Your life can be full of stressors but that doesn’t mean you have to experience life as stressful.
Stress and stressors
The word stress has received a bad reputation over the years. In this post, we’ll cover not only why that is unjustified, but also why it is unproductive. We will also discuss the difference between stressors and stress, and how a stress response can be used to generate positive energy rather than the feeling of being overwhelmed and tense. Stress is a physiological systemic response to a stressor. That is a mouthful, so let’s break it down:
- Physiological means that it’s a mechanism that occurs by design.
- Systemic refers to the involvement of the whole body. It’s neither a localized physical response nor a mental phenomenon: your mind and entire body act together and are impacted at a global level.
- Response means it is a reaction to a stimulus.
- Stressor refers to a stimulus that is perceived as a potential threat.
When stressors cause a stress reaction, the body initially releases hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, which activate the “fight or flight” response. This acute stress reaction is functional, as it prepares the body to respond quickly and effectively to potential danger or challenge. For example, if you are walking in the woods and encounter a bear, your body will respond to the perceived threat by releasing adrenaline, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, and giving you the burst of energy you need to either fight the bear or run away.
To maintain a level of alertness, the body also has a chronic stress reaction. This is also physiological and systemic, but it requires a period of recovery or adaptation to be attenuated. In the absence of that, the stress can become chronic and when not “turned off” through recovery or adaptation, can in turn wear down the body and increase the risk of health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Stressors to accept and stressors to control
There are many stressors in life and sports that cannot be controlled, such as adverse weather conditions, unexpected events, and the behaviors of people around you. These stressors can be particularly challenging because, while there is little we can do to change them, they can have a significant impact. For example, unexpected events such as a family member getting sick or a car breaking down can disrupt our plans and cause stress. In sports, there are many stressors that athletes face, such as injuries, unexpected changes in schedule, and an opponent’s performance.
While many stressors are beyond our influence, some can be controlled. For those stressors, it is essential to learn at what levels they are actually improving our development and performance. Once we know that, the next step is to learn to manipulate the stressors to levels that are either beyond comfort (to train) or levels that are at the edge of discomfort, but still within comfort (to perform). For example, in sports, an athlete can control their preparation and training leading up to a competition. Similarly, in life, we can control our workloads, schedules, and relationships, and take steps to manage these stressors to our advantage.
There will always be stressors to deal with, so accept the ones you can’t control and learn to manage the ones you can control.
The mental aspects of stress
Stress reactions also have mental components. The good news about those is that they can be influenced by our mental capacities. In other words, stressors are by definition external, and many of them may be beyond our reach. However, the mental components of stress are internal and completely your responsibility to manage. The mental components of stress can be divided into two categories: interpretation and experience.
Interpretation refers to how you see a stressor. For example, giving a presentation in front of a large audience could be something you look forward to if you have done it often, you tend to like talking to groups of people, and your overall state of mind is relaxed when you think of giving a presentation. On the other hand, if you have never presented to a large audience, you tend to dislike public speaking, and you have just had a stressful week when someone asks you to present, the task may seem extremely daunting.
The experience is not about the stressor anymore but about the internal life of stress. This is perhaps even more personal than the interpretation component and it varies a lot from person to person from moment to moment. Coming back to the example of giving a presentation, even if you are the person who tends to look forward to giving presentations, your general anxiety threshold when it comes to stress may be very low and your mental skills may not be adept at regulating the tension and manipulating your emotional state. Now, the experience of presenting may turn from an exciting challenge into a source of anxiety.
Your stress experience is yours to manage
Here is a simple fact – all experiences are internal. However, some of the triggers of an experience are not. Stressors and the stress reaction’s biochemistry may be objective realities, but the experience of stress is subjective and personal. This is very good news because it means that managing your stress experience is by definition within your reach!
Your experience of stress depends on how you manage the thoughts and emotions that are caused by your perception of the stressor and the stress reaction. This kind of management requires a certain level of fitness, mental fitness. Mental fitness can be defined as the mental capacities and abilities to deal with challenges in performance and health; not so different from physical fitness. Individuals with high mental fitness have the skills, perspectives, and emotional control to view stressors as challenges rather than threats. They are also better at coping with stressful experiences in a healthy and productive manner. More good news: the core skills, perspectives, and emotional control that comes from them can be trained. It’s just that if you want the fitness to be functional – to work when it matters – you have to train your mind like you train your body: with progressive overload from foundation to function. 2Mynds is the first mental fitness system in the world that delivers that approach in a user-friendly system.
Your mental training may not have been training
Traditionally, sports psychology has defined mental training as a set of techniques used to enhance an athlete’s mental toughness, focus, and resilience. The main problem with this definition, and even with definitions that are broader, is that a set of techniques has nothing to do with training unless the techniques are used in workouts in a fashion that adheres to the principles of training in exercise physiology.
Exercise physiology defines training as a systematic and progressive process of physical activity designed to improve an individual’s fitness, performance, and health. Training involves a structured program with a hierarchy of workouts and exercises. The program is designed to challenge and stimulate the body’s physiological systems in such a way that it promotes adaptation and improvement over time. Core training principles in exercise physiology include specificity, overload, and progression.
- Specificity refers to the idea that training should target specific systems in the body to achieve specific goals.
- Overload refers to the concept that training should challenge the body beyond its current capabilities and this challenge should be increased over time in order to promote improvements.
- Progression refers to the idea that training should be progressive, meaning that the intensity, duration, and frequency of exercise should be increased gradually over time, in order to avoid injury, overtraining, and burnout.
Taking these training principles into consideration, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that many psychology activities that are referred to as mental training are really not training. Having an informative conversation with a psychologist, journaling about experiences, reading a motivational book, and even doing regular meditations or repeating functional tasks are not training if they don’t overload a capacity and if they don’t progress that overload over time toward a specific functional goal.
Make stress your training partner
Here is an interesting point about progressive overload: it could be rephrased as progressive stress. Overload is nothing else than a stimulus that exceeds a capacity: it’s a stressor! In other words, if you want to train your mind, you can’t do that in the comfort of a lazy chair or in a peaceful environment with waterfall sounds. You have to progress to stress and the delivery method of that stress should make it easy to deliver the right intensity of the stress for an adaptation response. And this is what we do for you at 2Mynds!
At 2Mynds we developed a methodology that allows you to gradually become friends with stress. We not only progress within our mental exercise flows (mind flows), but we regulate extraneous stress for these mind flows through prior or concurrent physical activity. Besides the fact that this allows for a gradual stress reaction (easy to regulate), it has the added benefit that no equipment is necessary and every workout in the 2Mynds system is both mental and physical.
Come train with us!
At 2Mynds, mental fitness is our passion. We take care of the workouts and progressions so you can simply show up and get your reps in! And we deliver our value to you through advanced web app technology that includes cognitive testing and personalization. So, whether you are an individual athlete looking for a way to work on your performance, you are the coach of a (college) team, or you are a psychologist who is in charge of the mental health of many athletes… we got your back with an exceptional tool that is innovative and groundbreaking when it comes training for mental fitness.
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