World-Renowned Doctor Shares The Truth About Stress


Winning With Character, ESF Subject Matter Expert Dr. Jim Loehr’s new podcast, delivers science-based strategies on how to improve performance and leverage competition to build character. The podcast is targeted towards listeners from all competitive fields, but it is particularly aimed at parents and coaches interested in maximizing competitive experiences in children and young adults. The goal of the podcast is to foster lifelong values such as integrity, perseverance and resilience.

Listen to The Truth About Stress


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Today, I want to talk about stress, I want to give you some of the most important understandings that I’ve come to develop over my almost 40 years of work in this stress space.

I’d like to begin with one that may surprise you: stress exposure is not the enemy. We tend to think if we can just be stress-free, we’d be so much better in life. I want you to really understand that stress exposure is the only way we can expand our capacity for life.

Think of rehabilitation. Let’s say you broke an arm or a leg. What happens to those muscles after they are put into a cast and protected from all sorts of stress? They begin to atrophy the moment that cast is put on. The only way you get those muscles back is to progressively expose them to stress.

Stress is such a part of how we function as a living organism. It is an indispensable part of how we are engineered. That is such an important understanding. Freedom of stress is not what we’re seeking.

Life is always serving up another major obstacle, another challenge, another barrier along the way. These are opportunities in learning to tolerate or understand how to deal with the forces of life. We should think of ourselves as in training all the time—Stress training. Sometimes we don’t measure up—the stresses actually exceed what we are capable of, but we can still grow. It’s just like when you go to the gym. You may have overdone those exercises and now you’re sore and you can’t do as much. You’re weaker for a moment but stronger in the long-run. It’s in that process of stress-exposure that builds the capacity for taking and absorbing massive doses of stress.

Keep thinking, how can I expand my limits? We never want, as I get older, to think that we can handle less and less, particularly in the emotional, mental or spiritual sphere. Sometimes we don’t think we can do as much, but we’re learning  that our emotional, intellectual and spiritual capacities—and by that I mean our capacities for kindness, engagement, caring, integrity and honesty—actually can continue to our growth until our final days.

This notion of freedom from stress sounds so great, but I will tell you that in every instance we see this, it does not bring sustained happiness. It’s a myth we’ve all been exposed to. We get bored without a constant sense of being challenged and finding new opportunities. We were born to grow, and stress is absolutely the key ingredient that stimulates that growth. If I surround you with really good things, a metaphorical cast, you’re going to start shrinking. That’s what starts happening in so many people’s lives. When they get the opportunity to not have to be out there in the world of so much stress, their ability to handle stress in the future is actually compromised.

Another great insight regarding stress, and I want you to think about this, is that the things that have pushed us the most in life have often been the very things that have helped us develop confidence in ourselves and develop the capacity to deal with life. When we were going through them, they were treacherous, torturous. At the time, we never really saw any value in it—It just seemed to be an endurance had to put up with. But when we look back, we realized that it somehow changed us. It built a foundation of inner strength, of toughness, of resiliency that you’re now using for almost everything in order to have a successful life.

Another important insight is that stress exposure is truly the stimulus for all growth in our lives. Without stress exposure, growth cannot occur. I think it’s so important for every one of us to really come to terms with that. Stress is how we are going to develop a great life. We have to take it on. We need to seek stress in ways that develop capacities we didn’t have before. Rather than avoiding stress in those areas, we should invite stress in those areas in very controlled doses that will help us grow.

Another important insight is that stress exposure can maintain your current capacity. That just feels like the regular stress of life. This is the stress of normal traffic going to work in the morning. It’s stressful, maybe a little frustrating, but it’s normal. You’ve been able to tolerate it and deal with it with no problem, and that maintains your capacity to handle discomfort.

And then there is stress that expands your capacity. It’s difficult, but it’s all how you develop a mindset around that stressful event. Instead of being upset, you sit back and say, okay, how can I convert this into something that will make me stronger as a human being? And suddenly, that stressful event becomes transformed into a form of training that can help you leverage growth for the future.

Sometimes stress exposure goes way beyond your limits. If I told you to lift weights that are way beyond what you’re capable of and you damage muscles, that’s serious negative stress. That happens in life. We’re always in training, which is why you may run into a situation physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually that takes us so far out that we get damaged. How do you deal with that? You have to have serious recovery. You have to let the healing occur. Physically, recovery looks like sleeping, icing your muscles or applying a heated pad. Mentally and emotionally, forms of recovery can be meditation, yoga, tai chi, or reading. Remember, healing occurs in the absence of stress. Growth occurs when healthy stress is applied.

Just like we train the mechanisms of stress, we also train the mechanisms of recovery. If we don’t heal, we can’t tolerate stress. We need to have opportunities to allow the body to rejuvenate and renew itself. It’s important for us to recognize that stress is not something we’re trying to avoid, to stay away from. We want to convert it into periods and episodes of growth. We want to understand how we can balance episodes of stress into equivalent periods of recovery.

This is how we want to be looking at our lives: convert the most difficult events into things that challenge us and make us better equipped to deal with the future challenges we will inevitably face.

This is Jim Loehr, thank you for listening. Remember, every day is a training day to build character.


Jim Loehr is the co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, a New York Times Bestselling author and an ESF Camps Subject Matter Expert. During his 40-year career as a Performance Psychologist, Loehr has worked with hundreds of world-class performers from the arenas of sport, business, medicine, military and law enforcement. He has been instrumental in developing ESF’s 8 Character Virtues and is a consistent resource in aiding our efforts to build character muscles in our campers.

For more information, Visit Dr. Loehr’s website, Winning With Character