Understanding Stress

Part One of an Ongoing Series

Through the world travels of the Good Athlete Project, we have noticed one underlying constant in the desires of most people: less stress. It takes different forms and we name it different things, but it consistently looms heavy in the minds of many… stress about work, family, performance in a variety of fields. To have “less stress” is an understandable desire, but a misguided one. Instead, let’s learn to thrive in the presence of potential stress and grow from those experiences.

We would all benefit from reframing and destigmatizing the word stress, and understanding it not as the state of being overwhelmed, but as a necessary component of growth, inextricably intertwined with our success.

Stress is a signal-response mechanism that allows us to exist within the demands of our environment. We need it. The negative relationship we have to the word refers in actuality to chronic stress, which is the real culprit behind much of our pain, and should be avoided. Strategies exist to avoid chronic stress. In order to utilize those strategies, and understand the difference between stress quality and stress quantity (how many potential stressors you have in your life, versus how good/bad they are) we should take a moment to understand exactly what it is we’re talking about.

Photo Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

There are three primary systems in the body which coordinate to manage stress: the voluntary nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, and the neuroendocrine system. The voluntary nervous system is the most obvious. It controls conscious movement. It’s the one filtered through the primary motor cortex of the brain and sends commands to the body. Decide to lift your cup of coffee, then do, then thank this system. It gets you where you want to go.

We would all benefit from reframing and destigmatizing the word stress, and understanding it not as the state of being overwhelmed, but as a necessary component of growth, inextricably intertwined with our success.

The autonomic nervous system is slightly more complex and comprised of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for what we commonly refer to as “fight or flight” responses. It preps the body to respond to demanding stressors without conscious awareness. When you walk into a packed stadium for a championship game and the hairs on your neck stand up, this is why. In the presence of a significant obstacle or threat, your heart rate will increase alongside the rate of your breathing, and your pupils will dilate so you can more accurately perceive potential threats. Glucose levels in your bloodstream will elevate so that muscles, should you be called upon to use them, will have quick and easy access to fuel. Without this stress response, our ancestors would have been eaten many years ago. You – we – wouldn’t have the opportunity to exist (and complain about the stress in our lives).

The parasympathetic nervous system more generously refers to the series of “rest and digest” responses. It is the counterbalance to the sympathetic nervous system. Among other necessary functions (like eliminating waste, reproducing, and repair/create tissue), this is the state in which you recover from the demands of your “fight or flight” actions. Here your heart rate drops, respiration slows to a comfortable pace, and pupil dilation returns to normal. These two systems work like a seesaw, when one is up, the other downregulates, and vice versa. When the human system is functioning well, they balance each other out.

The third system, the neuroendocrine system, works in concert with the others. It produces the hormones – namely, cortisol and adrenaline – which prepare our bodies to manage obstacles and threats. Cortisol has the ability to increase glycogenesis, providing fuel for our skeletal muscular system. It also stimulates brain activation and use of our senses. Adrenaline increases heartrate, blood pressure, and expands air passages, among other performance enhancing functions. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, these are the hormones it pairs up with in order to meet the demands of a situation.

They are necessary. They are the reason we survive as a species.

[Stress is] necessary. [It is] the reason we survive as a species.

But there is a cost. Every ounce of energy expended produces equivalent exhaust. There is a conversion, a remainder. Think of the exhaust coming out of the tailpipe of a car – that’s what’s left over when fuel has been converted into the energy which propels the vehicle. If a car continually burned fuel but didn’t release exhaust, think of the damage it would do, building up within the vehicle and polluting the system. That’s the problem with modern stress.


We no longer live in an environment where fending off the occasional predator or tracking down the week’s feast is the main priority. We live in an environment designed to hijack our attention and retain it through a barrage of stimuli which keep our pupils slightly dilated, our heart rate slightly elevated, our blood sugar levels at a slight increase. Our environment keeps us slightly stressed, always.

Add chronic stress to significant societal disregard for rest and recovery, and we have a problem. Consider that for a moment. How well do you sleep? For how long, on average? Do you take time to consciously recover from the stressors in your life?

Odds are against it. Americans have been sleeping fewer and fewer hours per night over recent years, down one full hour since the 1940s, to a measly 6.8 hours per night. The CDC recommends 7-9 hours for adults which makes us, on average, a sleep-deprived nation (more on the value of sleep in later articles). Sleep deprivation makes accurate assessment of work, relationships, and other potential stressors far more difficult.

So perhaps it is not the amount of stress in our lives, but our perception of the quality of that stress due, in part, to the way we do or don’t relax. In other words, it is not our overactive sympathetic nervous system, but the lack of balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Again, not too much stress, but too much chronic activation of “fight or flight” which tamps down the activation of “rest and digest”.

Instead of “less stress”, we should aim for more balance.

A range of strategies will be released in an upcoming series of articles. Today’s performance strategy is simple: work to understand.


Performance Strategy: Work to Understand.

We cannot solve a problem of which we are unaware. Moreover, once we are aware of a problem, accurate assessment becomes immediately important. An easy way to imagine this is through the splinter metaphor. If you have pain in your hand, the first step to solving this problem is the recognition of the pain. The second step would be identifying the splinter as the source of the pain. If you misattribute the pain to dry skin, then your “remedy” might be applying moisturizer. Feedback in the form of continued pain would tell you that your strategy, though well-intended, was ineffective. Only through accurate identification of the problem, the splinter, can you take steps to removing the splinter, keeping clean hands to prevent infection, and ultimately solving the problem. But before you solve it, you have to understand it.

So as you Work to Understand stressors in your life, try this method:

  • 1. Identify the Need
    • What are you thinking and feeling – do you feel overwhelmed? Are you in a state of chronic stress? Might be time to take action and improve your situation.
  • 2. Assess the Situation
    • What are the sources of this pain? Write them down. Whether it’s work, bills, other people or a combination of sources, it’s important to be as explicit and honest as possible about what’s actually going on in your unique situation.
  • 3. Identify the Source of the Problem
    • Be honest. Is your co-worker actually the worst person you know? Do they really have no clue what’s going on and you can’t understand why your boss hired them? Perhaps your negative interactions are the result of a system of complicated, overlapping factors. What of those factors can you control? Are you discounting your personal wellness in hopes of workplace success while unknowingly making workplace relationships more difficult? You’d be surprised how often that is the case.
  • 4. Attempt a Solution
    • Spend a week prioritizing your nutrition. Or physical exercise. Or sleep. Or mindfulness. Based on what you have identified as the source of the problem, give something a shot and stick to it.
  • 5. Create a Feedback Loop
    • Did your attempted solution work? If so, great, move on to the next challenge or opportunity in your life. If not, return to one of the previous steps and see where you went wrong. Did the solution not solve the problem? Try another solution. Did you inaccurately assess the problem? Reconsider the situation and try again. Listen to the feedback.

If the feedback after your attempted solution does not address the identified need, try again. Keep trying. Diligent practice within this model will eventually lead to a desirable result.

When we identify external stressors like a co-worker, too much homework, or an overburdened schedule as sources of our stress, then we hope and hope and hope for less of it, then we will never have the proper, manageable amount of it. Rather, let’s take a close look at the way we interact with stress, and our role in not only reducing it but actively recovering from that which we have.

Try it. With this model, the effectiveness of your actions will improve, just by doing the work of accurately understanding.