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The counterintuitive nature of using high threshold survival stress tools to combat chronic stress

Updated: Nov 3, 2022



‘We must unleash our warrior spirits to ensure life’s quality, not just to endure life’s survival.’

- Matt Soule, author of Fight, Freeze, Fast, F^ck, Breathe - Mastering the Stress Response


Whenever I talk to people less familiar with high threshold tools such as survival martial arts, cold training in freezing temperatures, going for 1-3 days without food and so on, it is not uncommon for those people to give me a questioning look and reply how can survival stress tools effectively deal with chronic stress? It seems they would more likely lead to burnout.

In the simplest terms, chronic stress is the enemy while acute stress, or stress that is short in duration, is the ally. Survival stress tools, when trained under a short-term stress model, redefines what is possible and increases

our fitness to handle any situation.

Today, the average human’s nervous system often exists in a chronically elevated stress state, one that is difficult or even impossible to de-escalate using lower-threshold exercises and activities. Our bodies and minds simply read the exercise and activities as more of the same, and therefore no shift actually takes place.


How many of us have found ourselves during the day between responsibilities, or right before bed, struggling to find the calm and peace we desire to facilitate a more resting state? Making the shift to calm ourselves down can take an excessive amount of time-- more time than we have before the next responsibility calls us. Or we lie there exhausted and restless, unable to shut off the mind’s recoil of the day. We try to make the transition, but often remain in that alert elevated state despite our best efforts.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, survival stress tools are, bar none, the best tools available to get us out of the chronically elevated state. One substantial reason is because survival stress tools engage the system while it already is in the action-oriented state. By actively taking the nervous system to a higher state— which includes the critical combination of physical, mental and emotional engagement—we can redefine its baseline of operations, then bring it back to the rest and recovery state much quicker. Through this rapid engagement, we can train our systems using a tool from which they are designed to benefit: acute stress.

Acute stress is a short term stressor. In order for acute stress to be present you must BOTH engage the stress and recover from it. This ensures the body’s ability to adapt. By regularly using survival stress tools, over time, we not only change what our minds and bodies perceive as stressful in the first place, but we also change how our bodies and minds experience stress altogether. We become adept at stress and learn to shift rapidly to recovery.

When we train through a lens of survival, it forces us to confront some of the highest possible degrees of stress. By modulating tumultuous activities with periods of calm, our ability to handle stressors—up to and including those at the threshold of survival— is vastly improved.

One note of caution: The power of these tools are tremendous and demand that we respect their capacity to serve us when used correctly, or injure us when we abuse them. Through careful preparation, we can train in a way that optimizes risk without getting burned out, injured, or worse. The key to mastering stress lies within not only the survival stress tools, but also in how we use them to improve our relationship to stress.

Next week we will dive into each of the survival stress tools to learn more about them individually. For this week, the takeaway is to follow these three steps:


Step 1 Become familiar with survival stress tools. Today we covered why we should use them. In the coming weeks we will explore each of these tools, what they are, how they work, and when to train them.

Want more now?

Step 2 Take action. By taking action and implementing these tools in our lives, the information = empowerment! The result will be a tremendously positive influence on bettering our lives. Start today by checking out some of the upcoming training opportunities.

Check out opportunities at mattsoule.com/workshop

Step 3 Maintain the balance. High-threshold tools are powerful, which means that when wielded correctly— that is using them consistently but in short durations— they will serve us. Overuse them and you will pay the price which often leads to burnout, injury or worse. We are all at different starting places so respect the power of the tool as you calibrate your personal training regimen. If you are unsure about a particular tool, routine or anything around your training, submit your question and I will do my best to answer it.

Ask a Question

Do you have a specific question that you would like answered to help you with your training? Send me an email at contact@mattsoule.com or connect with me on Instagram @soulemd and I will include your question and answer in future blog post or newsletter.



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