Now that the Leafs and the Oilers are out of the playoffs, I can switch my attention to more seasonally appropriate sports.  Last night I had my first softball game.  It is my second year playing on the “Benchwarmers”.  Don’t let the name fool you. We won the championship last year and are looking to defend this year. 

Softball is different from any other team sport I have played.  Unlike hockey and soccer, where you can hide in the midst of better players, softball is a game of induvial success or failure.  When you are up to bat, you can’t pass it off to a more skilled player, it is up to you whether you hit it or strike out.  Same with being on the field.  If the ball is coming at you, you either make the play, or you don’t.  As a result, even though this is a beer league (the divisions are literally named after brands of beer), and everyone is there for fun, I feel more pressure playing softball than I have with any other sport.  When my individual success or failure, affects my teammates, the stakes seem higher.    

It begs the bigger question, is pressure good or bad?    

We all deal with pressure and stress inducing situations.  We have all felt that nervous energy racing through our bodies whether we are holding a baseball bat and the count it 3-2, or preparing to give a presentation at work, or psyching ourselves up to have a difficult discussion with a loved one.  Even though each those scenarios are different, the nervous system can’t discern one from the other. All it knows is that the body is under duress, so it delivers a hit of cortisol preparing you to act. 

 It’s easy therefore to avoid situations that cause this reaction in our bodies, and indeed it is not good for us to be under constant stress.  But researchers remind us that it can be just us unhealthy for us to have no stress.  Dr. Daniela Kaufer, an expert on the topic of stress writes, “while too much stress can cause anxiety and poor health, too little stress can lead to boredom and depression.  Just the right amount of stress tunes up the brain and improves performance and health.”

How do we find the right amount of stress?  Dr. Kaufer doesn’t go there.  She leaves that for us to figure out ourselves.

To me the solution is to know the difference between acute stress (short term) and chronic stress (long term).  Acute stress is the “good stress”.  It is event based.  Chronic stress is the “bad stress”. It lingers before or after the stress inducing event.  Acute stress is what I feel as I hold the bat and wait for the next pitch.  It fires me up, and prepares me for what is to come.  Chronic stress is lying in bed awake the night before unable to sleep because I know the next day is game day. 

So how good is good stress?  In a study at UCLA, rats were put into brief, stressful situations.  They discovered that these bursts of stress caused stem cells in their brains to grow and proliferate into new nerve cells, that improved the rat’s mental performance.  Interesting.  Putting ourselves in stressful situations can be good for us, we need a challenge.  As for the other stress, perhaps we all need the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, “smile, breather, and go slowly”. 

We lost our first game, but only by a couple of runs. No one seemed upset.  We had fun. No need to stress!