In the last blog post, we looked at some of the different ways of looking at stress outside of the medical field – the stress on a guitar string, the power band of the car engine, and the action of gravity on our bodies. In this post, I want to expand on those metaphors, using them to help us understand how we can respond to stress, and why stress isn’t our enemy, but it actually brings out our best if managed in the right way.
One of the reasons why gravity gives you strong muscles and bones, and zero gravity gives you weak muscles and bones, is because of resistance.
Movement involves work. We do “work” everyday in simple everyday activities, because our muscles and bones have to apply a certain amount of force in order to overcome gravity. Our muscles adapt by growing the muscle fibres to provide that force, and bones remodel themselves to provide the maximum resistance to the loads that gravity and the muscles put through them. We’re not aware of this day-to-day because we never experience prolonged changes in our gravitational fields.
But when we need to do more work than our muscles are accustomed to, our muscle fibres increase in strength, first as the nerve networks that supply the muscles become more efficient, after about two weeks of ongoing training, the fibres themselves increase in size [1, 2]. The growth in muscle fibres is caused by three related factors: mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress . Mechanical tension involves “force generation and stretch”. In other words, the muscle fibres are stretched just beyond their usual capacity, and they actively fight against the resistance. This damages the weaker muscle fibres, which are repaired. The remaining muscle fibres are forced to adapt by growing larger because of the stimulation of growth factors .
One of my favorite “Demotivator” posters says, “That which does not kill me postpones the inevitable” . Of course, the phrase that they’ve parodied is, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Why is there truth to that idiom? Adversity occurs when life circumstances come against us. In other words, adversity resists us. In the arm wrestle between adversity and overcoming, work is involved. We have to fight back.
In a similar way, we grow when adversity pushes us just beyond what we have done before, stretching us. We may sustain some damage in the process, but that helps to reduce our weaknesses, and forces us into growth as we heal. When we push back against adversity, the “cells” of our character grow.
Of course, we all know examples where muscles fail under intense or prolonged loads. I vividly remember the pictures of the UK’s Paula Radcliffe, succumbing to the grueling hills and scorching Athens heat with only four miles left in the 2004 Olympic Marathon. Muscle failure from excessive stretch or excessive endurance parallels the allostatic load response, which is what people commonly referred to as ‘stress’.
Scientific evidence that stress is positive
There have been recent studies in animals that demonstrate that stress is physically as well as mentally enhancing.
Neurogenesis is the process of new nerve cell formation. Studies of rodents placed under intermittent predictable stressors showed an increase in neurogenesis within the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain related to learning and memory. Along with this enhancement of neurogenesis, the function of the hippocampus increased, specifically hippocampal-dependent memory, with a reduction in depression and anxiety-like behaviours.
As Petrik et al noted in their review, “Contrary to stress always being ‘bad’, it has long been appreciated that stress has an important biological role, and recent research supports that some amount of stress at the right time is actually useful for learning and memory.” 
Lessons from stress
So what can we learn from stress? How do we use the stress that we are exposed to every day to make us grow strong and durable?
Firstly, like the guitar string, we need to learn when we are in tune, at the peak of our productivity. Or like the car engine, what it feels like to be in the power band. When we know where our sweet spot is, we can operate within it, achieving our best in life without doing ourselves harm. This is the first point that we need to identify on our own personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum productivity.
The other life principle to be gained from the car engine analogy is that not all of us are high performance engines. I would love to think that I’m a F1 racing engine – highly tuned, supreme power – but I recognise my limitations. I would even settle for a 5-litre V8, but I know that I’m probably more like a well-tuned V6. We are what we are. Sometimes we apply the most stress to ourselves when we try to drive in the power band of someone else’s engine. We need to accept who we are.
It seems logical that if too much stress is bad for us, then having little or no stress is good for us. But like the new guitar string, minimal stress makes us unproductive. Like zero gravity on the body, little or no stress makes us weak.
And we need to understand that a bit more stress is ok. It’s inevitable that we are going to be stressed beyond what we usually cope with at times. But without that challenge, there would be no growth. Challenges usually hurt. You can’t have growth without pain. In the muscle analogy, at the stretch at which peak growth occurs, muscle fibres tear and the lactic acid build up in the remaining cells can be very uncomfortable. The key is learning how far we can push ourselves before we start to falter and fail. This is the second point we need to discover on our personal stress/productivity curve. This is the point of maximum growth.
Once we understand our own individual points of maximum productivity and growth, we can use them as guides to our personal growth and achievement. Actually, I should specify that these are our starting points, since as we face challenges and experience growth, the points will change slightly. We can remap those points and continue in our pattern of growth and development.
Pushing ourselves into just enough stress to achieve growth, then pulling back to rest and restore, is a pattern of growth that is seen in many facets of the natural world and the human body. Body builders and athletes use this method all the time in their training. They push themselves with more repetitions and heavier weights, or longer or faster runs, then they pull back to consolidate their gains. During our adolescence, our bodies naturally go through growth spurts – periods of rapid growth followed by a plateau, before the next burst of growth hormone hits us again. Even tree rings demonstrate that growth and consolidation occur all the way through the natural world.
This is the Stressed-Rest cycle. The studies in animals on neurogenesis strengthen the theory, because it was the animals that experienced bursts of stress that showed enhanced neurogenesis, memory and reduced depression/anxiety behaviours.
If you want maximum personal growth, constant stress does not help. There has to be times of rest. Some people think that rest time is wasted time, reducing productivity. But as explained, without rest time, productivity rapidly falls away. Without rest, stress goes bad, leading to allostatic overload.
So in summary, excessive stress is bad. But if all stress were bad, then we would all crumple any time that something became difficult. So stress is not a force for evil. Stress is part of our normal everyday lives, and is vital if we are to see ongoing personal growth.
We know from living life that we all don’t fall in a heap when things go wrong. We have in-built ways of coping that help us to absorb troubles and adversities and like emotional photosynthesis – turn them into fuel for growth.
This is the science of resilience, the counterbalance to the forces of stress that help us cope and adapt in a rapidly changing natural and social environment, the Yang to allostatic overload’s Yin. A discussion on the science of stress is not complete without a discussion of resilience, which I’ll discuss in the next blog in this series.
- Hortobagyi, T. and Maffiuletti, N.A., Neural adaptations to electrical stimulation strength training. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2011. 111(10): 2439-49 doi: 10.1007/s00421-011-2012-2
- Schoenfeld, B.J., The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res, 2010. 24(10): 2857-72 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3
- Adversity. Demotivators [cited July 2013]; Available from: http://www.despair.com/adversity.html.
- Petrik, D., et al., The neurogenesis hypothesis of affective and anxiety disorders: are we mistaking the scaffolding for the building? Neuropharmacology, 2012. 62(1): 21-34 doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.09.003