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Let’s Talk about Stress Baby

The word “stress” gets a bad rap, conjuring images of hyperventilation and hysteria. With the increased focus on mental health and stress-free school days, which is all well and good, I worry about stress’s long-term perception. Stress, scientifically speaking, is a necessary stimulant for growth. We cannot get stronger without stress. We cannot learn without stress. We cannot become who we need to be without stress. It’s vital, but so is balance.

That being said, how do we conquer the perennial problem of stress dosage, enough to grow but not so much as to destroy? The key lies: in the following equation popularized by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg in their book Peak Performance:

Stress + Rest = Growth

Magness and Stulberg sought to break down disciplinary barriers between physical training and mental training. In other words, they attempted to create a unifying framework for growth and performance that could be applied to multiple areas. Students, and the rest of us, have a lot to learn here because how many of us live a completely compartmentalized life, focusing on one goal entirely. In my experience, students have multi-faceted goals in an academic, athletic, spiritual, and relational sense. So, what can we learn about stress (and growth) from Stulberg and Magness’ research:

Stress is blind.

Stress can be physical, mental, intellectual, etc. The arena does not matter. We experience stress with every decision we make (decision fatigue), with every math problem we do (cognitive fatigue), or every lap we run in gym class (physical fatigue). However, each of these seemingly disparate areas pulls from the same reservoir of stamina and willpower. Studies have shown that mental fatigue affects physical fatigue and vice versa.

Rest is extraordinarily vital and extremely productive.

Here’s the big takeaway here: growth does not happen during stress; it happens during rest. That additional weight room session or an extra hour of flashcards does not produce physical or cognitive benefits until the body has time to rest and rebuild. For instance, researchers at Stanford University wanted to study the marginal benefit of sleep compared to increased practice. In two separate experiments with the basketball team and the swimming team, the researchers asked athletes to sleep more than nine hours each day for six weeks while keeping their training regimens the same. The results were astounding. Athletes saw observed differences in endurance, vertical leap, sprint speed, and explosiveness. Furthermore, they had more consistency with free throw percentage, turn times, and turnovers. As a final bonus, during the year of the study, the Stanford Men’s basketball team recorded its first NCAA tournament appearance in nearly a decade. Rest allows both athletes and students to obtain the growth benefits of marginal stress increases.

Growth happens at the point of resistance.

We need to be extremely careful about the timing of help. In the gym or the classroom, timing is almost as important as the physical or cognitive exercise. If the teacher or coach swoops in to help too soon, students (or athletes) might not reach the point of resistance, the moment at which they have exhausted their current abilities. Teachers, parents, coaches, tutors, and anyone who provides academic or athletic support should be as worried about jumping in to help too early as they are about jumping in to help too late. Striking a balance is the key to growth, the key to learning.

The ultimate point is stress and rest work together to produce growth. Ignore one, and the long-term output suffers. Remember, (1) stress is immune to compartmentalization, (2) the benefits of stress are attained during rest, and (3) growth happens at the point of resistance.

Are you interested in learning more about our research-driven approach to student success? For more information, check out our other posts or reach out to help your child develop the tools for success inside and outside the classroom.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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