How to Make Stress Work for You

Embrace the right kind of stress

How to Make Stress Work for You

Typical stress-management tips are to slow down and do less. Here’s why that might not be the best advice.

Many people complain of symptoms of stress, and some even consult a doctor or other practitioner about them. You may notice that your energy level is down, yet you’re also having trouble sleeping. Maybe your tolerance is lower—small things irritate you—and you’re having trouble making even minor decisions. These are all typical signs of stress.

At a glance

  • Stress is the root cause of most ailments, both minor and major, in the North American population.
  • Excessive stress can have a negative psychological effect and can be responsible for food cravings and mental clutter.
  • Improved diet is my number one way to reduce overall stress.
  • Complementary stress can build physical strength and improve motivation.

The stress paradox

Usually, the advice we receive is to not engage in as many stressful activities—“don’t work as much” or “slow down and take more time for yourself.” Following such advice is one way to reduce stress. However, doing so also reduces productivity, which can actually contribute to stress: The last thing a high achiever wants to hear is that he or she should slow down.

It’s easy to say that by reducing the amount of stress in your life, you’ll be healthier. While this is generally true, it’s too broad. Instead, “select” your stressors: Cultivate the beneficial ones and eliminate the unbeneficial. All stressors can be classified into one or more of three categories that I call uncomplementary, complementary and production.

You can reduce stress without reducing productivity; in fact, productivity will improve if the right stressors are removed. More energy, the ability to recover from exercise quickly and a healthy body weight are just a few of the benefits of removing uncomplementary stress.

Avoid uncomplementary stress.

Uncomplementary stress is the term I use to describe anxiety that produces no benefit. This type of stress should be eliminated or at least reduced as much as possible, since there’s nothing to be gained by it.

Environmental stress accounts for roughly 10 percent of all uncomplementary stress. Air pollution, on the rise in urban areas especially, is a significant factor in environmental stress: We’re breathing air laced with toxins.

Psychological stress accounts for about 20 percent of total uncomplementary stress. This kind of stress is generally self-imposed, and some people are more prone to it than others. Worrying about future events you can’t control, like the weather, is a mild form of psychological stress. Setting unrealistic goals and then failing to meet them is a common cause of psychological stress. Feeling generally unfulfilled, dissatisfied or criticized are other forms.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of enjoying your livelihood: You can’t be discontent for that many hours each day and expect to be healthy in other aspects of your life. Mild dissatisfaction in the workplace is among the least healthy of long-term situations. Since it’s usually bearable on a day-to-day basis, it’s often tolerated—sometimes for years. The cumulative effect of this daily mild discontent is stress-related health problems.

Nutritional stress is by far the greatest source of uncomplementary stress for the average North American, accounting for approximately 70 percent. It’s simply defined as stress created by food because of its unhealthy properties (for example, eating nutritionally void white bread). But nutritional stress is much more than just unhealthy food. Not eating enough natural, unprocessed foods rich in nutrients is also a major source of stress on our bodies.

Consume nutrient-dense whole foods every day to support cellular regeneration, which rebuilds new body tissue. This process is vital for every aspect of health and vitality. Nutrient-dense whole foods include fresh fruit and vegetables, hemp hearts, flaxseeds, quinoa, sprouted nuts, seeds, algae and some types of grains.

Embrace complementary stress.

I call the right amount of stress to stimulate renewal within the body complementary stress. Exercise is a form of complementary stress. Essentially nothing more than breaking down muscle tissue, exercise is the best way to stimulate regeneration of the cells.

Have you ever noticed that those who exercise regularly look younger than those who don’t? When exercised, the body must regenerate its cells more rapidly than when idle. The body of an active person is therefore forced to regenerate rapidly; it consists of more recently produced—younger—cells, making for a younger body.

Deal with production stress.

Production stress is the stress created when you strive to achieve a goal. Ranging from physically demanding training sessions for an athletic competition or working overtime on an important project, production stress is not something to shy away from. Sometimes referred to as the “high achiever’s syndrome,” production stress, as its name implies, is an unavoidable byproduct of a productive life, a necessary part of modern-day success.

Did you know?

Those who regularly receive unconstructive criticism from a person they care about tend to develop a weakened immune system because of their elevated stress. (Interestingly, criticism received from strangers has little effect on immune function.)

All in your head?

In addition to affecting us physically, uncomplementary stress has been shown to affect the psyche and motivation. Scientists now believe that willpower is finite; its supply can become exhausted at the hands of excess stress, most notably uncomplementary stress. If you have trouble achieving your goals, mounting stress might be to blame.

Excerpted from Thrive, 10th Anniversary Edition: The Plant-Based Whole Food Nutrition Guide for Peak Performance in Sports and Life by Brendan Brazier. Copyright © 2017. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

PHOTOS BY Dan Barham

You might also like

Fight Fatigue Naturally

Damn Good Advice

Floating in Inner Space