Stress Your Way To… Success?

Deadlines to meet, problems to solve, traffic to wait in, bills to pay: the list is long.

In fact, modern life stresses you out from the time you get up until you go to bed at night.

But what if the hectic pace is actually good for you?

Humans are happier when they’re busy after all.

In her book, The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal references one 2012 study at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that found stress can hurt you — only if you believe it can.

Those with high levels of stress but didn’t believe it was harmful had the lowest risk of death of all participants.

Stress is harmful – when you believe it is.

Plus, without stress, we’d have far fewer opportunities to learn and grow.

For example, you’re breaking down muscle when you lift weights, causing considerable stress, but repair mechanisms kick in to build the muscle stronger after the workout. Your muscles grow to better take on future challenges.

The same stress response occurs in the brain. Neurons get broken down and built up when you challenge them – making them more resilient to future challenges.

You will feel stress, but instead of avoiding it, embrace it as a challenge.

Radiation A Good Thing?

In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, author John J. Ratey goes a step further.

One study mentioned in the book looked at the effects of exposure to low levels of radiation.

They compared two groups of nuclear shipyard workers in the 1980s, with only one group exposed to radiation.

What they found shocked everyone involved. The workers exposed to radiation had a 24 percent lower mortality rate than their counterparts.

The toxins that everyone assumed were ruining the workers’ health were doing just the opposite.

The low-grade cellular stressor of radiation activated their immune systems, making them stronger and more resilient.

Yes, that’s an extreme example, and there comes a point of diminishing returns with any stressful stimulus. You don’t want to be in “fight or flight” mode every moment of every day.

If you’re burning the candle at both ends, pushing yourself to the limits mentally and physically, something’s going to give eventually.

But there’s an opposing viewpoint that suggests you avoid stress at all costs.

That’s just not realistic.

Embrace stress when it comes to things most important to you.

Life activities we consider the most meaningful are also the most stressful.

Think having babies, starting a new career or stepping on stage for the first time.

How good do you feel after a successful speech? How good do you feel when you see your 2-year-old’s smile? How good do you feel when you get that promotion at work?

Pretty damn good, right?

None of those accomplishments came without stress.

Hell, avoiding stress can make things worse.

Based in part on studies with soldiers and police, McGonigal says that avoiding stress can hurt you, whereas stress can be good for you when it comes to things most important.

She mentions one study that found retirement increases the risk of depression by as much as 40 percent.

Lots of people live for retirement, counting down the days, but when that time comes it leaves you feeling hollow. Without purpose waking you up in the morning, you aren’t living up to your human potential.

As Ratey writes, “Maybe stress isn’t so bad after all. Stress seems to have an effect on the brain like that of vaccines on the immune system. In limited doses, it causes brain cells to gird themselves against future demands.”

What’s gotten lost in the push to reduce stress (and I’ve been as guilty as anyone) is those same stressful challenges allow us to learn and grow.

Stress is not a matter of good and bad – it’s a necessity to a fulfilled life.

Embrace the challenges life throws at you and become better for it.

Posted in


Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based fitness coach for men and women like his former self. Heavyset in his 20s, he lost 60 pounds and now helps clients find their spark and lose the weight for life.