Want me to let you in on a secret? Okay, come closer. Real close. A little bit more.
“Stress is good for you.”
There, I said it.
But before you click out of this post and start your elaborate meditation routine, hear me out. It’ll all make sense soon.
Yes, you have deadlines to meet, problems to solve, traffic to wait in, and bills to pay.
But what if parts of that hectic pace are actually good for you?
You are happier when you’re busy after all.
In her book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, Kelly McGonigal references one 2012 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison that found stress can hurt you — but only if you believe it can.
Those with high levels of stress who didn’t believe it was harmful had the lowest risk of death of all participants.
Stress is harmful when you believe it is. Let that sink in.
Instead of seeing stress as a sensation to avoid, embrace it.
It’s very similar to the way you perceive muscle burn while working out: It’s a sign that you’re doing something right.
Growth comes outside your comfort zone
You are fighting biological impulses when you move away from comfort. I’m not saying it’s easy.
But think back to the times in your life when you’ve been the happiest.
Were you starting a new business? Taking the leap of faith to ask out that special someone? Getting a promotion?
It wasn’t likely that you were between jobs playing video games in your parent’s basement. You may have been cool with that for a day or two, but soon after you got bored and depressed.
If you aren’t moving forward, you’re going backwards. Growth does not happen within the confines of your comfort zone.
A diamond without pressure is a lump of coal.
[Insert clichés about hard work here]
McGonigal actually says that avoiding stress can hurt you. She mentions one study that found retirement increases the risk of depression by as much as 40 percent.
Without purpose waking you up in the morning, you aren’t living up to your human potential.
As Dr. Jim Loehr (world-renowned performance psychologist) said in an interview with Tim Ferriss in Tribe of Mentors:
“Protection from stress serves only to erode my capacity [to handle it]. Stress exposure is the stimulus for all growth, and growth actually occurs during episodes of recovery. Avoiding stress, I have learned, will never provide the capacity that life demands of me.”
When is too much stress bad?
In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, author John J. Ratey refers to one study that looked at the effects of exposure to low levels of radiation.
They compared two groups of nuclear shipyard workers in the 1980s, with only one group exposed to radiation.
What they found shocked everyone involved. The workers exposed to radiation had a 24 percent lower mortality rate than their counterparts.
The toxins that everyone assumed were ruining the workers’ health were doing just the opposite.
The low-grade cellular stressor of radiation activated their immune systems, making them stronger and more resilient.
“Maybe stress isn’t so bad after all. Stress seems to have an effect on the brain like that of vaccines on the immune system. In limited doses, it causes brain cells to gird themselves against future demands,” wrote Ratey.
Yes, there eventually comes a point of diminishing returns with any stressful stimulus.
You don’t want to be in “fight or flight” mode every moment of every day.
If you’re burning the candle at both ends by not sleeping or taking care of your body and pushing yourself to the limits mentally and physically, something’s going to give eventually.
But you don’t want to have the opposite viewpoint that suggests you avoid stress at all costs. That’s just not realistic.
Seek out stress where it matters
Embrace stress when it comes to things most important to you.
Life activities we consider the most meaningful are also the most stressful: Things like having kids, starting a new career or transforming your body.
But how well do you feel when you see your two-year-old’s smile? How well do you feel when you get that promotion at work? How well do you feel when you fit into those old college jeans?
Pretty damn good, right?
None of those accomplishments came without stress.
Stress is not a matter of good and bad — it’s a necessity to a fulfilled life. Find your balance and embrace the challenges life throws at you.
You’ll become better for it.
Mitch Calvert is a body transformation coach for men like his former self, with worse genetics than Chris Farley. Yes, the chubby dude from Tommy Boy. Get Mitch’s free Mansformation Cheat Sheet to simplify your diet and start shedding that stubborn belly fat. Warning: You may need to invest in a new belt as your waist shrinks.