Marty Muscles had a big date coming up: On the first Saturday of next month, Marty would strip down to practically nothing more than a little posing oil, step on a well-lighted stage, and then countless strange and
critical eyes would dance over, well, Marty's muscles. Was Marty scared? You bet. Was Marty stressed out? Right off the scale-and potentially right out of the contest.
Regardless of whether you are about to make your debut as a competitive bodybuilder, chances are nearly certain that you have a lot of stress in your life. Perhaps you're a powerlifter who has lost a title on your last two outings because you missed your final deadlift, and guess what's staring you in the eyes yet again? Maybe you're an Olympic lifter trying to qualify for an international team and just missed your first two attempts in the snatch. Or maybe you're facing a big test in school, a tough presentation at work or perhaps a thorny heart-to-heart with a significant other. All of these situations, plus a lot more, spell stress.
Stress begins its work at the physiological level, triggering the famous "fight or flight" reaction in the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system: Your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes deeper, blood is shunted away from your internal organs and into your muscles, glucose is released into the bloodstream, and you begin to sweat. If you're facing a sabre toothed tiger, you want your body to be primed this way, so stress of this type has a constructive, evolutionary purpose: It prepares you to save your life.
And, of course, training is a stress, but that, too, is constructive because you regulate the stress and keep it within the bounds of your recovery rate, growing bigger and stronger for your efforts. What we are concerned with controlling is stress that would otherwise run out of control-or at least hurt your performance. We want to whittle away at the type of stress that leaves you with a harried, grim look or ties your stomach into a bombproof knot. What we want to chop down to size is the type of stress that either eats you up or makes you want to run and hide.
If you live in this state, or visit it too often, bad things happen. You develop high blood pressure, your cholesterol level rises, you grind your teeth, and maybe you develop ulcers or have a stroke along the way. It's virtually certain that you will at least be uncomfortable and that your performance will suffer. So what, if anything, can you do to combat stress?
In fact, you can do an amazing job controlling your reactions to a specific stressful event, and you can learn to do it yourself, applying the general principles again and again, as you face stressful events throughout your life. We'll attack stress with a training program called "stress inoculation."
The Event. You are facing a specific stress-filled event, maybe training-related, maybe not. Just thinking about this event (an upcoming contest, for example) gives you a queasy feeling, and rather than feeling yourself getting stronger and conquering it, you feel threatened by the event.
Options. There are at least three different ways to respond to the stressor: 1) ignore it, hoping that it will either go away or that you will just walk over the frightening event, 2) fold in the face of the event and hide in your closet, 3) employ a general relaxation/coping strategy, or 4) use stress inoculation to approach the threatening event cautiously, nibbling away at it around the edges rather than trying to just swallow it in one gulp. Option 1 will probably hang you out to dry, as the problem will likely remain a problem even if you ignore it. Option 2 is fine if you are content to wimp out in the face of challenges. Option 3 is better than nothing but decidedly less effective than 4, the stress-inoculation approach.
The Theory. Psychological inoculation is based on the same principle as biological inoculation: If you are exposed to a weak form of a negative stimulus, you can build up antibodies, as it were, to cope with the main event. Think of stress inoculation as following a training program to build up your mind the same way you build your body with gradually increasing work loads.
Let's say that you have verbally committed yourself to climb El Capitan with a couple of your friends by the end of the summer, and even though you are technically capable of it, the idea of dangling by your fingertips with nothing but thousands of feet of air under your heels makes you jelly-kneed. Our theory says that you prepare for your assault by taking El Cap in small steps, digesting one vertical foot of granite at a time, until you master the whole thing.
Conveniently for us, this preparation can take place purely in the mind, and more good news, such cognitive preparation strategies have proven to be remarkably effective.
Research. Psychological research has borne out the wisdom and effectiveness of cognitive stress inoculation strategies. For example, a sample of patients facing surgery was randomly divided into two groups: The patients in one group received standard (minimal) information on the surgical operation they were facing, and the patients in the other group received an enhanced description, which allowed them to anticipate and come to grips with the operation. Following surgery, the patients in the second group not only complained less, but also consumed about half the morphine of the first group and were released, on average, three days earlier than the first group!
In another psychology experiment subjects watched a film showing dramatic accidents occurring in a wood-shop (cozy little things, like a man being impaled by a wooden plank). One group of subjects had no forewarning of the accident. The second group practiced general relaxation. The third group cognitively rehearsed the scene before seeing it on film. Physiological arousal measures indicated that general relaxation helped the subjects cope with the stressful film compared to no preparation, but it wasn't nearly as effective as the cognitive rehearsal strategy.
Your Routine. At least once a day every day before your big event get relaxed physically. Lying down on your back is best. Make sure that your clothing is comfortable (no tight belts, neckties or size six jeans on size 10 bodies) and that you are comfort- ably warm. Take about five slow, deep breaths. As you inhale, concentrate on drawing in pure energy, and as you exhale concentrate on expelling tension.
Next, run through five counts for your right leg and five for your left leg. Do the same thing for both arms and then five more for your whole body. For each of these counts breathe slowly and deeply while saying something like, "I breathe deeply and slowly. I am relaxed." After you have gone through the full 25 counts, you should be pretty relaxed, even the first time you train on this routine. If you really hit this right, you will be aware of thinking but unaware of your body, the surroundings, etc. With practice, you will be able to hit the relaxed state more easily and more completely, so keep at it.
Once in this deeply relaxed state, you will be tempted to fall asleep, but don't, as you have work to do.
You want to confront your stressor now, gradually, taking advantage of your relaxed state and your ability to exit anytime your stress level gets too high. Your goal is to stay relaxed as you master your stressor in small steps.
Begin by imagining the details of your target situation, taking your time and thinking about how you could cope with the attendant stress at each step, and then master it. When you hit a stage that jacks your stress level up too high, back off, get relaxed and try again. Keep at it and you will be able to work through the entire problematic situation, learning to keep your stress at a tolerable level throughout the exercise. As a result you will develop coping strategies that will help you respond effectively to the otherwise stress-laden situation when you face it in real life.
You can't always avoid stress-filled situations, but you can learn to use stress-inoculation techniques to stay below redline and avoid burning out or blowing up along the way. Good luck!