Good Stress and Bad Stress, Part II

The previous post laid out the history of stress, explained how stress imposes a reaction, and the difference between good stress and bad stress.

In all activities, there is always a ceiling. It can be genetical and limit maximum strength, speed, coordination in physical performance. It can be environmental or geographical. Where we live and study determines for example the quality and scope of work. It can be a time ceiling, giving us limited time to accomplish required tasks.

This maximum can be attainable after a long and hard journey and is illustrated by the red line in the graph below.

This graph puts Time on the X axis. Time marches on inexorably and cannot be controlled.

0 on the Y axis can be assimilated to boredom or apathy. There is no occupation, only physical and mental emptiness. It can be a demoralizing state, and thoughts of depression or worse occur. On the other hand, 10 can be likened to a state of mastery or enlightenment. Challenges are easily solved, the mind is singularly focused on the work, new disruptive ideas are found, and every gesture appears to be in total sync with one another, with no waste.

As time progresses, we naturally descend to the state of 0. In this example, a stress factor (around 1 on the blue line), prompts a reaction. We are in a higher state. As the stressor disappears, state slowly fades down again.

For most people, stress is something that is imposed onto them. But what if we voluntarily take control of the process?

On the blue line above, we can imagine adding a stressor on T=3, prompting another reaction, and do so on, until we reach the ceiling.

The Danger of Overtraining

Overtraining occurs when we are pushing ourselves beyond our abilities.

This happens when we add stress too frequently, and we don’t leave enough time for recovery.

While overtraining is a concept mostly used in sports medicine, it is a convenient concept that can be applied to any work. If you like, you can call it burnout.

Overtraining can be prevented by optimizing intensity, diversity and frequency of stressors. Too much, and we risk overtraining, and too little, we have boredom and apathy.

Stress Frequency

Stress that occurs at random or inappropriate times is bad stress. This is the highway noise pollution that prevents you to sleep, or the salesperson who harasses all day, at seemingly random times. This only creates mental and physical disease.

Stress needs to occur regularly, in a planned manner. It can be added to a calendar, and follows the natural rhythms: the day, the week and even macro-cycles such as trimester or year.

In this manner, we can prepare mentally and physically, review skills and techniques, and perform best when the stressor occurs.

Screen Shot 2016-12-05 at 8.42.59 AM.png
Monk Ryojun Shionuma climbing Mt. Onime

History shows that daily stress is good. One good inspiration is Ryojun Shionuma, a japanese monk who has taken a vow to climb Mount Onime, every day. The route climbs more than 4,000 feet in 15 miles and demands 16 hours for experienced hikers. This is Ryojun’s path to enlightenment, a strenuous challenge he undertakes every day even in inclement weather or sickness.

Another example is in school calendars. There are daily classes, weekly tests, and exams every trimester. Every year, there are new teachers and new challenges. What if you follow a similar template, adding a simple stressor every day, pledging to publish a work every week, and undertake a regional competition every trimester? New skills will be learnt, challenges will be overcome, and 10,000 hours later, enlightenment occurs 🙂

Stress frequency does not need to be complicated, and it shouldn’t be.

Stress Diversity

If we are unable to perform with the same stressor every day, we can include diverse stressors.

It is known for example that monotonous training even at the optimal frequency will induce overtraining. An endurance athlete who only undertakes long runs will lack the necessary speed to perform in competitions. In this case, he can choose to focus on strength training one day, high intensity intervals another day, cross training in another sport another day, and his usual long runs every other day. These stress a different group of muscles each time, in various ways, and leaves ample room for muscle recovery. Ultimately, all converge to the same objective though.

A photographer who wants to excel in his art plans studio portraits two days a week, an outdoor portrait one day, a more “artistic” photoshoot another day, a workshop with photography research later, and then a wedding assignment on weekends. These come with expected deliverables for customers, and require the development of various skills, week after week. He finds himself testing new techniques, improves upon them. Years later, he is considered the master of his field.

Between the example of the buddhist monk Ryojun Shionuma who undertakes the same challenge every day and the photographer who has five types of challenges every week, you can figure out a sweet spot. Beware of adding a large variety of stress – this leads to distraction and failure to reach goals.

Stress Intensity

The higher the intensity, the better. This comes with several caveats. The stressor should be overcome. There is no sense for example asking a beginner to undertake a task that is reserved for elites, especially if it results in complete failure. Complete failure means damage to self-worth, and leads an individual to quit his field of work.

Adequate intensity is met when it’s a challenge. It requires focus, cutting distractions, and is not trivial. It might create questions and doubts. If all these happen, the stressor is overcame. Finding adequate intensity therefore needs a bit of experimentation at the beginning. Try setting an intensity that’s challenging and can be repeated every week. If you can’t achieve it at the end of the day, it’s OK to have a slightly easier challenge.

In my case, I plan to publish an article on this site every day, except Sunday. This requires research, trying new ideas, and is a race against time every day but at the end provides me with education and good satisfaction. It also plays well with my other goals.

I also found it makes sense to demand a big task that will lead to partial failure AND partial success, once in a while. This induces shock and severe doubt. At the same time, the limited partial success creates hope that we can perform better, given enough practise and work.

Tying together Frequency, Intensity and Frequency

Mixing these is like working on a new cooking recipe. You have to experiment different dosages, try new ingredients and be patient on letting it simmer. It is also important to review the outcomes each time and see what steps can be improved.

So… I wish all happy cooking 🙂

6 thoughts on “Good Stress and Bad Stress, Part II”

    1. Thanks for letting me know, I’ve bookmarked the new site. In fact, just a few days ago, I shared your tips (the one about the body clock) with one of my subscribers who had insomnia because she was constantly thinking about her writing. I feel what you are saying is especially relevant today since the with all the routine stress of modern life and blue light emitting devices that command people’s attention at all hours, I doubt many people are getting quality sleep at all.In fact, just a few weeks ago (before I saw the body clock post), I would type through midnight and then sleep half awake for a few hours before getting up to to answer work/answer emails. So I am very appreciative of your blog.


    2. oh – really happy to know it helped. We don’t think much of sleep but it affects work, quality of life, focus, exercise and almost every we do.

      Thanks for the input !

      Liked by 1 person

    3. I agree, people nowadays often do things at all hours because they can (technology/electricity etc.), but I feel the truth is that if we sleep well then focus during the suitable hours of the day, we could actually get better quality work done and more efficiently too, much better than constantly pushing forward with a dull edge.


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