The Culture and Biology Of Stress & Rest

By Charles Oxley and Brian MacKenzie

The inability to manage stress is on the rise. It negatively affects everyone: athletes, employees, soldiers, kids etc. Stress will more than likely be the leading cause of death by 2025. So how do we improve our ability to manage stress? First lets understand the culturally heavy words ‘Stress’ and ‘Rest’ and get a better understanding of how we should be viewing these words.

What Is Stress?
Stress is our body’s response to pressure/demand placed upon it. It is a necessary part of life. The body does not differentiate between physical, mental or nutritional stress, its response is the same. The body enters into a physiological state, of differing degrees of stress called the Sympathetic State (Flight or Freeze) that is defined by:

  • The release of roughly 30 hormones including cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine.
  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension.
  • Breakdown of fuels for available energy.
  • Pupil dilation.
  • Vasoconstriction; the constriction of blood vessels.

The Role Of Stress
Being in this Sympathetic (dominant) State plays an important role:

  • It helps to keep us alive when we are in danger.
  • Stimulates our body to make future adaptations (think about exercise).
  • Is like a dial. We can be very stressed, running from a lion, to slightly stressed, crossing the road, and anywhere in between.

We are an adaptive species and adapt to stressful stimuli. Therefore, there are appropriate times to enter into this state. Without appropriately stressing the body we would not start the process of ever getting better at something.

Current Reality
In reality we spend too much time in a ‘stressed’ state. This becomes chronic. We are not designed to handle this and don’t take the time to recover, before over-doing it again. We know that being in this state for too long in the short to mid-term results in fatigue, lack of focus, irritability and difficulty sleeping.

In the long term we know it leads to burn-out, injury, illness and disease. Hence why we see that stress will most likely be the leading cause of death by 2025. Not because stress is bad but because we enter this state inappropriately and stay there too long. We have an inability to manage our stress.

What Is Rest?
Rest is the ceasing of pressure/demand placed on the body in order to relax, sleep or recover.

The body enters into a physiological state of rest called the Parasympathetic State (Rest & Digest) that is defined by:

  • No involvement from Adrenal Gland.
  • Decrease of heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension.
  • Vasodilatation; the dilation of blood vessels.
  • Pupil Dilation.
  • Increase in digestive juices.

The Role Of Rest
Being in this Parasympathetic State plays an important role:

  • It’s where the body repairs, digests and reproduces
  • It’s where the adaptations, stimulated from the stressed state, can actually occur, E.G. stress of muscle building focused exercise leads to muscle growth once entering into a rest state after the stress.
  • It’s where we lose weight, gain muscle, learn new skills and suppress illness.
  • Is like a dial, we can be very rested, deep sleep, to slightly rested, going for a walk, and anywhere in between.

It can also have chronic implications as well. We should really think of the state of rest as the state of adaptation.

Current Reality
In reality however, we do not spend enough time in a state of rest. In our culture we find it very difficult to shift into this state. We don’t allow our bodies to make any adaptations to the stress we give it. We do not recover, grow or develop to our potential. Again, rest is another culturally heavy word. It means different things to different people. Judeo-Christian belief that rest is bad, weak and lazy.

It’s not that either is good or bad. They are both important, in appropriate amounts:

Optimal Balance – Adaption

Sub-Optimal Balance – Mal-Adaptation
Plateau or Suffering

What is the appropriate amount for each?
This diagram gives a rough idea…

Stress Rest Graph

Are you suffering or making adaptations?

Now we understand that we need an optimal balance; how do we manage stress in reality?

We call Stress Management -> State Management

1) We need to be aware of our current state.
2) We need tools to be able to shift state to achieve an optimal balance.

These tools will become available soon via our Neuro Protocols page. Enter your email to stay up to date on releases.

Managing your state is achievable and pays significant dividends now and in the long run. With this deeper understanding we can look at the words stress and rest in a new light.

Stress is not bad, it’s necessary. But if we continue to stress ourselves out inappropriately we do not spend enough time in a rested state and therefore make no adaptations. As our very own Doc Hickey says:

“It’s not how much work can do, it’s how much work you can recover from.”

So think of,
Stress, as Opportunity.
Rest,  as the Realization of Opportunity.

Managing Stress to the optimal balance, is the Realization of Opportunity.

Are you suffering or making adaptations?

Jason Donaldson

Jason Donaldson is a Human Performance Coach who opened the first CrossFit™ affiliate in Western Australia in 2007. Jason has been a team member since 2011 and plays an integral role in SH//FT. As Director of //Performance, Jason oversees all coaching and training programs along with the subscription management. Jason is a lifetime athlete having played many sports, including two decades of Australian Rules Football. He has completed many endurance events such as trail runs, OCRs, cross-country mountain bike races and off-road duathlons.


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