Stress Tolerance, Where is the Breaking Point?
Since my work with clients involves dealing with stress, both mental and physical, I have an opportunity to observe and learn from other people’s misery.
I have another advantage. I am old. Nearly 70. This allows me to recall experiences that relate to this topic that are unique to aging.
This is an amazingly complex and important topic. I am only going to point out a few observations, to stimulate your own personal introspection, and investigation.
I will use the word stress in the most general sense, meaning both physical and mental stress. Stress is the wear and tear, the strain, and the associated discomfort, that results from using the body and mind. When stress increases, or accumulates, we hurt, and if it reaches a critical intensity, we break. Each person’s physical and mental stress tolerance is unique. It is a product of a number of factors, many of which we do not control. It changes throughout your life.
I will use this term to mean both mental and physical effort, whether vocational, avocational, athletic activity, or in the performance of daily tasks of living. We may work in the workshop, on the athletic field, in the kitchen, both for money, enjoyment, and in the management of everyday family life. I will also use the words perform and performance to mean doing work at any task, for money or pleasure.
.........There are no 10 year old or 70 year old olympic athletes. Our physique, and its control, has age limits at either extreme.
Each individual has a unique set of PHYSICAL attributes.
We all have physical stress limits. When we try to exceed those limits, our body speaks to us. The body first grows tired, meaning it cannot perform as fast and as well, you make mistakes. And if you keep going, eventually it will exhibit pain (sore muscles, muscle spasm, aching joints, blisters).........and if you still keep going it will break (arthritis, tendonitis, muscle strain, joint separation, stress fractures). Pain is the body’s way of saying you may be exceeding safe limits, determined by your unique attributes and conditioning. Pain gets even worse, if you break.
Each individual has a unique set of MENTAL attributes.
We all have mental stress limits. When we try to exceed those limits, our mind speaks to us. The mind first grows tired, meaning it cannot perform as fast and as well, you make mistakes. And if you keep going, eventually it will exhibit pain (headache, twitching eyes, increasong errors, drowsiness, irritability).........and if you still keep going it will break (hallucinations, crying, elevation of blood pressure, asthma, colitis, dermatitis, even stroke and heart attack). Pain is the mind’s way of saying you have exceeded its safe limits, determined by your unique attributes and conditioning. Pain gets even worse, if you break (mental breakdown).
What determines tolerance, and how do we know when we are exceeding it?
We learn by experience, and sometimes the advice of others. Physical and mental stress are interrelated and one affects the tolerance of the other. Only experience gives each individual a way to judge his limits. The processes and relationships are too complex for measurement and prediction.
Can we improve, meaning increase, our stress tolerance?
Conditioning, both physical and mental may improve tolerance. Experience improves tolerance. It is stressful to learn something. When we are an expert, a task may be much easier, and less stressful. The reverse is also true, we may lose stress tolerance, if our conditioning lapses, or illness or infirmity has affected our vigor.
What other factors should I be aware of?
We determine safe levels of stress exposure with experience. This can change obviously. But we need to be aware that when we age, especially as we approach our 40’s and 50’s, there is a downward trend in stress tolerance of all types. You can compensate with experience, wisdom, precision, and timing. But for a given ability, stress tolerance has an irreversible downward trend as adult age increases. If you find you are are having pain or reduced tolerance to a familiar task, as age advances, you need to assume that your safe limits for stress are lower, and you must adjust output….......or you will break.
This is the framework I use to diagnose client symptoms on a daily basis. It sounds like common sense. But many of the injuries I have read about here on LJ’s, are the result of forgetting these simple facts.
What is the practical impact of these facts?
1. Most performance is improved with periodic rest times. They also give you a way to measure whether you have reached your stress tolerance for the task. After a rest, if you do not feel like continuing, or you have to force yourself after a rest, then it is best to stop for the day, or a long interval of time.
2. If you detect tiredness or pain, take a rest and analyze the factors in your tolerance, and carefully approach the limits. Getting older, out of shape, too little sleep, etc? Better to quit too soon, than too late, after something breaks.
-- Jim, Anchorage Alaska