down at room temperature.
- Chemical Stress – Getting sprayed with acids or pesticides are fairly obvious examples of chemical stresses. Less noticeable are deficiencies of essential nutrients or slow toxic exposures to air or water pollution. Perhaps most obscure are the chemical stresses you body goes through as part of your normal metabolism. This would include things like oxidative stress as a by-product of aerobic energy production.
- Energy Stress – Getting electrocuted is an obvious example of a major energy stress. So is sunburn. More subtle still would be radiation exposure whether from a nuclear reactor leak or clinical x-rays. Radon would also be included in this category as well as cell phone chronic electromagnetic injuries to the brain.
As mentioned previously, everybody who is alive is always under stress. When most people refer to stress, they are referring to the ‘big’ stresses like a death in the family or divorce. But just a little bit smaller than those stresses is another stress, and another and another… Eventually, you get to point where factors such as gravity, breathing, digestion and cellular metabolism are constantly causing damage to molecules and tissues in your body.
So if you can’t eliminate stress, what can you do to maximize the chances of turning stress into eustress (good stress that builds you up) rather than distress (bad stress that tears you down)? It is the balance between your stress and your resistance to stress that will determine whether you grow or get damaged by the stresses you experience.
What do I mean by resistance (to stress)? I am not just talking about resistance training. Resistance is a sum of all of the possible factors that turn a stress into growth. They fall broadly into categories comparable to the stresses such as:
- Psychological – This category includes all the psychological factors that can improve your ability to handle psychological stress. Factors such as: sensitivity; communication skills; empathy; focus; experience; knowledge; etc.
- Bio-mechanical – Resistance factors here would include many factors such as: muscular strength; muscular balance; appropriate flexibility; bone strength; connective tissue strength; weight; agility; etc.
- Chemical – Resistance factors here could include: essential nutrient status and toxin processing capability; etc.
- Thermal – While you cannot appreciably change the temperature where your tissues will begin to burn, you can improve your cardio-vascular status, improve the warming (or cooling) effects of your blood by maintaining good circulation. You can also minimize arterial plaques and eliminating muscular and bony impingements that restricts blood flow. Another factor in this category could include maintenance of thyroid and brain (hypothalamus) health which are major temperature regulators of the body.
- Energy – Just as with thermal resistance, you may not be able to alter the amount of energy your molecules can withstand before being damaged, but you may be able to reduce the secondary damage from energy stresses. This would include factors such as your anti-oxidant levels which can stop free radical damage from propagating after ionizing radiation damage.
Let’s look at the balance between stress and resistance with an example of a very small mechanical stress. With gravity, your bones are being bent a minuscule amount, and every step results in some number of molecules being broken. Gravity is the stress. Some of the resistance factors to gravity include the essential nutrients necessary to repair damaged bone molecules such as essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins which will form the scaffolding of bones), calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, etc. If you have enough of all of the necessary resistance factors, you will not only repair the broken bone molecules, your body will typically build the bone just slightly stronger. This is the result of when your resistance is stronger than your stresses.
If you are deficient in any of the essential nutrient factors necessary to rebuild bone, the damage will go unrepaired and your bone will end up being just a little bit weaker with every step. Over many years, these micro-injuries accumulate and can be one of the causes behind developing osteoporosis. This would be an example of when your stress is larger than your resistance.
Another example would be with iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome. Why is it that out of a group of people training together, all running the same number of miles every week, only some will develop ITB syndrome and others will not? One of the resistance factors for this will be the balance of the muscles involved in ITB mechanics. If some people in the group have a dramatic weakness of the tensor fascia latae muscle (one of the 2 muscles that attaches to the ITB), their ITB will be tugged out of proper position and receive extra mechanical stress with each step. This results in 10, 20 or 30% more fibers ripped per mile than the person with balanced muscles in the ITB region.