If you’ve read any of our previous articles about stress perception and understanding the role of anxiety and challenges, you’ll be familiar with our stance that stress is not the problem, it’s the perceptions of the stress that causes a maladaptive response. In this article, we dive a bit deeper into the science behind the developing grit and resilience, the physiological changes your body experiences and also how to understand the upside of your current struggle.

Physiological Reaction to Stress

During times of perceived stress there are physiological responses involving the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that are vital for reacting to danger and maintaining homeostasis. Catecholamines and glucocorticoids such as epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (NE), and cortisol are released when a stressor is present. This doesn’t just occur with obvious danger such as an animal attacking you or something of that nature, it can also be triggered when working out (stress), or psychological stressors as well.

During acute stress, a response you might have heard of as “fight or flight” is activated. There is a rush of adrenaline and NE (which works to modulate the response) which mainly results in increased blood flow to vital organs/muscles, and increased cognitive function or alertness. Cortisol contributes to the stress response by re-distributing glucose in the body, and alters the immune and digestive system responses as a survival mechanism. After a stressful response the parasympathetic nervous system, which is generally referred to as the “rest and digest” system, is activated. This brings hormone levels and systems back homeostatic normalcy.  

Resiliency and Grit 

Oftentimes, during or after challenging periods, grit, resiliency and believing your efforts are enough can help you excel through certain circumstances. Resiliency can be defined as a process in which an individual can adaptively overcome stressful and/or traumatic events while maintaining “normal” physical and psychological functions. Whereas grit is defined as sustained effort despite struggles or even failures.  Grit is associated with improved performance and success (regardless of IQ), and conscientiousness. Some studies suggest that individuals who experience stress or hardships in their developing years develop qualities that foster coping strategies relating to adaptation and resilience. 

Further, although not yet fully understood, there are likely biological and epigenetic factors influencing ones reaction to stress. This possibly means it might feel more “natural” for certain people to operate with grit and or resiliency in the face of discomfort compared to others. However, like most other skills, this can likely be developed over time. Although it sometimes might feel like life experiences, especially “negative” or stressful ones can be all consuming, when operating with grit and resilience, acute situations of stress may feel less overwhelming (over time) and lead to better outcomes. This isn’t to suggest that we consistently over-ride feelings when experiencing true danger or extreme discomfort, as too much activation of stress systems can cause exhaustion, susceptibility to illness, sleep dysregulation, and other maladaptive responses. But for acute stressors that might be uncomfortable, the more you operate with grit and resiliency the more likely you’ll get closer to achieving certain goals and develop a mindset helpful to all areas of your life. 

The Upside of Discomfort

Most of you reading this article are likely focusing on physique, exercise, and/or diet goals but these principles are applicable to any goal or life aspiration you are trying to reach! These strategies can (and we’d suggest, should) be used for someone just trying to pick themselves up after a difficult situation or work through a hard period of their life. There’s no way around it: Life can be hard. And while the struggles or the cards people are dealt remain different, collectively as humans we all experience discomfort, pain, and challenges influenced by our specific environments and past/current experiences so we need to learn how to effectively navigate them.

During periods when you experience pain, or discomfort, you might be thinking “why does this feel so hard?” Or, “ why is this happening to me?” And generally, it’s human nature to want to avoid discomfort or wish to make things “easier”. However, sometimes picking yourself up and embracing discomfort, and running with it can help you achieve more meaningful goals. 

The upside of pain or discomfort: →  

  • Opportunity to look at your inner responses; what’s really coming up for you? Should you modify your current plan? This can be a good time to go inward with your own internal dialogue. 
  • Opportunity to be truthful with yourself & do the work.
  • Discomfort might create a force that helps you achieve something greater than you thought possible. 
  • You can use it as a time to think about what’s important in your life, or tend to parts of your life in need of reflection or change
  • Humbleness. Sometimes, difficult situations can lead you to interact with a more kind, and humble attitude 
  • May provide an opportunity to refocus 

Remember if everything felt easy, the goal or achievement would never feel as rewarding. Here’s to being mindful during goal setting, and working hard to achieve them, and remembering some discomfort will probably help you in the long run.

References: 
1. Benjamin D. Hill & Stephen L. Aita (2018) The positive side of effort: A review of the impact of motivation and engagement on neuropsychological performance, Applied Neuropsychology: Adult, 25:4, 312-317, DOI: 10.1080/23279095.2018.1458502

2. Osório, C. et al. Adapting to Stress: Understanding the Neurobiology of Resilience. Behavioral medicine (Washington, D.C.), [s. l.], v. 43, n. 4, p. 307–322, 2017. DOI:10.1080/08964289.2016.1170661.

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