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.
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.