| | | Unlocking Stress: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Author / Matthew Zanis

“Just listen to your body…” We hear this shit all the time. As coaches, we try to educate our athletes on how to manage stress and training. Often going in one ear and out the other as they’re focused life stresses outside the gym. How do we even begin to understand what our body is telling us? It’s like trying to explain how the Industrial Revolution changed the modern novel forever by relating it to How the Puppy Lost Its Way.

Like Billy, we are usually met with general applause and head nods, but no one really gets it. No points are awarded for our rambling thoughts, and we can only hope that God has mercy on our souls…

how to listen to your body

Since our athlete won’t listen to us, maybe can get them to listen to the soreness, aches or pains they wake with. But, how does one actually listen to their body? How do you know when you are experiencing a short-term, adaptive, eustress and when you are in a distressing, downward tailspin disaster? In order to do this, we need to understand the difference between good, Eustress and bad, Distress, and how they impact the body. The line separating what is good and bad is individualized, and finding it for yourself or your athlete requires a discussion about feelings.

The intimate balance between these types of stressors is dependent on perception. We are all the same, but we are all different. Perception is a psychological limiting factor that can produce different physical and emotional manifestations; impacting how our athletes react to training and perform on the field.

The goal of this article is to provide insight into eustress, distress, and how our perception and reaction to what life has to throw at us will impact our lifestyle and athletic potential.

Choose Your Battles

We’ve all had good days and bad days, but have you ever stopped and wondered why some are better than others? Was it the programming or life?

We experience stress every day of our lives, it is part of who we are as humans and drives us and our daily activities. Choosing how to frame your stress, whether good or bad, determines how you present yourself throughout the day and how you handle yourself.  Our reaction to and expression of stress is a product of individual perception. However, our physical body can’t differentiate between what is “good” and “bad.” Your brain has to perceive something as novel or threatening in order to invoke the stress response (8). The  brain dictates these “feelings” and manifests them in our thoughts, actions, and demeanor.

This is where it gets really interesting! What my brain perceives as threatening may be totally different from what your brain perceives as threatening. In fact, research indicates that people with highest mortality rates were those with the highest stress level and who interpreted it the worst, and those with the lowest mortality rates were those who had the highest stress levels but who interpreted it as important for their body (5).

This is truly empowering! Think about it! By altering the way we interpret the world around us, we can gain control over stress. By changing our perception about a situation, we can even harness the power to see positive benefits.

If Stress Burned Calories, I Would be a Supermodel

Think about the last time you failed your 3×5 back squats in Bedrock. You may think to yourself, “I am weak,” “I’m not good enough.” and ask “what am I doing wrong?”  This stream of negative self talk will impose a destructive distress signal. It will drain your energy levels, setting you up for a shitty day and making you dull witted, irritable, and on edge. It also alters how your body physically responds to that stressor by increasing systemic cortisol levels. Chronic levels of this little guy will cause a break down of muscle tissue and add to that spare tire by converting your protein to glucose (1). This will limit #gainz and make fitting into those Power Athlete silkies questionable.

You may contribute your recent failure on back squats to feelings of being too “tight.” The majority of the time, your perception of muscular tightness is actually a hyperactive nervous system that is all wound up from the effects of training and a stressful environment (3). This explains why everyone seems to have tight hamstrings. Neural tension built up in the posterior chain signals a perception of stiffness in the back of the thighs.

Recall everything that can accumulate as stress we covered in Double Edge Sword? If you constantly view your environment as distressing, the nerves that innervate your muscles are being constantly stimulated, leading to heightened neural tone, even in a theoretically stress environment. This often leads to unwanted pain signals and discomfort in the neck, jaw, low back, upper traps, and even your diaphragm (affecting your breathing) (2). We know that pain alters movement and can cause postural or positional deviations that lead to training and game related injuries.

Get Your Mind Right

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill

BUT, what if you understood that failure is supposed to occur, that this is a necessary process to get stronger, faster, and more durable? You are now in control. You have empowered your performance! By creating a focused, positive reaction to the stress, you have catalyzed the body to respond in an anabolic way to build new tissue and create more efficient neural pathways, improving your movement patterns.

Mentally, you now have desire to achieve and overcome that failure. You are motivated to destroy the mediocrity of being complacent and accepting defeat. Your mood is immediately lifted as your body is flooded with endorphins, the feel good hormone (2). The temporary anxiety invoked by failure heightens your concentration, making you more alert and sharpening your cognitive skills (4). You’ve just turned into the most BAMF, ready to kick ass.

Master Your Movement: Find Balance

Fully eliminating stress from your life is an unrealistic goal. We know that acute, short-term stress, if predictable and within your capacity to handle, will be a Eustress (7). It will be a motivator and growth catalyst, leading to improved performance. On the flip side, most of us would do well to minimize the impacts of distress in as many ways as possible.

You should begin by eliminating avoidable forms of negative chronic stress. That could mean fixing your sleep habits, removing inflammatory foods from your diet, letting go of a stressful relationship, or correcting your shitty movement. Some stress may be inevitable, but the negative effects on the brain and body don’t have to be. Jump on a program like Bedrock and follow one of the Power Athlete nutrition plans to take control over situations that typically leave us stressed out.

Next, do everything you can to increase your resilience and durability, while improving performance at the same time, which we’ll dive into in our next Unlocking Stress article. Should you be training smarter AND harder? Find out why stress is necessary to progress!


  1. Block JP, He Y, Zaslavsky AM, Ding L, Avanian JZ. Psychosocial stress and change in weight among US adults. Am J Epidemiol. 2009;170(2):181-192.
  2. Hall AM, Kamper SJ, Maher CG, et al. Symptoms of depression and stress mediate the effect of pain on disability. Pain. 2011;152(5):1044-51.
  3. Garland EL. Pain Processing in the Human Nervous System: A Selective Review of Nociceptive and Biobehavioral Pathways. Primary care. 2012;39(3):561-571.
  4. Kupriyanov, R., & Zhandov, R. (2014). The eustress concept: Problems and outlooks. World Journal of Medical Sciences, 11, 179-185.
  5. Mcewen, B. S. (2002). End of stress as we know it. Place of publication not identified: Univ Of Chicago Press.
  6. Mroczek DK, Spiro A III, Turiano NA. Do health behaviors explain the effect of neuroticism on mortality? Longitudinal findings from the VA Normative Aging Study. Journal Research Person. 2009;43(4):653-659.
  7. Parker, K.N., & Ragsdale, J.M. (2015). Effects of distress and eustress on changes in fatigue from waking to working. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 7, 293-315.
  8. Sapolsky, R. M. (2009). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York: Times Books.


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Matthew Zanis

PT, DPT, FAAOMPT, OCS, ATC, CSCS Former baseball catcher and an avid outdoorsman. Worked with Division 1 basketball, football, and track and field at the University of Pittsburgh, along with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Cardinals organizations. Received a Bachelors in Athletic Training from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011 and a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Duke University in 2014. Is board certified in Orthopedics and a Fellow through the American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists. Is a PT with the United States Olympic Committee and USA Shooting. Currently operates his performance therapy practice in Scottsdale, AZ with Dr. Tom Incledon of Causenta Wellness, and became a Power Athlete Block One Coach in September of 2017.

Dr. Zanis utilizes the Power Athlete Methodology to optimize performance, reduce injury risk, and rehab his clients and athletes through movement assessment, coaching, and individualized program design.

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