By Adam Carter, manager, UAMS Fitness Center
Challenging times lead to high levels of stress. I am going to stare into a mirror and chew myself out for being a redundant Captain Obvious. Perhaps, I will let my toddler son slap me around a little. He takes great joy in it and will anyway, so I might as well use it as motivation. Stress is constant in everyone’s life. I’m currently working mostly from home, with two sons that would normally be in school and toilet training the toddler — all while we are supposed to be staying isolated from friends and family. Add to this the challenge of trying to adjust to the new normal of life. I am grateful to only have these as my sources of stress.
I am going to repeat myself: stress is a constant in everyone’s life. The question simply becomes a matter of how to manage it. The dictionary defines stress as “a state of stress, especially: one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.” (Merriam-Webster, 2020) During periods of difficulty, especially during prolonged periods of high stress, one tends to have limited vision, focusing on this as the only way to view stress. It is not.
Not all stress is harmful. Stress should not be thought of as an isolated definition or a stationary point in time. Rather, it should be thought of as a continuum, or, a pendulum swinging back and forth between the two states of stress: eustress and distress. Being in a state of distress is simply remaining in a state of stress as described above. Eustress is the positive form of stress. That is not a joke. The right stress can be very beneficial, and exercise is one of the best tools to create eustress. Eustress is “a positive form of stress having beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance and emotional well-being” (Merriam-Webster, 2020).
If your family is like mine, cabin fever has been setting in strong. It is used to be that relaxing time at home was a rarity, a time of eustress. Under the current circumstances, it feels like this has flipped into distress. Time with family in an enjoyable activity is a great way to move toward a life lived in eustress. If the kids are out of the house while maintaining social distancing, even better. To achieve this, my wife and I took our three boys for a hike around the neighborhood. Not a walk, a hike through a hilly neighborhood while I was carrying the toddler in a hiking pack, about a 40lb load. The delightful child took advantage of his opportune position to repeatedly lick the back of my bald head throughout the duration of the hike.
It has been well documented that exercise has numerous physical health benefits. What is often missed is the mental and emotional health benefits. One of the most positive effects of exercise, especially vigorous exercise, is emotional and mental centering. Centering could also be thought of as balancing or realigning ones mental or emotional state. In fact, centering has been found in both men and women to be one of the leading causes of engaging in vigorous exercise, with the primary benefit being immediate distraction and relief from troubles (Johnson, 2004). Want to instantly feel better? Engage in a physical activity that causes sweating.
A friend of mine that served in the Marines told me of a Marine Corps. axiom that I believe should be on the minds of everyone during difficult days such as these: the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle. I am going to paraphrase it for the purpose of this discussion.
The more I sweat in exercise, the less I stress in life
The meaning behind this is simple. Hard physical work better prepares both the body and the mind for when life is hard. Stressing the body reduces the effects of stress on the emotions and mental state. The kind of exercise is not as important as performing it consistently. So, as the days turn into weeks and times grow harder, do not neglect exercise. May your mind be clear, your emotions controlled, and may your head be covered in sweat, not drool.
Johnson, K. (2004). Conquering Depression & Anxiety Through Exercise. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
Merriam-Webster. (2020, March 30). Eustress. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eustress
Merriam-Webster. (2020, March 30). Stress. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stress