Guest writer Joel Snape gets to grips with the stress-response and gives us an interesting incite into how things were done within the walls of Sparta...
Think about all the things that are stopping you from looking/performing like a Spartan hoplite, and – even if you’re really, really honest with yourself – there’s a chance that ‘stress’ won’t even make the top ten. Eating crap, missing the gym too often, that one niggling rotator-cuff thing that you’ve never bothered sorting out, how delicious beer is: these are problems that you can fix. Stress? Sure, it exists: but everyone (including Spartan hoplites) is stressed, right? You’re supposed to be able to cope with that sort of thing.
This is the wrong way to think. Stress – in the way most of us currently experience it – isn’t something our bodies are evolved to cope with, and has effects across almost every part of your health and performance. What’s more, it’s fixable: and fixing it is free. You just need to think a bit more Spartan.
Firstly, it’s important to understand what stress is for, and what it does. If you’re a mammal, most of your stress response is built around the fact that your muscles are going to need to work like crazy: it’s your body’s response to needing to fight, or chase something, or run away from the threat. That means mobilising energy away from storage sites and shutting down further storage while the threat exists. Glucose comes flooding out of storage, mobilised with the help of elevated breathing, blood pressure and heart rate. Digestion stops working as efficiently, the immune system is inhibited, and growth/tissue repair go on standby.
If you’re an animal on the African savannah, or a Spartan defending the pass at Thermopylae, this all makes perfect sense: there’s no point in using your body’s resources on digestion when you need them to stop some other maniac from stabbing you in the face. Similarly, keeping a healthy immune system and building muscle are long-term projects: smashing dudes with your shield-wall is an ‘instant-demand’ kind of deal. This is all good and sensible, but here’s the problem: because of the way society has evolved, most of us are tricking our bodies into believing that we’re in a life-or-death situation every day of our lives. Infuriated by someone playing music out loud on the tube? Your blood pressure’s zig-zagging unnecessarily. Worrying about your pension all the time? You’re switching off your body’s long-term building projects, messing up muscle growth. Freaking out over what your Tinder date’s going to look like? It’s not helping your immune system much.
Funnily enough, these were not things that concerned Spartans much. Yes, the Spartans were kind of dickish – their relatively easy lives owed a lot to a semi-slave class called the Helots – but, within their own society, they didn’t have much to worry about. Life, for Spartans, was relatively egalitarian, and money wasn’t much of a concern – one of their early kings, Lycurgus, banned gold and silver in favour of iron ingots that were too heavy to steal, loot or use as effective bribes. Social support was well-established, adultery was (supposedly) non-existent, and class-based discrimination (between Spartans, anyway) was minimal. Even worrying about the inevitability of death wasn’t big in Sparta – tombs were scattered throughout towns to make them a normal sight, and it was constantly stressed that dying in combat - likely - was absolutely the way to go. Spartans, essentially, saved their stress-responses to do what they’re evolved for: fight and flight. Is this an option for you? Well, not entirely. You can’t change society, but you can change yourself. Here’s how to deal with stress like a Spartan.
Take control (sometimes) Having what scientists call ‘strong internal locus of control’ is usually a good thing: it means you see yourself as in charge of the things that happen to you, which means you’re less likely to be terrified by the vagaries of life. The downside? When genuinely disastrous things happen, seeing yourself as responsible ups the stress. Your rule of thumb, then: the worse a stressor is, the more you should remind yourself that you aren’t fully in charge of everything.
Prepare before, don’t worry afterwards Big test/challenge/fight against Xerxes coming up? The bad way to deal with it is by freaking out, or (almost as common) by telling yourself it doesn’t really matter. Before a big project, focus on problem-solving, and reminding yourself that you’re at least partially responsible for the outcome: but if you’re still panicking once the work’s done, then it’s time to remind yourself that life is bigger than this one small thing.
Exercise Obvious, but it really does work. Studies suggest that aerobic is better than anaerobic for stress-reduction: for bonus points, run somewhere tranquil and leafy, or take a dog. Crucially, it’s more stress-reducing when you want to do it: rats are less stressed when they’re allowed to run on a treadmill, but more stressed when they’re forced to do it.
Be socially supportive Big. Though Spartan society wasn’t always pleasant – the agoge which young boys went through, for instance, was just non-stop ass-kicking - by adulthood, the men had strong social bonds and often lived in dormitories while occasionally popping out to meet their wives. Studies are clear: social support, especially when the bonds are genuine and long-lasting, is a huge source of stress relief. Make time to call your mates occasionally: you don’t have to live with them.
Not all of this is easy, and not all of it will happen straight away. But it’ll make life easier, make you less prone to disease, and better-equipped to build muscle - so it’s worth doing.
Joel Snape is an editor at Men’s Fitness magazine, writer for broadsheet newspapers The Guardian and Telegraph, as well as author of 5 books. As a dedicated gym warrior and general polymath, Joel has a flair and interest in activities such as bouldering, snowboarding, skiing, surfing, swing-dancing, gymnastics and Capoeira.You can find out more about Joel and his pursuits by visiting livehard.co.uk or following @JoelSnape on Twitter.