Stress Can Make You Or Break You

14 min read

‘We suffer more in our imagination than we do in reality.’

These words were etched into paper nearly two thousand years ago by Seneca, a Roman statesman and philosopher. And despite the eons that passed before we reached modernity, that line hasn’t lost any of its bite.

Much of the suffering we go through in the daily rat chase is self-inflicted, afflictions conjured up by the monkey mind that’s stuck in the past or future, along with negative interpretations of existing stressors.

I’m going to do my best to make sure that I don’t come off as another mystical nutjob who’s done a few too many shrooms. Obviously, we do often experience suffering for very valid reasons. The jarring pain of a toothache doesn’t go away because you refuse to see evil in the world. If you’ve tripped over a tree root and sprained your ankle, it’s not going to feel pleasant no matter how enlightened you are.

But what I would argue, is that for most of us, these moments are few and far between, and they’re heavily outmatched by our stubborn insistence on viewing stress as a negative force that should be avoided at all costs.

The truth is, stress is neutral. It’s not ubiquitously good or evil, and the dose often makes the poison. Stress is also the necessary path to becoming stronger, it can’t be avoided if you have any ambitions. So don’t treat the incoming assault with trepidation, lean into it.

This is about harnessing stress to become all-conquering and unbreakable. It’ll also help you get jacked. But before we get into the six tenants of a stressful transformation, it’ll be worth understanding just what stress is.

What Is Stress?

what is stress

In its basic form, stress is the body’s attempt to form a physical response to a threat or a challenge. It doesn’t necessarily mean danger, just simply priming the body for action. A paleolithic hunter spotting fresh tracks left by a giant ground sloth might experience a surge in cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. Because it may soon be time to break from his languid stride into a run.

The modern environment typically involves less hunting, and your chances of meeting a gruesome and untimely end are significantly lower. However, while the physical threats have technically gone down, things that can be interpreted as a threat have skyrocketed on a stratostrophic level.

You can stay nestled on the sofa in the comfort of your own home, and still be under constant assault of such threats.

A picture of your ex pops into view as you’re scrolling down through Instagram.

You spot an email from your landlord.

Your second favourite football team just conceded.

Someone knocked on what you think was your neighbour’s door. But you can’t be sure.

There’s a very high chance that none of these stressors lead to any sort of confrontation. That doesn’t stop you from going up through the gears in anticipation of an impending bloodbath.

Stress breaks you out of homeostasis and puts you in a state of fight-or-flight, the emergency mode of the nervous system. This mechanism is designed to be adaptive, causing changes across your physiology that make you better able to handle similar situations in the future.

But if that stressor is too intense, repetitive, or isn’t backed by sufficient focus on recovery, it becomes maladaptive. You’re then at risk of becoming depressed, anxious, and feeble. That’s the essence of stress as a force. It’s a simple physiological fact that stress has the potential to make you or break you.

Naturally, this is a bit of an issue in our trigger-friendly modern setting. The tiger is always there, or lurking across the periphery. So it’s understandable that many opt for the tactic of battening down the hatches and waiting it out. If you’re dealing with anxiety, it may well appear the only option.

However, the solution can’t be uniform avoidance of all things stress. That’s a surefire way to make the tiger larger, meaner, and when the day eventually comes when it seizes the chance to pounce, you won’t be ready.

The other option, the better one, would be to view stress as a tool that can make you better able to fend off that tiger, and mold you into the model hunter that’s the envy of all the other spear-chuckers in the village.

That’s the model that ensured our ancestors weathered and thrived through the perils of the paleolithic, and given that evolution doesn’t have the habit of unravelling over the space of 10,000 odd years of mismatching, it’s also the model that works best in modernity.

So here are the rules for forging a resilient body and mind.

1. The Body Doesn’t Adapt Without A Challenge

quality over quantity

In other words, the stressor has to reach a sufficient level to cause an adaptation. I’ll pull us away from the jungle so you can get a more relatable angle than dodging razor-sharp claws. If you’ve been benching one plate for the past six months, chances are you’re no longer getting any stimulus worthy of inducing growth. You need a way to up the ante, and there are a couple of ways of doing that.

1. Add more weight

2. Take it closer to failure

In either case, the stimulus is heightened by increasing mechanical tension, hopefully along with improvements to coordination, stability, and explosive power. If that stimulus is greater than the muscle’s current adaptations, then you’ve checked off the vital first step for synthesising new muscle tissue. You’re on the way to getting jacked.

This first step also proves to be a bridge too far for many lifters that are unwilling to put the effort in and wade through the discomfort. They’re not training hard enough.

12 Muscle Building Mistakes

The stimulus to adaptation cycle of muscle-building is an easy way to sum up the necessity of stress as a transformative force. There’s no growth without the challenge to justify it. The human body is the master of cutting costs. You need to give it a reason.

2. You Still Need Respite From The Assault

meditate stress away

For all the good stress can do, the dose makes the poison, and it needs to be buffered by moments of relief. If you’re under constant assault by stress, whether you’re running 70 miles a week, or coming home from exhausting work days to dodge a disgruntled spouse, then that’s a whole lot of poison without much downtime.

This is where we fall into the realm of chronic stress, where you prime the body for stagnancy and dysfunction.

To bring back the example of building muscle, you probably shouldn’t be squatting and deadlifting hard and heavy over consecutive days. Muscle fibers need at least 48 hours to adequately recover. Both squats and deadlifts incur tons of systemic fatigue that lower fiber recruitment. Training through muscle soreness itself is pretty pointless since pain is inhibitory.

9 Reasons Why You’re Not Recovering On Time

But if you placed them a few days apart, or even mustered the enthusiasm to squeeze them into the same day, then you’ll have the time needed to recover, repair, and return to the bar with some fight again.

You can’t be all gas pedal. If stress is ever present, you’re constantly worrying about the past and the future, it’s going to cost you.

3. Building Stress Resilience Through The Mitochondria

mitochondrial dysfunction

Resilience is the ability to withstand stress, and that’s not solely going to be down to how you manage the dose of the stress, and provide the necessary respite from it. The health of your mitochondria has an outsized role in dictating the stress adaptation cycle.

If you’re already aware that the mitochondria are the motherboard of the metabolism, and define the ageing process, then this angle shouldn’t be too surprising.

I’ve previously gone into some detail on how mitochondrial dysfunction drives ageing, and mental health disorders. But to give you the science in brief, oxidative stress is a natural part of the stress pathway that’s necessary to produce the energy needed to combat the source of the trigger.

Too much oxidative stress, and too few of the mitochondrial building blocks, both increase the risk of metabolic dysfunction, where inefficient and erratic mitochondria cause the system to malfunction.

Which is why a key part of combating stress, and adapting to meet the demands, is giving the mitochondria what they need to repair, thrive, and proliferate. A part that is thoroughly dealt with by a meat-based ketogenic diet that is absent of seed oils.

The state of ketosis upregulates antioxidant defences while also causing mitochondrial biogenesis. In other words, the mitochondria are allowed to strengthen, and proliferate. 

Meanwhile, red meat provides the building blocks needed for the production of natural antioxidants like glutathione, and the elimination of rancid seed oils nullifies a major driver of oxidative stress.

This is part of why carnivore shouldn’t be framed as a weight loss diet. First and foremost, it’s a diet for vitality and longevity. Weight loss itself is just a happy consequence of having a well-buttered machine.

4. Suffering Is Often A Choice

how to deload

The perception you have of a stressor often has a big say in dictating the outcome. By this, I mean the choice to perceive the stressor as a threat or a challenge. Let’s say you’re about to give a presentation at your company’s quarterly financial meeting.

As the boss motions for you to head to the front, your heart picks up on the cue and begins to race away. At this point there’s still time for you to interpret the stimulus and manage the response.

On one side, it’s a threat. You’re worried about flubbing your lines. This interpretation manifests itself by immobilising you. The mouth goes dry, the heart reaches the throat, you begin to clam up.

Then there’s the challenge, where you have the opportunity to assert yourself on the room and rise to the occasion. The adrenaline coursing through the system makes you more alert, more focused, perfectly primed to smash the presentation and further your hunt for that promotion.

Both these options come alongside the rise in sympathetic activity, as the body gears up for action. The sympathetic nervous system is also known as fight, flight, or freeze. What I’m suggesting, is that you get to pick which of those sympathetic responses becomes your default. 

If you continually freeze up, you’ll be the victim, timid and aggravated in the face of stress. You become more likely to treat it as yet another thing to suffer through.

But if you get ready for battle, putting yourself on the front-foot in anticipation of the incoming stressor, you’ll be well set to endure the discomfort. In fact, you will often relish the ‘pain’ of effort, because you know what comes afterward.

5. Stress Makes You Feel Good

cold exposure benefits

The key to understanding stress as the pathway to pleasure, is by recognising that pain and pleasure both come from the same receptors. As a result, one naturally leads into the other. Spikes of pleasure end up costing you with sustained periods of discomfort.

Eating your cake offers up a few short moments of bliss for brain fog, anxiety, and the inevitable renewal of cravings an hour or so later.

On the flipside, willingly ploughing through short periods of discomfort can elevate your dopamine levels for hours afterward. A few minutes of ducking under an icy shower is well worth the initial trepidation, and then the brutal shock when the first drops of water smash against your skin. Because in the aftermath, you’ll be feeling much better for the battle of wills. You’ll be warmer, focused, and brimming with healthy energy. All thanks to your ability to lean into stress.

Stress isn’t just about the long game, where you put the work in with the final transformation in mind. Each day, stress has the potential to change your wellbeing for the better, and add some impetus and energy to the routine. Which is you should relish the feeling of the uncomfortable, rather than suffer or shy away.

Train For The Process Not The Outcome

6. This Doesn’t Apply To All Stressors

seed oil dangers

As a disclaimer, some stress won’t be worth tangling with. While I have laid out the principles of hormesis, where low grade exposure to stress leads to favourable adaptations. In many cases, that holds true. Weight training, cold exposure, caloric restriction, are all forms of hormetic stressors with the capacity to make you stronger as long as the dose is controlled.

But no-one is going to make the same argument for smoking, understandably so. Smoking leads to oxidative stress and carcinogenic compounds beyond the ability of the body to cope. The same should apply for highly inflammatory compounds like seed oils, glyphosate, and oxalates. In any of these cases, the goal shouldn’t be to achieve low grade exposure. It should be to minimise them as much as possible.

Wrapping Up

sama personal trainer total fitness

The approach you have with stress plays a defining part in getting favourable adaptations rather than slipping further into the mire. If you see it as a neutral force with the capacity to make you thrive, then you’ll be well placed to get the best out of it.

Because while too much stress can certainly kill, so can too little. If the objective is to become hard to kill, then it makes perfect sense to continually expose yourself to stressors that force the body into becoming stronger.

As it happens, an ancestrally-consistent lifestyle provides many such stressors.

  • Cold exposure
  • Fasting
  • Ketosis
  • Exercise

Subject the body to these stressors on a weekly basis, and you’ll be well on the way to thriving. I’ve written plenty of guides that tackle each of them.

6 Ways Of Cold Showers Can Shock You Into Shape

How Long Should You Fast?

Ketosis And Stress

Why More Volume Won’t Make You Grow

These ancestral stressors can then provide you with the resilience to weather the storm of their modern counterparts, the persistent pollutants like work, commuting, social media, and 24/7 news.

Social Media And The Brain

So I’m not recommending you go live in a cave so you can relive our paleolithic heydays, just arm yourself with the best tools to survive and thrive in your modern environment. That’s been my whole message all along.

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4 months ago

Pretty! This has been a really wonderful post. Many thanks for providing these details.