Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World


Stress

by Mark Rippetoe | June 10, 2020

rack pull middle

In These Trying Times, every sentient individual is under at least a little more psychological stress than normal. I'm not sleeping well, and my assumption is that no responsible adult is. Psychological stress is the obvious result of shitty situations we believe we have no control over, and the worry we experience about the consequences of those situations. I say “situations” because they are not “problems” – problems have a solution, if you care to find it, while situations must simply be endured. 

Psychological stress is a potentially serious problem – and I say “problem” here because although the situation that causes the stress may be outside your ability to control, the stress itself is not. The mal-effects of psychological stress are physical, so they can be controlled physically. They can be controlled through training. 

Internal perceptions of external phenomena can cause chronic anxiety, loss of the aforementioned sleep, elevated blood pressure, digestive disorders, headaches, and a general feeling of shittiness, even if the external phenomena are not themselves applying stress. This is the kind of thing that happens when you worry about money, your continued employment, and your ability to meet your financial and personal obligations, your future plans, and expectations of yourself you have come to value and take responsibility for seeing through. Missing a house payment doesn't cut your belly open, but worrying about the consequences to the point of ill-health might have a similar outcome. 

Our old friend Hans Selye made a career out of investigating stress. He was the first to describe the effects of stress on biological systems in his landmark paper in Nature in 1936, and a long publishing history on the subject continued to flesh out the idea that external stressors – environmental phenomena that disrupt the homeostasis of a biological system – have physical effects on the organism that push toward adaptation to the stressor, if possible. This principle is the basis of our approach to training.  

Here's the problem: a 5-pound increase in your deadlift is an external stressor to which your body can adapt, while the loss of your spouse or your house or your job is, strictly speaking, not the same thing. It has the consequence of driving some of the same hormonal responses to a non-physical perturbation in homeostasis as a profound physical stress, but without the accompanying ability to adapt to it.  

The loss of a spouse is not the kind of thing you can adapt to. It leaves a palpable scar inside you forever, and time merely lessens the pain. The deadlift goes up 5 pounds a workout because your physical ability to adapt to it is programmed into your DNA, but you cannot physically adapt to the loss of a spouse. 

However – and this is a big important however – since the stress of the loss of a spouse is experienced physically, its effects can be mitigated by the same physical processes that take place while your 5-pound deadlift increase occurs. All the fucked-up hormonal responses that cascade from a serious psychological stress are also occurring after your workout, albeit at a much more manageable level. And when you teach your body to deal with them on a regular basis at a manageable level, it gets better at dealing with stress in general. It gets to practice how to handle the physical effects of stress, and it develops the ability to sort the stress through pathways it uses all the time. 

Many of us owe our sanity and continued existence to the barbell. I suggest that In These Trying Times you give this some serious thought. 


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