How to get better at stress (Alertness System Activation)


What to do

Get better at stress by activating your sympathetic nervous system (aka alertness system) through intense exercise, cold exposure and breathing.

Why it works

Like a race car, your autonomic nervous system has both a throttle and a brake. The throttle is your sympathetic nervous system, also known as the alertness system. The brake is your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the calmness system. Last week, I shared three methods for using the brake. Today’s post is all about the throttle. Using it makes you familiar with what high speed (i.e., stress) feels like. You’ll become better at stress by getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Some of the best methods to achieve that are intense exercise, cold exposure, and inhale-emphasized breathing.

Intense exercise increases your so-called stress threshold. That’s the level at which your alertness system goes into overdrive. Since the stress response is generic, this makes you better at dealing with all kinds of stressors – both physical and mental. Cold exposure has a similar effect. Embracing the stress of cold trains you to stay calmer under real-life stressors. It won’t feel great, but that’s the point.

The same applies to inhale-emphasized breathing, notably cyclic hyperventilation. Popularized by extreme athlete Wim Hoff (pictured above), it’s a great way to get better at stress. Stanford professors David Spiegel and Andrew Huberman found that it’s more effective for dealing with stress than meditation. Now, don’t panic. You don’t need to exercise until you drop, start taking ice baths, or sit down to breathe mindfully for extended periods. Instead, use these three quick and brutally-effective methods.

How to do it

1) Intense exercise. When you feel like quitting during your workout, use Ed Mylett’s “One more rule”. It’s dead simple. When doing cardio training, go for One more mile. When doing resistance training, get in One more rep. It won’t feel good. But if you want to increase your stress threshold, that’s the point of the whole exercise (pun intended).

2) Cold exposure. I know what you’re thinking. I used to dread cold water. Hands down, I still do. Yet, turning the water cold in the last 30 seconds of a warm shower dramatically increased my stress threshold. A cold shower never feels great while you’re in it – but again, that’s the point. As a bonus, you’ll feel great afterward: it elevates dopamine by 250% – boosting your mood, energy, and focus for hours!

3) Inhale-emphasized breathing. Get into cyclic hyperventilation (aka “Wim Hof breathing”) for 45 seconds. Start by inhaling deeply through the nose, then exhale by letting the air “fall out from the mouth”. Do 30 breaths (in and out) this way. Lastly, exhale fully through the mouth, and wait with your lungs empty for 15 seconds. Check out this paper by Spiegel and Huberman for detailed instructions.

Here’s a challenge for you: Commit to activating your throttle three times a week by a combination of

  • applying the “One more rule” when doing cardio or resistance training
  • getting some cold exposure in the last 30 seconds of your warm shower
  • doing inhale-emphasized breathing with cyclic hyperventilation for 45 seconds

Trust me: getting familiar with high speed (i.e. stress) this way is a game-changer.