Can you build your stress muscle?

Have stress in your life? I highly recommend reading the recent New York Times article How to Be Better at Stress.

Stress relief is great, but managing our response to stress may be better.

There were two key takeaways from the article:

  1. How negatively you perceive your stress has more impact on your health than the amount of stress you have.
  2. Practicing stress by putting yourself in challenging but enjoyable situations outside your comfort zone can actually change your biological response to stress.


This is great news for athletes because we excel at pushing ourselves outside our comfort zones and stressing ourselves out for fun.

Hands shaking at the starting line? That’s fine, we can use the adrenaline! Here we go.

And that’s exactly the type of attitude that predicts lower negative health outcomes in individuals who have high stress. By perceiving our stress response, from sweaty palms to an accelerated heart rate, as a sign that our body is preparing for the challenge ahead (not that we’re primed for a heart attack), we may actually reduce the negative health consequences of becoming stressed.

The study quoted in the article seemed to find that worrying about stress is correlated with higher risk of premature death, but the amount of stress in your life isn’t. Now, I’ll caution that this study, despite having a good field size of 28,000 participants over almost a decade, was using self-reporting to determine both the amount of stress and people’s perceived impact of that stress. It showed a correlation between how much people thought stress negatively impacted them and their risk of premature death. That doesn’t prove causation and could be chalked up to errors in self-reporting. What if the people saying they had tons of stress but didn’t think it impacted their health really didn’t have as much stress? But that doesn’t negate the importance of the finding that people who believe stress is negatively impacting their life are right.


What are the negative side effects of embracing that stressed out feeling when it comes over you, and telling yourself that your body is preparing you for what’s ahead, even if it’s just getting the kids out the door on time for school? (Totally random example. Very random.)

The idea of practicing stress resonates strongly with me. I was completely nerved up walking into my first strength training class at the gym. I had no idea where to get equipment, how to set up my station, whether we were even supposed to set up stations, where the front of the room was or what we would be doing. I’m an introvert, and maybe this sounds silly to you, but I was very nervous. Now I can walk in not knowing any of those things and it doesn’t bother me at all because I’ve been through it dozens of times. The same goes for donating blood and public speaking (I have zero issues talking in front of large groups after teaching high school!).

But wait, there’s more!

I find that repeated exposure to stressful events does more than prepare me for the same events next time. It prepares me to better handle all stressful events. One of my more popular blog posts is one I wrote about peeling a crazy number of peaches. In it, I talk about how running a half marathon made me better at handling other endurance tasks by just taking it one step at a time and knowing I’d finish eventually.

The same goes for stressful situations. After pushing myself out of my comfort zone again and again, I’ve gotten better and better at embracing challenges, asking myself “what’s next” and moving forward with confidence that I’ll make it through.

Because I’ve built my imaginary stress muscle. I’ve stood at the starting line of a half marathon worried about running for over two hours without stopping. I’ve clipped into a road bike for the first time. Completed two open water swims. And I’ve totally inoculated myself against being nervous entering any fitness class ever again.

Not only that, I’ve done it for fun. I’ve seen my hands shake from stress and nerves and laughed about it, because I was excited to do something that scared me. If I can convert that positive feeling about stress to a situation that isn’t fun and channel my stress response into a sign that I’m ready to take on this challenge, it’s not such an intellectual jump to expect that stress might have a less negative impact on my well-being.

What have you done that’s built your resistance to stress? I’m guessing you have your own list. Write it down. Remember it. It’s proof of your own strength, strength you can call upon the next time your hands start to sweat.

So take your pounding heart and your shaking hands as a sign that you are ready for battle, then go forth and conquer your life.

You’re an athlete.

You’ve got this.

Interested in more after reading the article? Listen to an interview with Dr. Dennis Charney about mastering resilience (quoted in article) on Shrink Rap Radio. I love Shrink Rap Radio for its long-form interviews with experts in psychology.


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