When I started working in the fitness industry seven years ago I never realized how much of my job was going to center around stress.  Most people are aware of stress in terms of the negative impact it can have on health.  If you become educated in physiology you also learn about the positive impact of stress.  

Yes, positive!  There are two types of stress, or really, two ways of thinking about stress:  eustress, or “good” stress, and distress, or “bad” stress.  The fact of the matter is that there really is no “good” or “bad” stress, there is just stress.  Stress is the thing that causes our bodies and minds to adapt, so stress can be thought of as a tool for change.  However, we can only handle so much stress.  It’s like baking a cake; if you add too little sugar you just make a bland, starchy lump, and if you add too much sugar the cake is sickeningly sweet, just as inedible as if you added too little.  You have to find the (ahem) “sweet spot.”

Too little stress and there is no effect, no change.  Just enough stress (eustress) plus adequate recovery and the body and mind adapt by becoming stronger so that the next time the stress is encountered it is not stress, but normal.  Too much stress (distress) and the body and mind cannot adapt, and after prolonged exposure, break down.

Even though these types of stress have terms, it is really a spectrum.  All the way at one end is no stress and no change, then we have an area of just-right stress and positive change and then at the other end too much stress and no change and finally, way too much stress and negative change or illness, injury, damage.

Here’s a great diagram of the stress curve from Dr. S. Krishnan on, pay attention to the effect onperformance due to stress level:

stress curve 2

And another way to think about it from


This illustrates how when we’re in that “sweet spot” of both just-right stress and just-right recovery we respond positively by adapting in the way that we want to (i.e.: becoming stronger, more mobile, more skilled, etc. if we are thinking in terms of training, or more curious, more insightful, more interested, more energetic if we are thinking of terms of an exciting but big new project at work).

For this to really start doing it’s magic, we need to see how it plays out over time, as in this graph that also shows the importance of recovery:


A wonderful alternative visual from


As I mentioned earlier, there really is no “good” stress or “bad” stress, just stress.  Too little is not constructive when we are attempting to create change, just-right is exactly that and too much can be destructive.  The stress can be anything, it can be related to our jobs, families, personal relationships; stress can be due to our emotional response to those situations; stress can be incidental, like in response to traffic, taxes, sudden loud sounds, alien abduction, etc.; stress can come from the food we eat, the way we sleep or how much or how little we are moving and exercising.

I love that bucket image above because it is similar to how I think about stress, as a graduated cylinder.  If you remember high school chemistry class you may remember a tall, clear-plastic tube with little lines all down the side showing how many milliliters were in a liter.  (In this analogy more liquid = more stress, so it is opposite of the bucket above.)

Let’s say that for every incidence of stress in your life you fill up 10 mL in your graduated cylinder.  So your boss yells at you: 10 mL, fight with your partner: 10 mL, only 5 hours sleep last night due to the fight: 10 mL, need extra coffee to deal with only 5 hours of sleep: 10 mL, going on a 6 mile hike: 10 mL, taking an online course you find interesting that requires 1 hour of study per day: 10 mL.  Maybe some stresses are worth more than 10 mL, like death of a loved one, ongoing chronic issues like more than two alcoholic drinks per night, etc.  At the end of this inventory let’s say we end up with 800 mL out of 1000.  That is a pretty high stress load!

You are noticing that you’re not feeling great, you’re tired all the time, life just doesn’t seem as exciting as it should, and you’re dismayed to find you’re starting to put on weight even though you’re pretty sure you “eat right.”  This is often the point at which a lot of trainers meet their clients, who are seeking what they have been told they need in order to “get in shape:”  exercise, more exercise!  Harder, heavier, longer exercise!

Now, if we were dealing with a “stress score” of somewhere in the 300-600/1000 range, adding a little more stress in the form of training could still make a positive difference.  In fact, exercise is often cited to have a stress-relieving effect.  However, in an over-stressed individual (because remember:  stress is stress is stress) whether the stress we are adding is “good” or “bad” we only have so much capacity to endure stress and still recover and adapt, so more stress is not necessarily the answer.

One of the best ways I’ve heard this expressed is by a coach I greatly respect, Jim Laird:  “Using exercise to solve a lifestyle problem is like putting a band aid on a wound that needs to be stitched.”  Often, personal trainers are less of an exercise and fitness expert/teacher and more of a stress manager.  When I first meet with clients I show them this handy pie chart that I doodled on the back of a receipt:


I’m not going to pretend that those are exacting pie slices based on minutely measured data.  It is however a good approximation of the importance of good recovery when we are trying to create a change.  Good recovery includes adequate sleep and mental rest, stress management, foods that support our goals and just enough (not too much, not too little) of the stress (in this case, exercise) that will create the desired adaptation.  If we are already living at a 800/1000 stress level (to return to the graduated cylinder analogy) any good recovery we attend to will mostly be “used up” just recovering from the pre-existing high-level of stress we are under.

I’m going to take a pause here to address something.  Right now I imagine that you are tearing your hair out/gnashing your teeth/cursing my name.  Maybe you are feeling really frustrated: “but … LIFE IS STRESSFUL!!!  I can’t just quit my job/marriage/doctoral program because it is stressing me out!  What am I supposed to do?”  Well, for one, that is why I now speak in terms of stress management as opposed to stress reduction.  I think those are both important tools to learn, however I think that stress management is a much more useful tool.  It is relatively easy to reduce stress by addressing sleep hygiene, diet composition and rest strategies.  However, there are a lot more things in our lives that we cannot control, and they cannot be reduced, but instead must be managed.

Often times our management tactics can be similar to our reduction tactics in that they are reactionary or defensive in nature.  Gnarly traffic?  Take 5 minutes to meditate after you park your car.  Long day at the office?  Go for a 30 minute walk at the end of the day.  I am not saying don’t meditate or walk.  I am also not saying don’t use healthy options for stress relief/management.  I believe in and use both meditation and leisure walks as part of my self care and recommend them to everyone for a multitude of reasons including, but not limited to, stress management.  Instead,what I am suggesting is that we broaden our focus from reacting to external sources of stress to include proactive ways of embracing our internal power to manage stress.

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This post is continued here in “Being Stressed Out Is One of the Best Things That Ever Happened to Me, Part II”.  I hope you’ll continue reading!

Elias Gross