The Goldilocks Zone Of Stress

Last week I spoke about how having a strong foundation in sleep, stress, and recovery helps keep your nutrition and fitness goals in line. Without a strong foundation in sleep, stress, and recovery inevitably life will throw you a curve ball and suddenly poor sleep, way too much stress, or your inability to recover takes its toll and your fitness and nutrition.

One of the biggest issues I see with clients with regards to building a strong foundation is stress. I have yet to have a client who doesn’t at some point suffer the effects of too much or too little stress at some point in our relationship.

Life is unpredictable and unforeseen stress can come at any moment….an appliance in your home breaks, your boss drops an important project on your plate, you suffer an injury while exercising, a close family member becomes ill, your car breaks down, or maybe multiple of these things happen all at once. We can’t predict or plan for when these things will happen but we know chances are they will occur at some point.

The first step in building a strong stress foundation is realizing stress is neither good nor bad. Yes all the things I listed above are generally viewed as bad things but not all stress is bad, stress often leads to positive outcomes as well. In addition, while many of us strive to reduce the amount of stress we have, in some cases too little stress can be just as bad as too much stress.

Well a good example is movement.

Most people, at least in the Western world, are getting too little movement and this is contributing to the chronic health problems many people suffer from today.

Yes, movement is stressful and no I am not talking about exercise.

We might not think of going for a walk as stressful, but it certainly can be.

If I ask sedentary obese individual to go walk to the end of the road and back, there is a good chance they will be out of breath by the time they get back, or maybe even have to stop and take a break.


Because their body is no longer adapted to the stress of walking, it might be just as stressful for them as an avid runner running a marathon.

When too little of something is just as bad as too much of something it tends to form what’s called a “U shaped curve”. Below is what this looks like.

The purple curve represents too little stress where our sense of well being and performance is downregulated. The red curve also represents a decreased sense of well being and performance but in this case it is due to too much stress. The green curve represents the proper amount of stress which optimizes performance and well being. You can see that all 3 curves overlap, so some degree of too little stress (hypoarousal) and too much stress (hyperarousal) is OK, but if we go to the extreme in one direction or the other, that is where issues can arise.

You might be wondering how you can tell if you are getting too little stress or too much stress?

Unfortunately that is hard to quantify and even if you could quantify it precisely, everyone’s thresholds for too little or too much stress is going to be different.

What we do know is there are several factors at play that can ultimately dictate your response to stress.

  • Intensity
  • Duration
  • Total Amount
  • Your personal stress thresholds

Here are some examples that illustrate how these variables can affect your response to a stressor.

A single high stress event that is over quickly, like narrowly avoiding a car accident, might be intense but likely won’t push you over your stress threshold.

Now if you have two or three highly stressful events in a short timeframe like narrowly avoiding a car accident, an unforseen customer issue at work, plus having to replace an appliance in your house…that might push your stress load over your threshold.

If you experience a couple of small stressors it might not be such a big deal. You can stay up late finishing a work project, then get up and do a workout, and fast till noon which for most people are not huge stressors but happen in a short timeframe and you will probably stay under your stress threshold.

However repeating those behaviors day after day after day, week after week, and month after month and the stress can build up to overflow your personal stress threshold.

Below is a graph which illustrates how the intensity, duration, and amount of stress can push you over your stress threshold.

As the potency, or intensity of the stress increases it will take less and less events to push you beyond your personal stress threshold. If the potency of the stressor is small we can handle more and more events before we hit our max threshold. When our stress is high we have more room for things that relieve stress to bring us back down to baseline. If our stress is low we are in danger of potentially having too little stress and it being a bad thing for us.

What are the impacts of too much or too little stress?

How can you find the right amount of stress for you?

How can you extend the upper and lower boundaries of your stress threshold to be more resilient to stress and build a better stress foundation?

We will address the answers to these questions in my next blog post. To be the first to know when that blog is posted, sign up for my newsletter using the form below and I will email you as soon as it is available.

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