Part 1 of the XPT Foundational Principles series
When you hear the word “stress,” do you think of it as a positive or negative? Most likely, the very mention of the word conjures up your cluttered calendar, overflowing inbox, and all those pesky work deadlines you have hanging over your head. There are a seemingly limitless number of podcast episodes, blog posts, and even entire books promising to help you transition from “stressed out” to “stress free,” often in just five or 10 easy steps.
But what if we really need more stress in our lives, not less?
Let’s be clear. We’re not suggesting that you sign your kids up for more activities, take on greater responsibilities at work, or stay logged into email and social media 24/7. These are the kind of stressors that are deleterious and reduce our quality of life. What we’re referring to instead is the kind of stimuli needed to prompt positive change. This is why we’ve made stress one of our foundational principles at XPT – because it’s the only way to start advancing from where you are towards where you want to be.
“Good stress is the kind that you can adapt to,” said XPT co-founder and legendary waterman Laird Hamilton. “Every kind of growth requires stress, so if you want to evolve you have to deliberately subject yourself to certain stimuli that will make you uncomfortable. When we experience extreme temperatures, fasting, or having to learn a new skill, that’s when our body is at its peak as an organism and is forced to grow.”
In his bestselling book What Doesn’t Kill Us, Scott Carney writes that, “With no challenge to overcome, frontier to press, or threat to flee from, the humans of this millennium are overstuffed, overheated, and under-stimulated.” In other words, we’ve become abundance addicts who are trapped by lives that rely too much on comfort. From air conditioned homes, cars, and stores to the lack of walkability in our towns and cities to the decline of jobs that require physical exertion, our modern society has become too comfortable with being comfortable. We take the easy option almost every time – favoring drive-through “happy” meals over the preparation of real food, liking places online instead of actually experiencing them in person, and seeking the instant gratification of hacks over the lifelong pursuit of mastery. And yet for all its temptations, it’s arguable that we’re sicker, heavier, and more discontent than ever before. And no amount of “stress-busting” tips is going to change that.
While this is a sorry state of affairs, it’s thankfully also an optional one. We can decide that rather than trying to purge stress from our lives, we’re actually going to embrace it, having differentiated the kind of “good” stress Laird spoke of to the “bad” kind that occurs when we cram our calendars, eat and sleep poorly, and work too many hours. Over the past 20 years, Laird and his wife and XPT co-founder Gabby Reece have relentlessly sought out stressors that will provide challenges, make them more resilient, and force them to adapt (more on this point in our next post).
Rather than looking at stress as something to be avoided at all costs, the XPT approach seeks to reframe it as a learning opportunity that presents your mind, body, and spirit with carefully chosen stimuli combined in a thoughtful and systemic way to illicit positive transformation.
“We can induce stressors safely in a controlled environment so we thrive instead of perishing,” Laird said. “The more gracefully we endure exposure to heat, ice, hypoxia, and other self-inflicted stimuli, the better we get at dealing with the non-optional stressors that life throws at us every day. Our reaction to both kinds of stress connects the two and is transferable.”
Looking at stress from a physiological standpoint, we can frame what happens when we encounter it through the lens of General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). First, the cell is stressed to a point of short-term malfunction (typically a few minutes to several hours, though sometimes for a day or two). If given a chance to recover, the cell responds by adapting so the same stimulus will not induce damage again. Then there is the stage of supercompensation, which creates a cellular-level bounce back from accumulated stress exposure.
From pool training to contrast therapy to land-based workouts, every aspect of our Breathe, Move, Recover curriculum is designed to stimulate growth by respecting the principles of GAS. One of the tools we utilize is contrast therapy, which is a fancy term for combining exposure to heat and cold. We spend up to 93% of each day cutting ourselves off from nature in climate controlled indoor settings, which prevents the body from activating cold shock proteins (CSPs) and heat shock proteins (HSPs). CSPs that we activate with cold water immersion provide many benefits in the body, including boosting immune system function, controlling inflammation, and regulating circadian rhythms. Meanwhile, HSPs that we trigger with sauna use play an important role in preserving cellular health, replicating DNA, and modulating glucose and fat metabolism.
Then there are the performance and recovery advantages that exposure to cold and heat stressors provide. A research team at Prague’s Institute of Preventive and Sports Medicine noted that cold water immersion increases metabolic rate by 350%, noradrenaline by 530%, and dopamine by 250%. Another study found that getting in a sauna heated to 190 F for around 30 minutes after exercise significantly improved results compared to exercise alone, increasing time to exhaustion while running by 32%.
Such benefits explain why we not only prescribe contrast therapy several times a week, but also encourage you to embrace exposure to the elements as part of an active, outdoor lifestyle that gets you closer to how humans are designed to function. When it comes to realizing our fullest potential, we shouldn’t want or try to be “stress-free.” Instead, we need to follow Gabby and Laird’s lead and consistently expose ourselves to the minimum effective dose of growth-prompting stressors. Pairing these with appropriate recovery methods will promote the kind of adaptation that we might not have previously thought possible. By reconsidering how we think about and act towards stress, we can break free from the mediocrity trap created by comfortable abundance and begin chasing excellence instead – not just in our physical practices, but in our relationships, work, and life in general.
Check back soon for the second part of this series, in which we’ll examine how to pair stress with adequate recovery to produce adaptation.