Stress is stress and a calorie is a calorie, but this post isn't about nutrition.
Before we dig into the details, it's important to define what we're actually talking about.
Everyone has their own definition of stress, put simply, stress is anything that challenges our bodies homeostasis. One of the overruling themes of physiology is the need to maintain homeostasis. Often you're aware of these changes, such as sweating when your body temperature becomes too hot. Other times you're not aware, such as your blood vessels dilating during with an increase in body temperature. Either way, this is an unconscious act to help preserve homeostasis from a stressor.
There are different kinds of stress. No, not just good stress vs. bad stress.
The above example is physiological stress, the OG (original gangsta) of stress. Physiological stress is not unique to humans. This would be the stress response seen by a gazelle running from a lion or a woman running from a burglar.
The other form comes from psychological stress, which IS unique to humans. When a gazelle is fully fed and not running from a lion it isn't stressing about whether the cute girl at the library "likes" him or if they remembered to TVO Dexter. This type of stress is what we call "first world problems."
Why Being Smart Sucks
Most of society rarely has to worry about acute physiological stressors (hopefully just exercise), but we get our fix with more than enough psychological stress. Humans have evolved so much intellectually, that we don't even need an actual stressor to be stressed, we simply anticipate a stressful event and the cascade of actions occurs just as if we were running from a lion.
We're smart enough to anticipate potential problems other mammals can't, but not smart enough to respond differently. Stress is stress.
So you see that we're operating software that wasn't designed for the long term. The stress response evolved as necessary equipment to survive, not worry.
The stress response downregulates long-term processes such as immune function, sexual reproduction, digestion, growth and tissue repair, for obvious reasons. Why worry healing that knee for tomorrow when you need it to survive today?
So we shift - from a parasympathetic state to a sympathetic state. The adrenal medulla (located above the kidney) secretes epinephrine, which results in mobilizing glucose for energy, increasing the breathing and heart rate, all in an effort to keep us alive during this acute stressor.
Why Do We Care?
These psychological stressors are all around us, making it difficult to "turn off." Here is a not so uncommon timetable of an average American morning, even for the optimist.
5:30am - Wake up not by choice, jump in the shower only to realize you're out of shampoo and now it's gonna be an oily day. (Stressor #1)
6:30am - The day is looking up, the radio stations are playing your favorite tracks and you smell the coffee from miles away.
6:45am - Starbucks is quick & friendly, all smiles. You pull into work, take that blissful first sip of coffee and realize it's not soy milk, ahh. (Stressor #2)
7:45am- Your business partner Chris is hung over from a little too adventurous lake trip and you're worrying how this will reflect on you. (Stressor #3)
9:30am - You finally have some free time and decide to check your email and social media. Only to get into a petty argument about religion on Facebook and find out that your college crush just got engaged on Instgram. Double whammy stressor (Stressor #4/5)
Before noon you've ran from 4 different lions and this inability to turn off as an athlete and as a human inhibits recovery. You're swimming in a pool of stress hormones, without jumping out and drying off, your body will never repair, grow or even maintain it's current form.
If a non-soy drink from Starbucks causes you to stress just as much as a gym session there is trouble brewing. These stressors add up and when you load the bar for that PR back squat those previous events matter.
Living in a constant state of psychological fatigue will inhibit your physiological ability.
It's funny how it becomes a vicious cycle.
You got pinned on that PR attempt because you were fatigued and couldn't seem to get into the flow. So now you're stressed out that you're not making progress like you should be.
Check your Instgram on the way home and see your friend sharing their latest update pics with great results.
Finally you end the night with Ben and Jerry's, because why not? Then you try to sleep in a few hours and feel bad about your decision.
You toss and turn in the bed, glancing at the clock realizing it's 12:00am and that alarm is going off at 5:30am. "Damn, I'm not gonna get enough sleep" (Stressor 40+)
And so the story goes...