The very mention of the word stress dampens the atmosphere. Grey, dark clouds on the horizon, spontaneous meeting with the boss, giving a presentation, difficult exams testing competencies and a knowledge base that are supposed to span over a semester’s worth (or more) of learning and several hundreds of pages. Losing a job. You know what I mean. Despite the socio-linguistic significance with which we tend to charge the word/idea of stress, the latter is not all bad. Instead, it is a double-edged sword: it can cut you, as much as it can help you slice stuff.
In fact, all of the recent investigations into stress point out to the overarching conclusion that stress can help us carve a better, healthier life. Their key finding is related to the way we think about stress, which needs to change drastically. No more clouds or bad vibes. I’m not saying you should be thinking that everything is a double-rainbow, but that your idea of stress requires a major overhaul, a complete format or, my favourite, a deconstruction. De-construction is most appropriate here because we’re dealing with the meaning of a word, something that is essentially socially constructed.
Why Stress is Bad?
Stress is a sharp, finely crafted blade that can chop your lifespan short or chisel it into an enduring heritage. The handle is in your hands and, whether you know it or not, you’re wielding it every day. Surprised? I too was taken aback when first confronted with this idea, particularly since it means that I am involuntarily damaging my body and mind. After a bit of soul searching and a lot of research, it turned out that this was indeed the case and that knowledge of what was going on saved me from myself.
The bad part of stress is worse than you thought. Stress is responsible for giving us painful headaches and migraines, increasing our risk of an early death at the hands of hypertension or stroke, abnormal inflammatory responses, chronic fatigue, depression, decreased reproductive function (and desire), as well as lower athletic performance, and decreased muscle mass and muscle strength (1). Its widespread hormonal impact often triggers a cascade of negative consequence on human health, so that from one bad symptom, you’ll soon be experiencing half a dozen.
The worst of it is that you won’t know what hit you, nor how to solve the problem aside from symptomatic relief. In developed countries, nearly 4 out of 5 people report that they experience at least 1 symptom of stress. Much like our poor eating, this is a pandemic (2). When poorly managed, it ruthlessly pierces us.
The good news is that you can use the same knowledge that saved me to also save yourself. First, we need to know what we’re dealing with. Before the second half of the 20th century, there was little to no interest in the topic, so much so that the word itself was not coined until 1965 (3). Shocking, for something that can literally take years off of our lives. You’d be tempted to think that modern life is responsible for how stressed we are, but you’d be wrong. For as long as we could overthink, we could over-stress.
Now we’ve taken things to a whole other level by being stressed about stress itself. You don’t need a degree to see where this is headed. More often than not, people suffer more in their minds than they do in real life. In fact, that reminds me of a rather brilliant quote by the Dalai Lama:
“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
Actually believing that stress is bad is causing us harmful, prolonged (or chronic) stress-hormone responses that can negatively affect your health.
Why (Some) Stress is Good
Close to a decade later, the same endocrinologist that initially defined stress as the “the non-specific responses of the body to any demand for change” revised and split his concept into distress and eustress (4). If the former is the bad kind that has a negative impact on our health, the latter is represents the sum total of “healthy, positive, constructive results of stressful events and stress response.” Because of the physiological changes that happen when stress initially appears, it benefits us, to begin with. When properly commanded, stress is a formidable weapon. It can cut you a bigger slice of pie and cake, for instance.
The problems occur when the state of stress lingers for longer than needed, which is when it turns into chronic stress (or distress).
Ideally, we want to be stressed only while the latter makes us physically and mentally strong, in other words, while it heightens our senses and physical performance. Afterwards, it is imperative that we mindfully acknowledge what is going on and try to reign it in. As the primary outcome of our instinct to either fight or flee, the basic stress response is as follows:
- Something stressful occurs so our autonomic nervous system instantly reacts by flooding our body with hormones (cortisol and adrenaline among the chief ones).
- The hormones in our blood stream render us superhuman for a short period of time, as we become hyper-aware of our immediate environment. At the same time, our blood pressure and heart rate go through the roof. Overall, you can say that your metabolism is in warp speed.
- The parasympathetic system – the one responsible for helping us tone it down a notch – is justifiably stunned.
- For a short period of time, you feel like you’re capable of enhanced focus and attention, while going through a roller-coaster of emotions – it’s a free-for-all between aggression, satisfaction, anxiety, and anger.
Think of the times when we used to be hunters and gatherers. Back then, this physiological response saved our hides. The problem is that we now experience the same reaction to situations that are significantly less threatening than being faced with a wild beast. We are not always capable of objective judgments, so the chemical release tends to be the same whether we’re attacked by a stranger or somebody cuts in line at the grocer’s. The key is to perceive a stressful situation in the right way in order to avoid cutting ourselves with our own claymore – cortisol makes more glucose available for us, but if we don’t use it or don’t try to mindfully exit this state, we’re in big trouble (5).
In fact, sports nutrition expert Paul Jenkins from Dna lean says “Cortisol is a catabolic hormone that breaks down proteins and fats to supply the body with readily available glucose. It seems that cortisol is interwoven into fight or flight scenarios; Cortisol primes the body for physical work by increasing the body’s primary energy source – glucose.”
It appears that every expert is telling us the same thing, for example, Annie Haynes from Men’s Health tells us “If it wasn’t for cortisol’s ‘fight or flight’ response, early humans would’ve been nothing more than ready meals for prehistoric predators… however. Our environment and its stressors have changed dramatically since then (see many dinosaurs around here, do ya?), yet our hard-wired ‘survival’ instinct has remained pretty much the same. And this is where the problem lies.”
Thus long-term stress, especially work-related stress, can often lead to weight gain. This is yet another reason why humans in general, need to be more mindful.
If we manage to stay emotionally balanced while stressed, this will lead to a state of flow, which is often described as the secret of happiness – that mode of being wherein everything seems to come into focus and the entire world seems to make sense. Nothing is out of your reach with eustress and you have the feeling that everything, albeit challenging, can be readily achieved given the right conditions (6). Unlike distress, this lasts only for a short period of time, feels exciting and right, but also gives us seemingly endless energy and motivation while enhancing our mental stamina and physical performance.
In the right conditions, eustress can push us to achieve beyond our limits. Can we channel our negative energy into positive energy, though? Researchers say we can.
Turning Simple Stress into Eustress
Extensive psychology research indicates that the way we physically and mentally respond to a stressor mostly depends on the way we think and the kind of lives we lead. Mindful meditation, regular exercise, a healthy, balanced diet, as well as a good night’s rest all contribute to our ability to constructively respond to stress. The kernel mechanism that can help us achieve this beneficial state is to accept a stress response – mindfully acknowledge everything that’s going on within our mind and body, regardless of how ambivalent we might feel about it –, deconstruct it, and re-cast it as a something helpful rather than detrimental.
To paraphrase a famous psychologist who explored the topic in its full breadth and complexity, Kelly McGonigal, we need to think of our situation on more in the lines of “this is my body helping me rise up to the challenge.” (7) Physiologically speaking, we are also releasing oxytocin, which helps strengthen our heart and cardiovascular system while making us more capable of bonding with others. Seeking out help will definitely aid in this transformation. With time, as we manage to change our perception of stress and accept it as a natural response meant to prepare us, we start to develop increased resilience to the negative effects of distress.
The more resilience you have, the better equipped you are to deal with stress, which means the less likely it is that you’ll experience chronic, bad stress, and more likely that you’ll bask in eustress. Corporate offices are taking noteworthy steps towards including this knowledge in their human resource development. Coaches and sports organizations are also doing the same. However, I believe we should develop this ability independently of our professional lives. Sure, it will definitely help to better deal with work-related stressors, but you want this ability to be useful in all aspects of life, not just in those that will benefit your higher-ups and managers.
Which will you choose the Blue Pill or the Red Pill?
We’re faced with a binary choice. One path leads to higher self-knowledge, acceptance, and a better, longer, healthier life, while the other further deepens the labyrinthine rat race. In my case, the hard truth was that nobody was going to fix my life for me. I had to take matters into my own hands, acknowledge that some of my responses were maladaptive, and change them for the better. It might not be the same for you.
For those of you out there going through a similar experience, I urge you to gather strength from the fact that change is possible, that it can and will happen if you persevere enough. You just need to find your way to it. The way you view the world, albeit hard to change, will have a widespread impact on your entire life. As McGonigal said, you “create your own psychology of courage” and nothing rings more true to me than the fact that heroes are more often (self-)made, rather than born.
The question is: will you accept the task of wielding your own sabre or will you allow yourself to be moulded and shaped by what life throws at you?