By Victoria L. Freeman, PhD. Experience Life
“Stress Is Ruining Your Life and Your Health.”; “Stress Translates to Billions of Dollars a Year in Healthcare Costs.”; “Five Ways to Stop Stress Before It Stops You!”
With headlines like these, it’s obvious that the negative side of stress has our attention trapped between its tightly clenched jaws. Yet amid the clamor over this “deadly” foe, a few voices from the scientific community say: Not so fast! There’s a service-minded side to stress, too. And by better understanding the gifts that certain types of stress have to offer us, we can become better equipped at putting the not-so-nice kind in its place.
In his book The End of Stress as We Know It (Dana Press, 2004), Bruce McEwen, PhD, explains that stress is a natural and highly adaptive biological process that strengthens and safeguards us in many ways. After all, the body’s classic sympathetic-nervous-system reaction to stress, commonly called the fight-or-flight response, can save your life in an emergency. When a swift getaway or super strength is required, this is your body’s system for turning on the juice. And the stress to which you expose your body during a tough weight-training session is what triggers your muscles to become stronger. A certain amount of mental and emotional stress can actually help breed motivation, excitement and forward movement – if we know how to handle it.
The problem is not stress itself, point out McEwen and other researchers, like Robert Sapolsky, PhD, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (Owl Books, 2004). Rather, it’s that the kinds of stress we face today are vastly different from the stressors that prompted the evolution of our stress response. In times past, when humans were running from predators or stalking their own prey, the sources of stress were acute (intense, but short-lived) and obvious (“Ack! A lion!”). The resultant cascade of biological events known as “the stress response” came in handy for activities like running or fighting.
Back then, for better or worse, the sources of our stress arose and passed relatively quickly. We either went down fighting or we won and lived to see another day, during which we could recover from our fright and nurse our wounds.
Today, our struggle for survival more often involves chronic (ongoing) sources of stress: battling bad bosses and traffic jams, grappling with impossible schedules, credit card bills that just keep coming.
Yet our body’s biological response to modern stress is the same as it was when we were literally fighting for our lives: a flood of chemicals that shuts down important-but-not-urgent-for-immediate-survival functions (like digestion, growth, emotional bonding) in favor of other functions (energy bursts, enhanced focus, quick reaction times, faster blood clotting) designed to help us get through a short-term crisis.
Scientists now know that it’s the constant oversupply of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and the resultant suppression of the healing and growth hormones we require to recover from stress, that wreak havoc on our bodies and minds over the long term.
Chronic stress, of course, undermines our health. It can contribute or lead to asthma, atherosclerosis, heart attacks, strokes, depression, ulcers and ulcerative colitis, among other problems. There’s even evidence to suggest that stress may advance the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Yet when you examine the stress response, as McEwen, Sapolsky and others have, you find that some aspects of your body’s response to stress, such as heightened sensory awareness and mental acuity, can actually benefit you – at least in the short term.
The differences between good stress and bad stress really come down to two somewhat related things: duration and perception. First, duration: Good stressors, for the most part, are acute and temporary, triggering an adaptive (strengthening) response. Bad stressors are chronic, long term and persistent, triggering a destructive (breaking-down) response.
And the perception angle? Well, that’s a bit more complex.