Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Stressed about stress

Being stressed about stress is a modern privilege, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention. I was just looking at an interesting article on Wired about stress and where the research is at right now. The idea in the article about vaccinating against it sometime in the future will certainly raise eyebrows for lots of reasons, but aside from that it’s an interesting toe dip in a field that’s pertinent for just about who wants to live and live long (or indeed for those who don’t!).
Interesting to note that the field has moved on from seeing stress as directly causative of many health problems and more as an agent that amplifies their effects. The article is worth reading for the interesting points about linking social conditions to your sensitivity to stress. But I just wanted to highlight the section on the research supported stress reducers that concur quite well with the data coming from the field (see Richard Layard’s great book for a similar discussion, but focused on happiness).
The more general or background stress buffers like having a good social network, getting good quality sleep and not piling on physiological stress with an alcohol habit (thought it was a stress reducer? - it aint!) seem fairly straightforward. But some of the others are less so. The ability to detach from frustration and anger is an important stress reducer, as is confronting particular aspects of your tasks that cause fear.
This illuminates the rather complex nature of some of the stress influencing variables. So called ‘high-powered’ executives with full-on jobs complain of a lot of stress from their occupations, but only sometimes show the physiological evidence of it. The feeling of having some control over your task outcomes seems to be one of the crucial elements here. The feeling of the solutions being out of your hands, and worst of all, in someone else's, is one of the biggest stressors. It’s a state of mind that seems to come from our backgrounds, and sadly is very hard to shake.
As always I look with an interested eye for applications in sport psychology and behavioural aspects that determine sport success or progress. My own failures in climbing are largely down to a flawed ability to let go of things and also to get some sleep. The sleep thing is fairly simple, a combination of a tendency to feel awake and motivated when my body should be winding down (like now, writing at 2am) and too many interests and a poor ability to sacrifice some for the benefit of others. 
While I’m good at detaching from anger and frustration when I sense a lost cause, I’m terrible at it when I have a hunch that it’s not. There are lots of paradoxes here. Both attributes are absolutely my key strengths in my various interests. They get things done where it would be easy to run out of steam. This was what the film E11 was about. But in the longer term they are also my key weaknesses and caps to building ability in something such as climbing to a really high level.
While these problems have caused me some quite serious issues at times, on the whole I’m talking the more gentle depressive effects of avoidable stressors on maximising response to training, psychological or physical. Just the very fact that you are able to sit at a computer reading these words, on this blog which is often focused on leisure pastimes shows that a lot of us are privileged enough to be concerning ourselves with maximising the fulfillment in life, as opposed to just surviving. In this game we often have a lot of the basics in place. The difference in how far we get in our climbing or whatever endeavor is likely to come down to the cumulative effect over years of small errors made by habit. Another complicating factor is that eustress and distress can exist fairly close together - just being a difference of amplitude on the same axis. Do something a little bit too much or to little and the benefit transforms into a menace.
Trying to raise your sporting level above amateur into competent or above is concerned with energetically teasing out these errors which are so hard to stand back and see. Your friends will often know what they are, but they’d never tell you. They are your friends after all. And even if you asked them to hit you with it straight they might give you an insight. But to break habits you need reminding, over and over.
A lot of our society is geared up to get us in the habit of following behaviours of surprising diversity that end up stressing us. This area is the battle ground for sports psychology over the coming years.


  1. Re the sleep thing--I'm also not so great at sleeping, so about 5 days before (but not the actual night before, to avoid grogginess) a race, I use sleeping pills to at least deal with the symptom if not the problem. I haven't noticed any reliance on them developing, since it's just for a few days once in a while. Maybe that could be a handy strategy pre-redpoint etc. attempts?

  2. There is a cut-off point between a level of pressure that can make you rise to a big task and a level of pressure that you perceive is overwhelming.

    This perception differs markedly between people who at one end believe they are responsible and can influence all the outcomes in their lives to the other end where people feel that everything that happens to them is outside their control.


  3. Dave, I'm a climber who had serious sleep problems (average 4 1/2 hours a night for the best part of 4 years)and after much reading and personal experimentation found the following helpful :

    1. A sleep routine. Do the same things in the same order an hour or so before you sleep - load the dishwasher, clean teeth, take shower - that sort of thing. Try to go to bed at the same time every night, give or take 15 minutes. Once you establish a good routine, you have more scope for occasional variation.
    2. Don't stimulate the brain in this hour - thumb through an old well-loved climbing magazine, don't read new stuff, or watch tv/see film/work on computer, or argue with girlfriend/wife. Equally, finish any physical exercise 3 hours before your sleep hour.
    3. If you can't get to sleep or wake up in the night for more than half an hour, get up go into a living area, put a low light on and flick through that magazine, drink a small glass of room temp. milk, eat some plain bread or nuts (these have helpful chems which make you sleepy - I do a glass of milk and peanut butter on bread), stay up for 1/2 an hour, repeat cycle until you sleep. The bed/brain association must=sleep.
    4. When do you have the sleep problem? Work it out by keeping a diary. Raise body temperature for 20 minutes duration about 6 hours before the sleep difficulty typically strikes, via aerobic activity or a hot bath/shower. My problem was chronic waking at 3 am and being unable to get back to sleep; soaking a hot bath at 9 pm worked perfectly. If your problem is getting to sleep and you decide you go to sleep at 11 pm, go for a 20 minute+ run or climb aerobically at 5 pm that evening. I found this body temp tip a clincher - the best single thing.
    5. Dark/no noise in bedroom - ear plugs may be necessary and putting them in has become a succesful device/routine for putting my body to sleep. Wax ones best.
    6. If you have a bad night's sleep, avoid the natural tendency to sleep in to make up for it.
    7. Sleep drugs didn't work for me, just left me feeling worse.
    8. No coffee after 3 pm.

    Good luck and thanks for your excellent training book!