One of the best explanations of the use of “stress oscillation” for increasing physical and mental toughness can be found in the works of James E. Loehr, an athletic coach turned corporate consultant. Loehr worked with star athletes such as tennis legend Monica Seles and Olympians such as speed skater Dan Jansen to improve their performance and bounce back from defeat to become tougher and more resilient. Loehr’s insights are well summarized in two books, “Stress for Success” and “The Power of Full Engagement”, the latter co-authored with Tony Schwartz.
Tennis. Loehr gleaned some of his most perceptive insights by using telemetry to observe the behaviors that separated the top tennis players from the lower ranks. Specifically, he found that the best tennis players are intense and focused during play, but show a remarkable ability to recover during “between-point” time, following routines that allowed them to pause and recover their energy for the next point. During these brief periods–approximately 25 seconds–between points, “top competitors were much more skillful oscillators during competition. The rhythmic increases in heart rate during points, and decreases in heart rate between points, meant that a competitor was adapting to the stress.” (SFS, p. 167). By contrast, poor competitors did not use their downtime wisely, not relaxing or even exacerbating the stress by disputing calls or showing emotion.
Toughening. The best of Loehr’s ideas are encapsulated in Part III of “Stress for Success”, entitled “Life Skills and the Toughening Process: Targeting Stress Exposure”. This section presents what I believe are the key concepts for effective toughness training based upon deliberate and controlled exposure to stress. Loehr takes research from sport science and applies it to training for toughness in everyday life. ”For decades, sport science researchers have been diligently investigating the relationships between stress and growth. The optimal frequency, duration, and intensity of stress exposure for improving strength, speed agility, endurance, stamina, and toughness of all kinds have been vigorously pursued. The most important confirmation in all the research is simple and direct: STRESS IS THE STIMULUS FOR ALL GROWTH.” (SFS, P. 145).
Oscillation. Loehr goes on to describe training routines whereby one can increase stress tolerance by deliberately using intermittent intervals of stress exposure, oscillating with periods of recovery and rest. One of the most effect means of doing this is excercise, specifically interval training. According to Loehr, “exercise is really stress practice,” and he cites the training principle of “specificity” to argue that the exercise stress should oscillate, so that they resemble the up-and-down of stresses in real life. The intermittent stresses should be intense to the point of discomfort, but never painful. And the use of intervening periods of “active rest” and sleep are equally important for recharging.
The benefits of this approach to oscillatory stress training have biochemical correlates. Loehr cites research indicating that, whereas chronic, sustained stress leads to depletion of the stress hormone norepinephrine and elevation of cortisol, intermittent acute stress, followed by recovery, allows for increased tolerance and resistance to norepinephrine depletion.
Although Loehr mentions that sports scientists have studied the optimum intensity, duration, and frequency of applied stresses in exercise, he does not provide in his book any specific guidelines for optimizing these variables, beyond noting that they will vary based on the nature of the stress and subjective factors such as discomfort and pain thresholds. While being aware of one’s own thresholds is no doubt good advice, it seems to me that turning exploring the quantitative aspects of this science would be useful in helping to reveal more objective factors.
Beyond exercise. I believe that the application of stress and recovery cycles for training can be generalized beyond the use of physical exercise. Following the principle of specificity, why not train for life using more specific stresses encountered in life, specific distractions or irritants, including physical stresses such noise, heat, or hunger; or interpersonal irritants such as yelling, nagging, or insulting. In fact, such deliberate exposure to stress and hardship is a techniques going back to the Stoics, who recommended training oneself to tolerate increasing levels of physical stress and discomfort by means of cold baths, sleeping on the floor, fasting, and learning to tolerate insults. Extreme forms of such exposures to stress have been used by the Army and Navy to harden their special forces (See my previous post on The Physiology of Stress), but I believe there is a lot of opportunity for both creativity and the use of proven behavioral science in developing and optimizing specific and effective techniques to help us become more resistant to a variety of life’s everyday stresses.