Stress Is Not Your Enemy

7:50 AM Tuesday April 24, 2012  | Comments (36)

How often do you intentionally push yourself to discomfort?

I know that sounds a little nutty, but here's why I ask: Subjecting yourself to stress is the only way to systematically get stronger — physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. And you'll get weaker if you don't.

We live by the myth that stress is the enemy in our lives. The real enemy is our failure to balance stress with intermittent rest. Push the body too hard for too long — chronic stress — and the result will indeed be burnout and breakdown. But subject the body to insufficient stress, and it will weaken and atrophy.

Few of us push ourselves nearly hard enough to realize our potential, nor do we rest, sleep, and renew nearly as deeply or for as long as we should.

This is easiest to see at the physical level. In the absence of regular cardiovascular exercise — a form of stress — the heart's ability to efficiently pump blood drops an average of 1 percent a year between the ages of 30 and 70, and faster after that. Likewise, in the absence of strength training — literally pushing weight against resistance — we lose an average of 1 percent of lean muscle mass every year after age 30.

But those effects can be dramatically reversed, even very late in life. In one of a series of studies, a group of nursing home residents with an average age of 87 were put on a strength training program 3 times a week for 45 minutes a session. They were given plenty of time to rest between sets and to recover between sessions. On average, they more than doubled their strength in just ten weeks.

The principle is simple, but not entirely intuitive. The harder you push yourself, the more you signal your body to grow. It's called supercompensation, and the growth actually occurs during recovery. The limiting factor is mostly your tolerance for discomfort.

Think for a moment about attention. Absorbed focused lies at the heart of great performance. Unfortunately, our minds have minds of their own — they flit from thought to thought. It's also more difficult than ever to stay focused in this digital age. Never before have we had to deal with so many seductive distractions.

Training your mind operates by the same principle as training your body. By focusing on one thing for a defined period of time — say by counting your breath, or working at a demanding task, or even reading a difficult book — you're subjecting your attention to stress.

As your mind wanders, the challenge is to return your focus to the breath, or the task, or the book. Effectively, you're training control of your attention. The more intensely you practice, even for short increments of time, the stronger you'll get.

The alternative is shallowness. So much of what we do all day long requires little real effort, but yields only the most fleeting gratification.

For me, writing this blog is one way I intentionally push myself to discomfort for several hours every week. I don't relish pain any more than the next guy, and so to get past my resistance, I write at a set time, for 90 minutes at a stretch before taking a break. Working at a piece of writing forces me to think hard and searchingly, about a subject that matters to me, and then try to compose sentences that are lean, crisp, and clear, and say exactly what I mean them to say.

It can be frustrating and uncomfortable to think hard — especially early in the process. I often feel compelled to get up from my desk and eat something, or check my email, or do anything but keep writing.

Occasionally I succumb, but mostly I've learned to put off these indulgences, comforted by the knowledge that staying the course will ultimately make me feel more alive, more productive, and better about myself than I ever will by flitting between the day's more trivial tasks.

Completing a challenging piece of work, or a tough workout, or an intellectually demanding book, frees us to truly savor and enjoy the period afterwards — to experience time off not as slacking but as a fully earned opportunity for restoration.

Most of us instinctively run from discomfort, but struggle equally to value rest and renewal. We operate instead in a gray zone, rarely fully engaged and rarely deeply relaxed.

What practice could you add to your life to regularly push beyond your comfort zone — and then deliberately renew? Increasing the amplitude of your wave — from intense effort to deep renewal — is the surest path to a more fully realized life.

More blog posts by Tony Schwartz

 

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