Scott H. Young recently wrote an article titled “How Much Stress Do You Need for Success?”. In it, he described his thoughts on stress and came to the conclusion,
My sense is that stress is useful to prompt a specific action, to a specific threat, or to promote alertness during a brief period of danger. That’s it. Any stress which doesn’t facilitate these purposes is wasted and therefore any beliefs that stress is necessary must be limited to these contexts.
This seems like a reasonable conclusion until you notice a few things. He never once defines the terms he’s working with. Throughout his article, he constantly interchanges stress with both fear and anxiety and in those senses of the word, his conclusion might be right. Fear and anxiety do seem like excellent mechanisms to prompt action and probably are the main reasons we evolved those emotions.
However, stress is a much larger concept than simply fear or anxiety. They are simply two small subsets of the total concept.1
Stress should be thought of as any stimulus which knocks something (not just humans) out of equilibrium.
From there, it is easy to understand that experiencing disequilibrium can be good or bad depending on context. Having unnecessary anxiety as he mentioned in his article in regards to exams or early morning flights is almost certainly wasted energy.
Another example where a person is knocked from equilibrium is eating food. The act of introducing new contents to the stomach fires up a host of processes within your digestion system, which attempts to bring you back into equilibrium by breaking down the contents and shuttling them to the right places.
So what’s the difference between these types of stresses and what stress should we be seeking?
The first example mentioned above (exams/flights) does not augment your work capacity in any meaningful way. In fact, it can harm your ability to work as your mental focus will be on things out of your control and thereby leave you with less bandwidth to productively attack issues within your control (such as quality sleep in his example).
The second example mentioned above (eating) does augment your work capacity. By eating and digesting food properly, we are left with more energy and the ability to do more work.
And this really gets to the heart of the whole stress “issue”.
“Good” stress, or what Hans Selye referred to as “eustress” in opposition to “distress”, results in positive adaptations that enable increased work capacity, i.e. increased energy.2
“Bad” stress results in maladaptations that decrease work capacity and lower your total energy.
All of this points directly to our answer of when we need stress. We need it any time we are looking to create positive adaptations that enable us to do more work. Period.
So can we find “examples of low-stress, high-achievement individuals”, which would then “put water on the theory that high stress is a prerequisite to accomplishment” as Scott puts it?
Just like we can find individuals that are able to squat 500 pounds the first time they walk into a gym. Lifting 500 pounds for any person is an impressive accomplishment, just not one that required stress for that individual. They were genetically gifted and able to accomplish more with less when compared to the average individual.
This is what’s known as the “law of individual differences” within the strength and conditioning community and it is equally apt in Scott’s examples.3
Not all high achieving individuals will need loads of stress to develop adaptations that enable them to achieve great things. Some are simply born with those adaptations or with genetics that allow them to adapt quicker and more with less stress, thereby accelerating them to achievement in half the time another person might need.
So, yes, we need stress. Stress is good. Not all stress as Scott pointed out, but enough of it that when thought about from the correct perspective, should make us seek and chase down the stress that will help us develop the adaptations we need.
Before closing, I’d like to make one thing exceptionally clear. Stress is about adaptations.
Before you ever intentionally induce stress on yourself or others, it’s a good idea to pause and think about the desired adaptations first. If you don’t know the stress required to create the adaptations you want, consult someone with more knowledge (e.g. teachers, coaches, consultants, etc.).
If you are about to induce stress and you haven’t thought about the likely adaptation, pause and give it a think. You may realize that the stress you’re about to exert on yourself is most likely to result in adaptations you don’t even want and it’s therefore a good idea to simply not go through with the activity or experience and find something else more likely to create the adaptations you do want.
I see this problem in schools all the time. As a system, education often induces very high levels of stress in students without really analyzing the likely adaptations.
One maladaptation I’ve seen from this system is that students view work unfavorably. They have the false belief that any and all work is something handed down from someone else and that they will automatically have little interest in it. This seems to create the disposition in students where they avoid any self-created work and attempt to be happy by only engaging in activities that require little energy expenditure, such as hanging out, playing video games, listening to music, or shopping. This is a shame because research shows that we actually gain more fulfillment and enjoyment from activities that require higher levels of engagement.4
Finally, if you are not looking to create new adaptations, you don’t need to induce any stress. However, if you want new abilities, stress will be involved. In fact, by definition, you can’t have “new” without stress.5