Sharpening your response to intentional stress will also help you with life’s inevitable discomforts. Take work. It’s exciting when you make progress or meet a goal, but most days aren’t like that. Most days are a grind. Maybe you’re just sitting in meetings or doing expense reports or struggling to communicate ideas in an email. Or you’re dealing with rude customers or doing repetitive physical labor. It can be overwhelming—work stress can easily trigger your body’s threat-response state. But I’ve learned how to handle that reaction in a productive way. For example, the slow, steady breathing that I use to regulate my nervous system when I’m soaking myself in freezing water also helps me get ready to respond constructively to tough feedback. In fact, since I’m used to dealing with stress in discrete intervals in the gym, that’s also how I try to structure my work. I’ll use a timer to mark a sustained chunk of productivity and then take a moment to recover afterward. The diligence that your job requires is stress on your mind and body, just like push-ups or freezing water, and there’s power in acknowledging that.
Once you make an honest accounting of the sources of stress in your life, you’ll know to balance all of that strain with rest. This is important! It’s easy to see how only doing strenuous workouts without any time off is not a good way to get stronger, right? You’ll just be exhausted. But this pattern happens too often in our daily lives, in a society that pushes us to be constantly productive. Too many of us are consistently in a state of low-level aggravation and threat response. This takes a toll on the body. It makes us sick; it shortens our lives. Thinking about your life in cycles of stress and rest—welcoming the hard parts but committing to real recovery—is a way to break out of this pattern.
In this way, embracing stress is not about living a life of discomfort. It’s about balance. Be sure you’re bouncing back. But also know that you can never rest your body to greatness: Whether we want to admit it or not, all growth starts with stress.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2021 issue with the title “Shock Your System.”
Photographs by Torso
Special thanks to Palm Heights, Grand Cayman