Stress Is Inevitable: Jenny Evans Teaches Us How to Better Handle It

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StressSpeaker and CEO/founder of PowerHouse Performance Jenny Evans  says that the conversation about reducing stress is a silly and ultimately pointless one to have.

“Do you think your job is going to ask any less of you next year?” she asks me over the phone.

“I would probably say, no.”

“Yeah!” she responds. “How about family, friends, loved ones?”

“Yeah, probably no on that one, too,” I answer.

And with that, Evans has made her point: stress will always be a part of life. Talk about reducing stress ignores this simple reality.

“We need to stop having [this conversation], because it’s totally not working,” Evans says.

That’s not to suggest that Evans is a defeatist — she just thinks there’s a better, more productive way to tackle stress. “My approach is this: the stress in your life is going to continue to increase,” she explains. “Our only option is to train our bodies to recover from it more quickly and more efficiently, as well as to raise our threshold for it.”

This is the central thesis behind her new book, “The Resiliency rEvolution: Your Stress Solution for Life — 60 Seconds at a Time.”  Drawing on her background in psychology and exercise physiology — with a dash of biological anthropology — Evans posits that our best bet for handling stress is to accept it as a fact of life and become more “resilient” to it.

Of course, that’s easier said than done — which is why I gave Evans a call to learn more about her book and the concepts behind it. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, minimally edited for style and clarity. We’re here to talk about “The Resiliency rEvolution.” I was hoping we could start with a general overview: what, exactly, is this book about?

Jenny Evans: The book is a completely new and different perspective on approaching stress. Typically, the conversation as it relates to stress is about how can we reduce it and how can we manage it.

It’s about getting people to understand: here’s how the stress the response works. It is a beautifully designed system, and if you play it all the way out to the end, balance is restored, but we’re living and working in environments today that are short-circuiting that system and having a lot of negative consequences.

The book shows you how to actually work with your body in response to stress. It’s going to improve your resiliency; it’s going to allow you to perform better at work and at home; you’re going to sleep better; you’re going to lose weight; your health is going to improve. There’s a lot of great side effects that result from building your resiliency to stress.

RC: You take a very different approach to what stress is. Often, people talk about stress as a purely emotional thing, and yours is a more physical view. I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about that.

JE: What we experience in our heads and our minds is really a side effect of the fact that stress is a chemistry problem. Before we even register stress, our body has secreted stress hormones that radically shift our chemistry and physiology, and they prepare our body to fight and/or flee. That’s what the stress response is: fight or flight.

When we do this short burst of intense physical activity of either fighting or fleeing, it burns off the stress hormones and then releases a whole new category of hormones, like endorphins, endocannabinoids, and dopamine — what I call the “bliss molecules” — that not only restore balance, but actually neutralize any of the negative side effects of those stress hormones.

Now, we’re living and working in environments where we get very little physical activity. We don’t do anything remotely close to fighting or fleeing, and that’s short-circuiting the system. It allows those stress hormones to keep circulating throughout the body. Those stress hormones kill brain cells that are related to focus, decision-making, learning, and memory. Those stress hormones make us really, really hungry — specifically for high-fat, high-sugar foods. They make us deposit more fat around the midsection, and those stress hormones are responsible for insomnia.

If we don’t use these stress hormones and burn them off, that’s when we get these negative side effects.

RC: We talked a little earlier about the idea of reducing stress being a waste of time. It’s always going to be there or increase. You say the solution is becoming resilient about stress. What exactly does it mean to “be resilient”?

JE: Usually, stress management techniques, whether it’s breathing or visualization — not that I’m ripping on those — but those are things that you do after you’re suffering the negative side effects of stress. “Resiliency rEvolution” is about stopping those negative side effects from ever happening in the first place.

Resiliency literally means training your body to recover from stress. For instance, what happens when you’re exposed to stress? Your heart rate increases and a whole bunch of other things change, and then when the stress is over, your heart rate drops, and your body returns to a state of balance.

To some degree, it’s a version of high-intensity interval training, which we know raises our level of fitness faster. How we measure somebody’s level of fitness is how quickly the heart rate recovers from the stress of exercise. Resiliency is literally training your cardiovascular system — as well as your hormonal system — to return to a state of balance faster, so that you are ready for that next stressful event that is coming.

If you don’t reset the system every time you’re exposed to stress, your body is in a weaker state. That creates this downward spiral of not being able to respond well in the face of stress.

RC: You go into more specific detail about building resiliency in the book, but do you have any general insights or tips for our readers that you’d like to share?

JE: Consider our approach to making different choices about how we respond to stress and different things that we do from a lifestyle perspective. Often, we tell ourselves, “I need to make change, and I just need to be better about self-discipline and willpower.”

Research shows that self-discipline and willpower are really short-term solutions. They’re not very long-lasting. The more we use them, the less of them we have, and that just creates more stress, because you’re trying to change, but you can’t, and then you’re right back where you started.

We’re still primitive cavemen. Our DNA has changed very little in the past 10,000 years. A caveman’s goal for the day was eat as much as you can when you can and expend as little physical energy as possible. But now, we’re living and working in environments where food is everywhere, and it’s really high in fat, and it’s chemically designed to be super high in sugar. We expend very little energy, because we’re not working in the fields anymore. We have labor-saving devices. This is a caveman’s ultimate fantasy.

Our environments really influence the choices and the decisions that we make, and a lot of that happens unconsciously. Instead of taking the old approach and saying, “In order for me to do this, I just gotta buckle down,” I encourage people to, first of all, start creating an environment that’s full of optimal defaults — meaning that your reactive, easiest decision is a decision that’s more in alignment with building resiliency.

For instance, an optimal default for eating would be switching from a 12-inch plate to a 10-inch plate. When we do that, we unconsciously eat 22 percent less food. If we did that every meal, every day: that took no self-discipline, no willpower, and it maintained automatically.

By Matthew Kosinski