How to use the gym to manage stress
You are probably living in a state of chronic stress. That means you always feel some base level of uneasiness, all the damn time, and not just when your drill sergeant is screaming in your face.
Thinking about the PFT? Chronic stress. Conducting the PFT? Acute Stress.
Chronic versus acute stress
Chronic stress and its associated hormones prevent the human body from operating the way it is supposed to. For instance, people who are chronically stressed tend to get sick more often and more severely than those that have a healthier amount of acute stress. This is a classic example of the body following the mind. A sick body follows a sick mind.
In his book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky explains how mitigation of chronic stress is imperative for health, not just physical health but also mental health, spiritual health, and emotional health. One way to learn how to handle that stress is to observe those who are composed and calm.
Calm as a cucumber, but ready to make some gains.
Some of the calmest people in the world are as follows, in no particular order:
- Olympic lifters
- Explosive athletes
- Endurance athletes
- People on their deathbed… sometimes
Most of these groups of people have something in common. They purposely put their body under extreme acute stress and learn to overcome it. Acute stress is the much shorter and easier-to-overcome type of stress. It gets our hearts pumping and our bodies primed for action.
Most of the above activities will satisfy your physiological requirement for release. I don't recommend waiting until your deathbed to accept your fate and finally find peace though...
Consistency of effort breeds progress...Same shit, different day, better person.
Why lifting makes the most sense
The goal is to expose ourselves to acute stress so that we can mitigate chronic stress. I prefer barbell movements for this, for a few reasons:
- It's an economic use of time. → The same physiological end-state can be met in 5 minutes of heavy back squatting as it would after running a marathon or fighting in a cage for 5 rounds.
- It's the safest of these modalities. → Barbell movements require the least amount of time under stress, so overuse is mitigated. The movements are a skill that have proper form, whereas the other methods are more dynamic and therefore have a greater chance of something going awry.
- It's measurable. → The weight doesn't change. 400lbs will always be 400lbs. The more constants in an equation, the easier it is to solve for (x). For instance, let's say you decide to sprint. If the wind is blowing in a different direction, or the incline of your running path is just slightly different, it could completely change your output, and thus require more or fewer iterations than the previous session. For a quantitative person, this is too many variables to have to constantly calculate.
Check out that support system in action... It's a beautiful stress reducing thing.
How the weight room meets the recommendations
The American Psychological Association has set some recommendations to help manage stress. Allow me to show you exactly how 3-4 strength training sessions focused on compound movements satisfies all these recommendations.
- Set limits - Drop a heavy set of bench press on your chest one time and you will learn how to set limits. Understand that the bench press is a metaphor to literally pushing tasks through to completion. One task too many and you crumble. This lesson applies to all other facets of life.
- Tap into your support system - Being part of a team is something we all need. Many of us joined the military for this very reason. Having workout partners that rely on you to keep them safe and healthy is one of the purest forms of community available to us today.
- Make one health-related commitment - There are countless hormonal and physiological benefits of weightlifting. Your health-related commitment to the back squat is to survive and not allow the weight to crush you and your ego. It teaches us that we have the power to get those heavy life issues that are weighing us down off our backs - one rep at a time.
Overcoming acute stress in the great outdoors just like our ancestors.
(Photo by: Frame Kings)
- Enhance your sleep quality - The body craves movement and adversity, and when it overcomes that adversity through physical dominance it feels like it can relax. Sleep is your body's way of rewarding you for putting in work.
- Strive for a positive outlook - Have you ever seen someone frown after a super heavy deadlift? Nope. Usually, they start smiling as soon as the hips lockout at the top. It's really hard to think the world is all doom and gloom when you repeatedly prove to yourself that you can move a previously immovable object with a smile.
- Seek additional help - This is where spotters, gym buddies, coaches, and veteran gym rats come in. Put in enough time and work, and eventually, you'll be the one the young guys look to for approval and guidance. It's extremely difficult to be stressed when you exude confidence and have the battle scars and stories to prove it.