Bad stress and the athlete

Yes, because there’s good stress. Good stress is manageable, predictable stress. There is, there must be some stress when you are just about to get under a loaded bar with over 85% or 90% of your presumed maximum. There is obviously stress related to preparing for the potentially infinite amount of unpredictable factors at play at a competition. And there has to be stress, good stress, related to the seconds you walk into the platform and the fractions of a second before you begin the lift. If there wasn’t this good stress, no good marks would be done and no record would be broken.

Unfortunately, there is also bad stress. The sources of bad stress are as infinite as those of the good stress. Monsters from your childhood, twisted expectations, guilt, fear derived from “communication noise”, which may be higher or lower depending on the social health of the competitive environment. Sports politics is absolutely toxic and one of the highest sources of bad stress. Bullying, almost always related to sports politics, is a major source of bad stress.

Wherever it comes, it will grow roots and develop into something nasty depending on your previous condition. If you are well under control, you have good friends and coaches, your family is cool and your work or study are going well, you should be able to manage even average levels of bad stress. But let’s be honest: who is that healthy? I don’t know anyone. Maybe athletes are all a little weirder and freakish than the rest of the world, but the fact is that bad stress is a disaster.

First, it will eventually produce burnout, about which I already wrote something (for totally selfish and self serving reasons). As the studies suggest, burnout is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by whatever may cause it, loop-feeding itself into disaster and, thus, producing underperformance syndromes, also known as overtraining. It can go the other way round, too.

Second, it will make you chronically tired, also known as fatigued. Some people call this “adrenal fatigue”. There is a lot of controversy around adrenal fatigue. Some researchers claim it doesn’t exist at all. Others swear it explains everything.

So you are a fighter or weightlifter and you must control your weight? Good! It won’t go down no matter how much you starve yourself, which you won’t, because you can’t afford to compromise your precious strength even more than it has already been screwed by your general catastrophic enigma.

This is where I stand now: everyday my weight is a little (very little) higher, my diet being anything from no-carb, little-carb, more-carb-less-fat – it doesn’t matter, as the average amount of caloric consumption doesn’t matter either. Nothing matters: I’m shutting down. If you are on the same road, welcome: it won’t matter how smart you or your nutritionist are. Your hypothalamus and your adrenals, who ultimately obey your fucked up emotions, will win the game.

Pain. So you’re used to pain, right? After all, you’re a high performance athlete. We handle pain everyday. Pain is our second name. Now, constant, chronic “delayed onset muscle soreness” when you haven’t stimulated your muscles to that effect is creepy, isn’t it? As the maddening lower back pain that your chiropractic, your physician, your acupuncture specialist, your massage therapist and even your mom are powerless against.

Welcome to bad stress hell.

I haven’t had time with myself under any other state than a constant desperate search for answers (burying my head into pubmed) to figure out what to do when no scientific information is available to back my decision. But one of the things that seems reasonable is to do some soul searching and identify what is less manageable to you in a competitive situation. Each person is different: these factors are emotional, life-history related, cultural or neurological (or all of them chaotically combined). I think I know I can’t handle laconic communication environments. Defective communication – either insufficient of ambiguous – is extremely anxiogenic for me. I come from the land of Federation War, remember? Anything not exhaustively detailed may be life threatening. Therefore, choosing to compete under more transparent conditions, with objective and available organizers, seems important to me. This is me, ok? You may be totally different. For you, too much light, or too much cold may be a problem. Who knows?

Zealots and fake Spartans out there may say this is all bullshit and an athlete must cope with anything. Well, this is nonsense. Nobody copes with “anything”. Everybody has a limit. I have competed under so much heat that I developed rhabdomyolysis. And it was not a problem, although I’m heat intolerant. I have slept on the floor watching out for a bunch of kids during a meet. I have competed after not having slept or eaten the day before. And it was ok. What was not ok were the items I listed above.

Again: everyone has his or her limits and things one is not willing to negotiate. Find yours. This is where bad stress and burnout start.

Good luck.


Things I found useful to read while thinking about this (not equivalent to “references”)

Cortisol awakening response and pain-related fear-avoidance versus endurance in patients six months after lumbar disc surgery.

Salivary cortisol and psychological mechanisms in patients with acute versus chronic low back pain.

The effect of chronic immobilization stress on leptin signaling in the ovariectomized (OVX) rat.

Chronic restraint stress causes anxiety- and depression-like behaviors, downregulates glucocorticoid receptor expression, and attenuates glutamate release induced by brain-derived neurotrophic factor in the prefrontal cortex.

Long-lasting behavioral responses to stress involve a direct interaction of glucocorticoid receptors with ERK1/2-MSK1-Elk-1 signaling.

Neuroendocrine response to stress

The Neuroendocrinology of Stress: A Never Ending Story




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