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Stress: Identifying, Cultivating and Calming

For many of us, there is no better feeling than getting our heart rate up after a good sprint, an intense workout, or playing a competitive sport. For others of us who dread exercise, simply completing a basic workout can offer the same exhilaration. Yes, the feeling is great, and it’s a good idea to understand what is happening during these moments.

When we workout, whether it is resistance training or cardio, we are actually stressing our bodies. If we want to improve our exercise capacity and get stronger, stress is the key ingredient. We need to progress the level of difficulty, and do a little bit more than our previous workout. This stress can be useful to us and is needed for us to improve.

There are other types of stress in our lives as well. We might be too hot or cold, fearful of an attacker, or anxious about uncertain times, and our body responds the same way as it might if we were doing an intense workout. It moves into a stress-response mode. Our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rates increase and all available energy is mobilized to the areas in need. Additionally, all systems that are deemed “unnecessary” for the moment are put on pause (digestion, immunity, sleep, etc.).

If we are in a constant state of this level of anxiety and intensity (no matter what the origin of the stress is), it is troubling. We are at risk for prolonged bouts of tension, exhaustion, and injury. To avoid this, it is critical that we develop the capabilities to lower intensity and to quiet our nervous system.

How do we know if we are experiencing chronic stress?

  • Try something now by just listening to your breathing. Sit in a relaxed way and take a few normal breaths. When you inhale, do you feel like the air mostly moves into your chest, or do you feel like the air fills your abdomen?

  • If you feel like the air is moving primarily to the chest, you are using what is called paradoxical breathing -- breathing that is necessary when we need air quickly. This is the type of breathing we habituate to when we get stressed out. If you find yourself breathing in this way at rest, it may be time to try some stress-relieving techniques.

Developing the capabilities to reduce intensity and calm your nervous system can be challenging, but extremely important. Awareness Through Movement (ATM) can facilitate this process. It teaches you to focus and be mindful of your body and to be aware of what you are doing and how you are moving. It can be beneficial for people to move in order to relax and reduce tension, and that is exactly the strategy we are using in ATM.

When it comes to exercising, you don’t have to work out every day (in fact you shouldn’t). If you follow a well-rounded and productive program, you can continually build strength in as few as 1-2 days a week of focused strength training. And by incorporating ATM sessions into your fitness program, your workouts will be safer and more productive. Finding the right balance of working hard and recovering well is key to getting stronger, moving better, and feeling better in your workouts.

Know your body. Know your stressors. With training and practice, you can control your response to stress --- safely encouraging it to help you grow stronger physically and reducing it when it interferes with overall good health.


Sapolsky, Robert M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York: Owl Book/Henry Holt and Co.,

Hargrove, Todd. (30 Oct. 2011). The SAID principle. Better Movement.

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