The stress you’re ignoring

Stress is officially defined as the body’s response to any demand for change, good or bad. Still, modern-day society takes a damning view of it. “The word stress has a negative connotation, leaving people to think it only comes from negative sources,” says Matt Berenc, CSCS, director of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute.

That’s plain wrong. Anything that drains you of your resources—even if it’s a wonderful thing like a wedding, a race, or a vacation—can elevate stress hormones. It’s the body’s way of trying to find the energy it needs to meet the new demands, explains Heidi Hanna, Ph.D., San Diego-based executive director of the American Institute of Stress, like recovering from jet lag, sleeping in a foreign environment, and adjusting to local foods.

Stress isn’t a reason to pass up on life’s happy happenings. The body is designed to deal with it—“you simply need time to recover so you can exert again in a smart way and at your best,” says Alicia Clark, Psy.D., a psychologist in Washington, D.C. “We know that people who rest between bouts of stress do the best at handling it.”

The problem lies in failing to recognize that positive strains can impact the body just like negative ones can. “If you only think bad things are stressful, then you may not give yourself permission to acknowledge the toll that a bunch of good stress can take,” Clark explains.

And you could pay for it by way of exhaustion, distractedness, or worse. Even stress from positive sources can become chronic, and if left untreated it can lead to inflammation, unstable blood sugar, and dips in mood.

Here’s how you can keep tabs on good stress without sacrificing enjoyment.

Prepare for it.

To take control, on weeks where you’ve scheduled a few fun evenings out, arrange meetings in the afternoon to give yourself room to breathe in the morning. If you pushed yourself toward a challenging goal, build in extra time for sleep and make sure your fridge is filled with foods that refuel. “Planning for the effects of stress can help you better mitigate them,” Clark says.

Alter your training.

If you have minimal down time for a few days or weeks in a row, consider reducing either how often or how hard you exercise. Even if you have a race coming up, it's important to adjust your workouts so they mesh with the rest of your calendar. “You still want to train during busy periods,” Berenc says. “Movement is a great part of the recovery process, but it may just not be a great time for PRs.” That’s because unnecessary excess stress from a workout can tip the scales toward exhaustion.

He suggests you focus on bodyweight moves that take you through a full and varied range of motion, or low-level aerobic work instead of intervals.

Be grateful.

Whatever you’re busy doing, whether it’s racing or traveling, remind yourself that these are good sources of stress, Hanna says. Writing down what you’re grateful for and looking forward to helps optimize recovery time by allowing you to soak up your experiences, she notes.

Photo: Getty Images