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9 min read

Stress is Growth


Chronic stress is a genuine concern in our current environment. Continuous "fight-or-flight" responses and prolonged cortisol exposure plague countless individuals, and their health and body composition suffers. I wish to acknowledge that at the start. However, this article won't delve into stress management or reduction. This article is not about taking phosphatidylserine or preventing overtraining. Some of what you will read is dead-serious, some hyperbole, and a little satire, but do not let that get in the way of the overall point: we need Stress.

Stress is growth. We need to feel uncomfortable. We need suffering. We require it to grow emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and of course, physically. The stimulus for growth is pressure and discomfort. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski discussed this in his viral video about how a Lobster grows; it has over 2 million views on YouTube. Today, people flee from discomfort. Since the mid-1960's, people only want to "feel good, man." In their feel-good moments, they end up folding under pressure and abdicating responsibility. The thought of being uncomfortable and suffering does not sound like heaps of fun to the average person. If you are a parent, coach, or boss, you know what I'm talking about. The end result of this unfortunate trend is extinction. Not in number, but ability, health, resilience, and every other quality that makes us human.

We have gotten soft. Disney's "Wall-E" has an eerily accurate depiction of humans of the future--helpless and pathetic. When we were young, you couldn't find a "Safe Space." Our safe spaces were "Hot Lava." We didn't have "Trigger Warnings." The Trigger we knew had Roy Rogers sitting on top. There weren't even any "Spoiler Alerts." When you walked out of "Empire Strikes Back," you didn't call twenty friends, yell "Spoiler Alert" and then go on about Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker's father. You simply kept your mouth shut. Today, people get hot-and-bothered the moment someone begins discussing a movie they have yet to see. Even if they spoiled it, who cares? It's a movie. It's make-believe. I've had people tell me, "I won't be able to watch 'Infinity War' until Sunday, I hope no one spoils it for me. I'll be so mad." Are we permanently 10 years old? We are raising a generation with Peter Pan syndrome--they never want to grow up and feel uncomfortable. It's sad and should be alarming.

According to Sociologists, there were Five "Milestones" that indicated you transitioned to adulthood:

  1. Finishing school (HS or College)
  2. Moving away from home
  3. Becoming financially independent
  4. Getting married
  5. Having a child

If you are an entrepreneur, the business is your baby, so that counts. It is not uncommon for an entrepreneur to get out of bed at 3 AM to investigate a leak at the warehouse, similar to a parent getting up at 3 to change the baby. In 1960, 65% of men had checked all five boxes by 30 years old. In 2000, the number dropped to a third. Almost 60 percent of parents are now giving money to their grown kids—an average of $38,340 per child. 85% of college kids plan to move back home after graduation. If you still live at home, the question is, are you motivated to leave? It can be frightening. It will be uncomfortable. That's the point. This article isn't just about the young. I know many Gen-X and Boomers who find their growth stunted. They tell me they worked feverishly so that they can live luxuriously for the rest of their lives. Just because you found success and wealth, doesn't mean you should stop growing. Many of these people are the same ones who say, "I don't want my kids to struggle the way I did." I can understand that sentiment. But, at what cost? Do we draw the line between effort and entitlement, struggle and spoiled? Nevertheless, men and women, across all age groups, are getting unhappier, and its effects are very real.

On April 10, 1899, Theodore Roosevelt gave his "Strenuous Life" speech in Chicago, Illinois.

"I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.

Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness."

Teddy had a host of medical issues as a boy. He detested his fragility and worked tirelessly to change it. He became an adventurer, boxer, and wrestler. He led the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war. He had his eye punched out in a boxing match during college. He did judo in the White House with ambassadors from Japan. His energy was known to be "superhuman." He was even shot while campaigning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He finished his speech--with the bullet still lodged in his torso--before going to the hospital, "You see, it takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose." In his famous "Man in the Arena" speech, he said it wasn't the critic who counted, but the one in the arena, marred with dirt, sweat, and blood that counts and who deserves the credit, win or lose. Today we are content sitting in the bleachers. He regularly warned us that we were becoming too complacent and comfortable. One look at the statistics I provided earlier, and you will know he was onto something. This was over 100 years ago.

He pleaded with us not to shrink from strife and that only through hard work and dangerous endeavor would we accomplish the goal of greatness. In the speech, he was talking about the nation as a whole, but it unquestionably applies to the individual. That's how you build fit bodies, families, communities, and societies.

Although Roosevelt embodied the notion of "American Masculinity," perhaps to a fault, his words after the death of his wife and mother give us a glimpse into a man's heart during suffering. 

"She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; As a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love and revere her for the bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving, tender, and happy. As a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever."

It was Valentine's Day. They died within hours of each other. He was 25-years-old.

Endocrinologist Hans Selye discovered the General Adaptation Syndrome and unintentionally gave birth to Exercise Science. He identified two types of stress: Eustress (good) and Distress (bad). In today's culture, it is not as simple as "Exercise: good stress, Being Late: bad stress."

Stress is about perspective. Research shows that how we observe stress alters its influence on us. While most of us consider exercising a "Eustress," there are many who are petrified by it and perceive it as a "Distress." Today, the spectrum of "good stress and bad stress" is becoming profoundly asymmetrical. More things are finding their way into the "bad stress" category, and the "good stress" column is rapidly emptying. It is getting to the point where "stress" of any form will be avoided in lieu of comfort and convenience. Is "Wall-E" more prophecy than children's movie?

Researchers at UC Berkeley, the Safe Spaces center of the world found that perspective and how you look at stress changes its effects on your physiology. If you look at a stressor as a distress, it can negatively impact your circulatory system, brain, and immune system. But, if you look at the same stressor as a eustress, it can have the opposite effect. However, I wouldn't be surprised if someone was offended by their conclusions and college administrators fired the entire research team for it.

Stress is a teacher. Circling back to my previous point, the better the perspective, the better the lesson. In the book, "The Natural," by Bernard Malamud, he writes, "We live two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live after that." If you never experience pressure or discomfort, you will never live the first life--the life we learn with. Brad Pitt's character Tyler Durden, in the instant-classic "Fight Club," said "How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight? I don't wanna die without any scars." Here, fighting is a metaphor for all forms of stress and conflict, and scars don't simply mean the physical kind. We know too many people who shield themselves or are shielded by others from failure or setbacks. When they eventually experience it, they are frightfully ill-equipped and unable to cope. It's true for exercise, sports, business, and romance. We need to experience strife in our fitness goals, we need to fail at business and school, we need to lose the game--and not get a trophy, and we need to feel heartbreak.

Everything we appreciate today is the product of someone's suffering and stress. Every time you cross the Brooklyn Bridge, use your iPhone or drive your car, you are experiencing the fruits of someone's struggle. If we sought calm and comfort all the time, nothing would get done, nothing would matter, and we would be empty and purposeless people. Purpose stems from struggle, not from comfort. During the Great Depression, those who were charged with finding work for the unemployed described those they encountered. They described them as "lifeless," almost zombie-like. They loathed the idea of charity and handouts. They did not want welfare. They wanted to work. They wanted to provide for their families with their own labor. They wanted to contribute. They would have gone into the mines or work on tall buildings, risking life and limb. 

At this point, I should pause and address the word "suffering," which I have mentioned several times. Do not think I'm being extreme with my word selection. I don't mean suffering as in "torture." The etymology of the word Passion is "passio," meaning "to suffer, endure." Suffering is passion and passion is suffering. If you choose to avoid suffering, you are also missing out on passion. Think about those who are passionate about their music, art, sport, faith, business, or family. Every single one of them knows what it means to suffer for the things they love. I don't know about you, but I am mortified by the idea of a passionless life. Because we choose passion, we must accept suffering as an inevitable consequence.

We have briefly talked about "eustress" and "distress." Enter: "Edustress." You won't find that word in any dictionary, I made it up--for better or worse. It is the type of stress, pressure, and discomfort that teaches you something about yourself, similar to the line in "Fight Club." Using the correct perspective, any "stressor" can qualify as an "Edustress," but there are ones that stand out above others.

  1. Do something that scares or intimidates you, or that appears uncomfortable. 
  • Increase your training frequency. For hypertrophy, various frequencies work, but for strength and improving motion patterns, the higher frequency wins. That doesn't mean "Bulgarian Style" daily maxes. It means a daily commitment to practice. Fitness is a skill.
  • It's ok to train when you're sore. Everyone is so concerned about "overtraining," that when they feel the slightest tenderness in their biceps, it prompts a "recovery week." You can train a muscle while it is sore. You won't succumb to rhabdo. 
  • Be cold. Cold showers, ice baths, and cryotherapy boost immune system, circulatory function and your grit. Considering the time investment, it's worth it. If you're a beginner, take a normal shower, and just before you're done, drop the water temperature down as low as it goes. Hang in there for as long as you can. You'll want to jump out--but don't. Soon, you'll be able to handle longer exposures and feel more badass.
  • Camp. I don't mean Glamping. That's essentially going to the Ritz Carlton with a tree in your room. Rough it. Eat some pork and beans, try to catch a fish and shiver a little. Just don't try to reenact that scene from The Revenant. You know the one I mean.
  • Pick up a musical instrument or learn a new language. Remind yourself what it's like to be awful at something again. Stick with it, and you'll be ordering like a pro in French restaurants or playing the Moonlight Sonata in no time.
  • Begin a martial art. I won't be snobby about which one you choose. Start as a white belt with the other beginners. Get outpointed by a 10-year-old in karate or smashed by a wrestler in jiu-jitsu. It's good for you.
  • Compete in something. If you lose--which you probably will--and they give you a participation trophy, throw it away. That's not the point. Don't know where to start? Try powerlifting. The rules are simple and the required skill set allows for all age groups to participate. At the last competition I coached at, I witnessed a 70-year-old lady in her 30th competition. Every lift, regardless of weight, brought a smile to my face. If your joints can take it, run a marathon or 10k. Better yet, escort a person with special needs through one. My friend in Oregon learned how to swim properly so that he could do triathlons. It's the one in the arena that counts, not the critic.
  1. Take on something that makes you live beyond yourself.

This is probably the most important form of Edustress. It's not a code for "collectivism." I'm referring to you harnessing your strong individuality to build and create something special.

  • Are you dating someone for more than a year? Are you over 30? Put a ring on it--what are you waiting for?
  • Start a business.
  • Start a family.
  • Run for public office.
  • If you're still in high school, run for associated student body--ASB. Yes, it's a popularity contest, but who cares? Pick up a sport. At least get outside--screens are "Hot Lava."

There must also be a simultaneous removal of the influences that block these forms of "Edustress." We need to remove the bubble wrap off your soul.

  • No safe spaces.
  • Get out of the habit of using the phrase, "bio hack." It's an intellectual form of the word "shortcut."
  • Kids, reduce video games. The average American will have spent 10,000 hours playing video games by their 21st birthday. I don't think that's what Malcolm Gladwell meant by his "10,000-hour rule," in the book, "Outliers." Personally, I think video games peaked at Mario Kart.
  • Calm down on the social media. That goes for everyone. A study released from the University of Pennsylvania showed a direct link between social media and depression and loneliness. 143 participants were put into two groups. One group was instructed to continue their SM use as normal, whereas the second group was limited to 30m per day. The limited use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks. This brings intense irony to the title "Social Media."

Too often we misconstrue purpose and happiness. People chase happiness, try to escape discomfort and stress, and assume it leads to purpose and meaning. It doesn't. Purpose, meaning, and happiness come from duty and responsibility. Those responsibilities come with stress, pressure, and suffering. Don't get comfortable. Seek pressure. Pressure can burst pipes and can forge diamonds. We need more diamonds, not snowflakes. "Wall-E" doesn't have to be a documentary or a prophecy. Pursue the strenuous life and you'll find an existence with abundant growth, health, meaning, and happiness.

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