How My Response to Stress Has Changed Through the Years

Even after I fixed my diet, ditched the chronic cardio, and cleaned up my overall lifestyle to be more in line with our evolutionary upbringing, one big problem remained: my response to stress.

This had always been an issue for me. Part of it was that I kept a full plate at all times. Whether it was my training load, my businesses, my overall type A personality, stress was simply unavoidable, I thought.

How did I approach the situation and manage my stress differently over time?

First, I agonized over the existence of stress. My entire modus operandi throughout life had been to handle problems when they arose. I didn’t let things fester, I didn’t accept bad situations and learn to deal. I took care of things. If a problem didn’t resolve quickly , I assumed I was doing something wrong. Applied to stress, though? Man, what a disaster. I quickly realized that it was impossible to avoid stress, or eliminate it altogether. I needed a new approach.

So the first major step was admitting that stress is a fact of life, that stressors would arise, and what mattered was how I responded to them. My response could make the stress worse, or it could make it more manageable.

The first way I figured out how to improve my stress response was with smart supplementation. When I was still competing and doing the chronic cardio training required to succeed, I developed a supplement you might recognize by its old Primal Calm label and now called Adaptogenic Calm—designed to mitigate the negative effects of all that training stress. Both Brad Kearns and I used it, and it actually became an underground hit in the endurance scene. Athletes of all kinds were taking it and seeing great results. Of course, most of us just used it to allow our bodies to train even more and accumulate even more stress, which was one of the problems that got me into this mess in the first place.


The next step was realizing that even if I couldn’t eliminate stress entirely, I could eliminate unnecessary stress. First on the list was my training. You’ve heard the story before, so I won’t get too deeply into it. Suffice it to say, I was engaged in way too much endurance training—what I call chronic cardio—and spending way too much time out of the aerobic zone in the no-man’s land of moderately high-intensity that leads to sugar-burning and depresses fat-burning. This training was killing me, taking up all my time, necessitating an inflammatory high-carb, high-sugar diet that led to chronic GI distress and joint pain, and getting in the way of living.  If any of you can identify a big stressor upstream of a bunch of things going wrong in your life, take action and eliminate it. Changing how I trained led to the development of the Primal Blueprint and the resolution of most of my health problems.

Meditation always intrigued me. Even before it became an Internet sensation and every podcaster/blogger/CEO/coach out there credited their success to their morning meditation routine, I was surrounded by meditators. My wife, Carrie, has done it for decades. Lots of my athlete friends used it to—you guessed it—fight stress. And Malibu, CA, where I lived for more than 20 years, is no stranger to yoga studios, health food stores, and other similar hives of mindfulness. I tried it. But it didn’t work for me. My mind was too active to become aware of its (lack of) self. Still, the science was convincing and I didn’t want to give up on what looked to be a potent anti-stress tool:

If sitting meditation didn’t work, maybe there was another way to get to a similar mindstate.

In a post I wrote about meditation alternatives, I gave 15 options and readers followed up with dozens of awesome suggestions in the comments. Standup paddling, hikes (or just hanging out) in nature, and guided meditations were my alternatives. They help me achieve the hyper-present flow state I’d only had glimpses of during “real” meditation. And sure enough, stress melts away as I’m doing the activity, I’m far less reactive to stressors (I have an extra split second or two to decide how I want to respond) throughout the week, and I appear to have greater resistance to stress. It’s almost an adaptogenic effect: rather than blunt or eliminate the stress response across the board, I’m able to call forth cortisol when the situation is serious. A car honking at me doesn’t trigger it, in other words.

Where am I today?

Stress is still there. It won’t ever go away, and I’m okay with that. I’ve got a growing food and supplement business, and I’m as busy as ever with the writing.

Meditation has gotten easier, but I’m still not a “meditation guy.” I don’t expect to be doing a 10-day silent retreat anytime soon.

Adaptogenic Calm remains a staple for me. The nutrients it contains are supraphysiological responses to the supraphysiological doses and durations of stress we receive in the modern world.

I welcome stress. If I align myself with the things I truly find meaningful and maintain active participation in life and avoid becoming a passive character in someone else’s storyline, the stressors become obstacles that make the narrative of my life more interesting. They propel me forward. Without stressors, I’m not living. I’m not doing anything. Stressors indicate action. They mean you’re bouncing up against reality and testing its mettle (and it, yours).

What’s your stress response journey? I’d love to hear how you’ve handled stress in the past, what you’ve learned along the way, and how you handle it now. Thanks, everybody.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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16 thoughts on “How My Response to Stress Has Changed Through the Years”

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  1. This place of self-exploration sure does resonate, Mark!

    For me, a meditative yoga practice involving movement, breath and mindfulness is essential at the start and close of each day. Also walks in nature. And NEVER working or rushing during my two meals (lunch and dinner).

    I also work with “mantras” and practices throughout the day. These change over time but lately, I’ve been paying close attention to whatever takes me out of a place of ease – using ease as an inner reference point and teacher.

    I’ve also been looking at the “track record” of things. Certain things – including anxiety and stuck thoughts – have 100% failure rate when it comes to being helpful for outcomes. Other things – including ease and connection to my body – have a 100% success rate.

    So when I feel unwanted, unhelpful stress, I tell myself: Whatever unfolds, stress has a really sh*tty track record for being in ANY way helpful. (Like, really, it’s track record is ZERO!) Might as well let it go.

    1. An outstanding mindset to just let things go! – Worker Bee

  2. Ive tried alot. Booze. Smoking. Breaking stuff. Yelling. Telling myself all I can do is my best has helped lately. But really I think not eating a sugar/bread diet has helped the most…

    Second to that is 8 hours of sleep.

    Third is exercise.

    You know the main stuff you are alsways harping on? Other than that, a glass of wine, some music and oil painting does the trick. Problem is telling myself I have time for that.

    1. Amazing to hear that you made the changes starting on from the inside. All the changes you made to your life really does make a difference! – Worker Bee

  3. I dont think stress is naturally part of life, i think people, whom are mostly followers and not free thinkers, allow it in their lives. I dont have a job or friends who make me stressed. If im stressed, i leave. Stress is so bad for our bodies, messes with our cells and brains.

  4. I am like what you say at the beginning of the article…I agonize at the fact that stress exists. This article and perspective really helped me! I’ve put into practice a lot of the PB philosophies, but stress was never one I knew how to get rid of…well, most likely I can’t! But I liked how you say “without stressors, I’m not living.” And that you welcomes stressors. Good perspective. Thanks for all the insight, in all areas, not just stress!

    1. Yes, what is the story here Mark? Why leave California for Florida? what is the impact on your lifestyle?

  5. Another fascinating article, Mark. I have found that working with my hands in some way, relieves my tension and stress. Old fashioned crafts like knitting, crochet, needlework and weaving, have a calming effect on me. I have to sit down, and I have stay still!

  6. Dear Mark,
    A great post, thanks for sharing.
    As someone who has a tendency towards stress and anxiety I have found a few things that have really made a difference to me. One was a ted talk by Kelly mcgonigal entitled ‘how to make stress your friend’ it helped remind me that a large part of stress is our natural physiological response and that reacting to this in a negative way (ie using it as a source for more stress) is what potentially sends us into a downward spiral.
    I personally use negative visualisation (from stoicism) but probably more importantly the ‘3 column method’ taken from cognitive behavioural therapy when I am feeling stressed or overwhelmed and it always helps me to identify and correct the thinking that is causing my less than helpful emotions.
    Lastly as a teacher I have seen a noticeable increase in stress and anxiety in my students over the last decade, students over whom I have no control of their diet, exercise regime or even friendship circle, and yet have to try and help take control of their emotions, some of the above have helped them but ideally feel it is something that will become more and more of an issue in the future.
    Thanks again for raising the issue and the great post.

  7. I had a nervous breakdown at work 4 years ago (almost to the day). Thankfully I’d already been seeing a therapist (who used CBT among other techniques) for my problems with food and a bit of stress and I was able to turn to him for help.

    CBT was helpful because my personality type tends towards the conscientious. I want to do everything properly and perfectly. But I was also thinking either I’m brilliant or I’m rubbish. So he gave me a scale on a piece of paper and I put a sticker on the scale every day to show where I was. That was actually immensely helpful. I struggled to accept “good enough is good enough” emotionally. It felt so wrong. It was a useful test to ask whether I was doing too much. I always feel obliged to say yes to more work and not ask for help. The CBT really helped with the stress caused by perfectionism and taking on too much.

    He also got me reading into self compassion. I revolted against it at first. Sounded awfully like “self indulgence”. How would I ever achieve anything by being kind to myself? But the more I’ve worked at it, the better I’ve got. And a slip in my diet doesn’t become a massive spiral of sweets (candy) and self loathing.

    For my breakdown he suggested a mindfulness based stress reduction course. I was a bit sceptical and thought it would be a bit “woo”. But once I got on the course I found it so helpful in conjunction with everything else. I can’t “empty my mind” for meditations. It’s always whirring. But MBSR taught me how to meditate while letting my mind whirr and just let my thoughts flit about without latching onto them and following them. I sound silly but it did actually change my life. And the experience of the breakdown has made me more assertive about what I need, what help I want, what work I’ll take on, and what social or other commitments, I take on. I ration myself now. And that’s definitely helpful.

    I still have stressful times at work but I go for a swim or a walk or to see my personal trainer who trained me to box and I’m good.

    1. Thanks for sharing—quite a learning journey!
      I recently was introduced to self compassion as an idea and practice, and it was a huge revelation: all the uncomfortable feelings and parts of myself are to be accepted and understood, not repressed! Real game-changer for me. Best to you,

  8. This was a great post for me as well. Thank you .
    I’ve been a conscientious perfectionist all my life, it’s just who I am at the core.
    My mantra has been “I know I’m not perfect but there’s no reason I can’t try to be as close as I can get to perfection”.
    Realistic and yet ambitious. It has served me well through the years.
    However other things can contribute to our stress load like the death of parents, loss of a loving relationship, mental illness of a child, betrayal by your closest friend, hostility at work (now that I only have a few years left there before retirement) ….. those situations will not change even if I’m suddenly able to be perfect. It can be, well is, overwhelming all at once. That’s where going inside and working on my view of the stressors has to happen. I am not responsible for anyone else, even if I’m blamed for their errors, feelings, inappropriate actions or rage. I have learned (and keep learning) how to let them experiecne their own life and keep all that negative energy away from me. With those types of situations I find inside me whatever I may have within me that could have contributed to my experiencing it, then I look into my eyes and say to me “l love you…….. I’m sorry……… please forgive me……thank you”. I know it sounds a bit wooo woooo but it works and the other person changes how they treat me because I’ve changed and no longer attract any negativity from them.
    I’ve learned to say that some days my best will be better than on others, it’s still the best I can do at the time so it’s enough. That helps as well.

  9. Hi Mark, thanks for sharing your vital experience on how to reduce stress from life. The shared article giving us lessons on how to reduce or overcome from the stress.

  10. I love this (paraphrasing):‘My MO has always been to handle problems as they arose…I didn’t let things fester, I took care of things.’

    I’m an educated person but I am really weak in this regard, by habit or chemical imbalance…who knows why. I’m 54… I’d really love to make a 180 change for the rest of my life. Any great direction/education anyone can provide?

    Btw- I sat in a light breeze this morning and watched a tree toss down leaves for about 20 minutes. Watching them tumble and float and dance and drop was very stress relieving…