Life is unavoidably stressful. It can take several forms — mental, emotional and psychological. Unfortunately, stress doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter if it’s the stress induced by an upcoming work presentation that you’re unprepared for, the anxiety you feel from having to select the correct Golden Retriever for your significant other’s Christmas present or the tension that builds when you’re waiting for your favorite character to become downloadable in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it’s going to cause you some discomfort that’s going to devolve to the point where it affects you physically.
Yes, but stress builds muscles, right? Isn’t that a positive side effect to being stressed out all the time?
Hahahaha! That’s a good one.
In that case, I’m going to laugh even harder.
So I suppose the first thing we should do is differentiate between sources of tension. When you do any form of resistance exercise, you’re intentionally applying an external force to your muscles with the intent of microscopically tearing the muscle fibers so that they can be rebuilt in a stronger form that’s more capable of enduring the forms of physical stress that are being applied to them.
Right! So stress builds muscle.
Not every form of stress that physically contracts your muscles also works to strengthen them, and it’s helpful to be able to differentiate between the forms of stress.
If you’re wandering aimlessly through the woods and run smack into a grizzly bear, your body is prone to enter into its fight-or-flight mode. Since we’re talking about a grizzly bear in this instance, I would strongly encourage you to select “flight” even if the bear just wants to gaze upon a riverbed with you. Either way, when you spot the bear, your body floods your muscles with cortisol. What that means in a practical sense is that your body is willing to sacrifice its long-term health for survival in the short term. While your muscles may feel like they’ve been supercharged with energy — because they actually have been — the cortisol has prompted your body to begin the process of breaking down your muscles (through gluconeogenesis) in order to provide it with a secondary energy source.
To put it plainly, stress not only inhibits the production of new muscle fibers, it actually breaks them down. This is one of the reasons why long-term stress is so problematic; it can constantly tear down your muscles over an extended period of time, rendering it extremely difficult to rebuild them even through training as long as prolonged stress lingers.
Oh wow! Does stress do anything else to my body?
Does it ever.
Because the fight-or-flight mechanism has been triggered, your body enters a state in which it scrambles to sock away as much energy as it possibly can, as rapidly as possible, too. Your body’s favorite storage unit is contained within its fat cells, and you quickly develop cravings for high-carbohydrate foods that are easily stored as fat. As you feast on carbs, your body rapidly packs on adipose tissue.
So the full picture is bleaker than you first envisioned. Far from being a beneficial side effect to the presence of constant anxiety, the tension you feel in your muscles in response to your mental stress is a telltale sign that cortisol is circulating through your body, your muscles are being broken down to create energy and you’re going to have cravings for foods that you’re better off avoiding. All of which, of course, is simply one more thing to worry about.
The good news? Exercise is actually one of the best ways to reduce stress. So maybe all that tension you’re holding on to will get you a jacked neck and back after all — just through stress relief as opposed to carrying around a giant ball of anxiety with you every day.