Like a lot of articles on the web, I could say that there are two types of stress: the good and the bad. The “good type” comes from exercise, math problems, crosswords, roller coasters/thrill rides, etc. Then you have the bad type: lack of sleep, toxins in your system, worrying about work or finances, anxiety, fear. I am not going to say that though; I am actually going to argue the opposite.
There is an element of relativity when it comes to stress. Roller coaster rides, which I love, are a ‘good’ stress for me because I enjoy the thrill. My wife on the other hand, hates them and does not get that same thrill at all. On the flip side, she loves watching videos of surgeries and medical tv shows full of blood and guts while I am burying my head in the couch or pretend I’m lost in a complicated sudoku puzzle. A ‘fun time’ for her can be a stress-fest for me.
Despite all this relativity, I would argue that when it comes to mental stress, there is no good nor bad stress. Stress is stress, but it is how we relate to it that colors the stress as good and bad. With a mental switch, we can neutralize mental stress and make it our strength rather than overwhelm and drag us down.
Stress arrises when a gap (or, for some, an abyss) forms between “what is” and what we think “should be.” The bigger the gap the more stress and anxiety we feel. This disparity occurs in all facets of our lives including athletics.
For example, let’s say I am out for an easy run. I feel good, feel powerful, feel smooth; life is good. I then look down at my watch and I see that I am running 2 minutes slower than I normally do! WTF? Why the hell am I running so slowly? This is bull. I should be going faster. I need to run faster! Other people right now are so much faster than I am. This is unacceptable. People are going to think I am slow. God I am pathetic.
Here, there is a gap between what is (me running at a specific pace) and what I think should be (“I should be running a 7min/mile pace) which in turn causes me anxiety and stress.
If I fall into this stress gap, I then push the pace, stressing my body and mind on a day that was scheduled for an easy, recovery run. That is, if I fall into this mental trap.
Let’s back up and reframe this.
If I looked down and saw my slow pace and thought: “Wow this is a bit slower than normal, but that’s ok. I guess my body needs the recovery. It is as it should be. The “what is” begins to aligns with the “should be.”
I am also changing the labels that I associate with those speeds. Instead of seeing “12 min/mile pace” as “bad” and “slow” (both relative terms) and “6 min/mile” as “good” and “fast” (also relative terms), I just see “12 min mile” and even label it as as good thing because it will help my body recover, which also helps contextualize reality as a product of all the events before.
When we resist the present moment, deny reality, and then further label the situation, stress emerges, so instead of resisting it, we should accept “what is” and in doing so neutralize the stress.
This term acceptance though is tricky so let’s not fall into another potential trap of accepting what is.
Acceptance not only means embracing the present moment but also being with the emotion. Acceptance does not mean that we try to push the emotions away or try to forget about them; that will only make the problem worse later. Instead, it is stepping back and labeling the stress as stress.
Moreover, it is important here not to incorporate this fear and stress into our identity and latch on to it. Saying “I am angry that my pace is so slow” only calcifies the emotion and makes it part of you. Instead, step back and just label it as it is. “This is anger. I see you anger.” And like you would observe a cloud passing in the sky, observe the emotion and watch it change over time. It might get stronger; it might weaken. Just observe.
When we get caught up in emotions brought on by stressors, it is hard to immediately step back and see reality. The emotions cloud our vision and thus it might help to take a breather (literally focusing on the breath), walk around, or do something differently, but we still should return and connect with that feeling once our mood has stabilized. It definitely takes practice.
Proper acceptance is a the first step but it is only half the process. Just because we accept it, does not mean we have to passively not care about what is.
For example, let’s take the hypothetical person, Stu. Stu has been eating healthy, doing his workouts, getting his sleep, meditating etc and he steps on the scale and he has gained weight. Immediately, Stu’s mind begins to fume: “How can this be?! I should be losing weight. I should be at least 5 lbs lighter by now.” Once again we see this anxiety arising between “what is” (Stu being heavier) and what Stu thinks “should be” (losing weight).
As I said, acceptance and relabeling is critical here. For Stu, if he truly wants to get healthier and create change, he needs to accept the weight gain because it is what is; if he denies it, he wont change it.
He also needs to see that he is labeling the numbers. As I like to say, scales give us numbers; we give it weight. He labels “5 lbs heavier” as bad as if it was morally wrong. There is the possibility that it is muscle weight; there is the possibility that it is water weight. Just by stepping on the scale, Stu does not know, and thus labeling it as bad is just creating problems until reality can be assessed. In addition to labeling the weight, he is neglecting everything else that has changed like his behaviors, mindsets, habits, relationships etc. That is not denying that h he is heavier but it is accepting the number but not moralizing it or rejecting the change (aka The Biggest Loser Phenom)
It’s at this moment after acceptance and unlabeling, that he needs to move on to step three of neutralizing stress: asking himself “What can I do differently to solve this problem if it is a problem? How can I fix this if this is something that needs fixing?”
Instead of reverting to old habits and maybe even trying to dull the stress through coping mechanism, Stu can ask his coach or himself, “Where is this change coming from? What can I do differently to possibly get different results if it is not the change that was intended?”
So, it is not a matter of getting rid of stress or trying to beat the stress. Rather it is about embracing reality and making peace with it, seeing it for what it is, and allowing for a solution to arise.
As always, this seems so simple but simple is not easy.
Physical stress is different. If you consume a toxin, that is going to stress your body to varying degrees. As a coach, the key to any good program is applying the right amount of stress at the right time, all the body to recover from that stress, and thus the person grows. How I do this in a training program is a whole, different post/video so stay posted).