Our culture certainly encourages us to avoid suffering at nearly any cost. At the same time Americans as a whole are more stressed out than ever. There are likely a lot of reasons for that, but one of those is the lack of acute stress in our lives makes handling chronic stress that much more difficult. Technology and cultural advancement allows us to eliminate most any source of acute stress. While introducing more “suffering” and acute stress into our lives doesn’t sound fun, it will serve you well and become something that’s easier to do over time.
Good Stress vs Bad Stress
Some stress causes positive benefits in your life. Most of that is the stress that comes to an end. Consider the stress of a deadline at work or school. Some people work really well under that kind of stress. I know some people who won’t accomplish anything without a looming deadline, but as soon as they are up against the stress of a due date they produce phenomenal work. Not all stress is bad. Stress when properly managed and leveraged can be an important tool in personal development. The difference in useful vs harmful stress is the difference between acute and chronic stress.
Acute stress vs Chronic stress
Chronic stress can be brought on by by everyday stressors that are ignored and poorly managed as well as exposure to traumatic events. While chronic stress can take a serious toll on your physical health for me the larger issue is the toll it takes on my mental health. I can get trapped in the a cycle of feeling like the things that are causing me stress shouldn’t be, and as a result I get further stressed out by feeling like I’m damaged in some other way by getting stressed by everyday things. Let me give you a personal example. I use to have a 20-30 minute commute one way to work. This was one of the most stressful parts of my day on a regular basis, particularly on the trip home. Every stop sign and brake light was a trigger. I’d curse and swear and honk my horn over the slightest inconvenience or frustration in my commute. I’m basically ready to start a fight for 30 min at the start and end of everyday. Add to that the frustration that I know I’m overreacting to this everyday inconvenience and I’m ready to explode. Thankfully I enjoyed my job and family I was commuting to each way, but for many folks that’s not the case. A stressful 30 min commute to a job you hate is the reality for many people. This is an example chronic stress. Physical and mental distress over prolonged exposure to everyday activities. As I started to look for way to battle this over reaction to normal life I discovered the value of introducing some level of acute stress. Acute stress is typically temporary and voluntary as opposed to chronic stress which more often than not is prolonged and out of your direct control.
Sources of acute stress.
As previously mentioned acute stress can be a deadline at work or school or the pressure of the looming start date of some other dependent task. While there are many possible ways to introduce acute stress into your life, for me there have been at least three that have been helpful.
Cold showers: The benefits of cold showers are still hotly debated, but I can say this, If you can stay calm in a cold shower you can stay calm in traffic. Like with so many other changes in life, the way to introduce a cold shower into your life is one small step at a time. As a matter of fact, the work likely starts outside the shower with learning some good breathing techniques. Take some time to research things like the The 4-7-8 Method our my personal favorite the Whim Hoff method. Start by practicing some of these breathing methods before turning down the temps in the shower. Once you’ve found one that you are comfortable using, start your shower warm but towards the end begin your breathing technique before turning the shower to as cold as possible to finish it out.
On the opposite end of the temperature perspective I’ve found that a sauna or steam room is another great way to introduce acute stress into my life. I don’t spend a lot of time at my local gym however because of their childcare I do have a membership. I regularly go to my gym simply to use the steam room and shower after a workout. The steam room was actually harder for me than cold showers. I approached time in the steam room the same way I did cold shower initially, by practicing certain breathing techniques while in there. My first few times I definitely over did it with a 15min session that I nearly passed out from when leaving. I’ve found that the ability to withstand this kind of heat exposure is very personal. For me I have to do 10min sessions with 5min breaks in between. I typically consume about 24 ounces of water prior to the first sessions 24 ounces between each session and 24 ounces of water when I’m done. The heat exposure has been tremendously helpful say nothing of the water consumed during this process. While I can only do 10min at a time my wife can spend 15 min or more in one session. Find what works for you, stay hydrated, and don’t die.
Intensity in a workout is another acute stress that helps me manage chronic stress. While not every workout should be done at maximum intensity, if you are working out between 5 and 6 days a week, 3-4 of those days should be done at high intensity (whatever that means for you). It doesn’t really matter what kind of workout you prefer, it can be done at maximum intensity. Intensity is relative to the person working out, and more often than not you know if you are just going hard or going to the edge. If you haven’t learned this about yourself yet, this knowledge will come with consistency.
While a stress free life sounds nice on the surface, that’s not only not possible, its not truly healthy. Stress like many other things in life should be managed and leveraged for its benefits instead of its crippling disadvantages. Introduce stress where you can in areas that you can manage it well, and it will have direct positive effects on the things you can’t control.