Is there such a thing as 'good stress'?

Stress is a common symptom of our fast-paced world, but can we learn to use it for our own advantage? Klara Heron looks into the positive side of stress

Stress is something we’re all familiar with. Bad traffic, bills stacking up, studying for exams, relationship issues, problems at work - there are lots of things that can cause us to feel stressed out. While we typically associate stress with being negative – we know that too much stress is bad for us both physically and mentally - there are times when stress can be a good thing.

In order to understand this, we need to understand how stress works in the body. Dr Marilyn Glenville, a leading nutritionist specialising in women’s health, explains the chemical reaction that occurs in the brain when we encounter stress: “Millions of years ago, our bodies were designed to react quickly to danger, like wild animals we were on constant alert so we could run or fight if threatened. When your brain thinks your life is in danger it stimulates the release of adrenaline and cortisol.

“This fight or flight response is incredibly clever and thoroughly efficient. It provides instant energy for 5-10 minutes allowing you to react swiftly to dangerous situations. However, these days our bodies can’t distinguish between missed appointments, spiralling debt, infuriating work colleagues, family disputes and the truly life-threatening stress it gears up to challenge. So it reacts exactly the same as it’s always done. The problem is that stress is almost continuous and comes without the natural release that either fighting or fleeing might provide.”

What happens when we experience stress:

  • Your heart speeds up and your blood pressure rises
  • The clotting ability of your blood increases so you’ll recover more quickly if you are injured and start to bleed
  • Your digestion shuts down (there’s no need for it - you’re certainly not going to be eating a sandwich while your life is in danger) and the energy necessary for digestion is diverted elsewhere
  • Your liver immediately releases emergency stores of glucose into the bloodstream to give you instant energy to fight or run
  • Your immune system produces more white blood cells so you’ll be better equipped to fight foreign viruses or bacteria
  • Health worries

    Dr Marilyn says that chronic stress can cause many problems for our health, including weight gain, depression and high cholesterol (see chart): “The knock-on effects of continually being too stressed are enormous, physically and mentally,” she explains, and there are cases when the highs of stress can become an addiction. “Some people can enjoy living on that adrenaline. They want to feel that ‘buzz’ all the time and their foot is always pressing down on the accelerator pedal. But there will always be consequences in the long term because the body can’t keep going like that and they are very vulnerable. A major trauma, accident or bereavement could easily precipitate a complete collapse. Something relatively small can be the last straw that tips them over the edge.”

    Health implications of long-term stress:

  • A tendency to gain fat around your middle
  • Increased appetite
  • Slump in the middle of the afternoon
  • Low immune system
  • Headaches
  • Nail biting or skin picking around the nails
  • Teeth grinding
  • High cholesterol
  • Blood sugar swings
  • Digestive problems
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Shoulder and neck pain (stress hormones will keep certain muscles tense ready for fight or flight)
  • Hair loss
  • Irregular periods or no periods
  • Difficulty in concentrating or forgetfulness
  • Depression
  • Increased premenstrual symptoms (PMS)
  • Slower metabolism (which makes it harder to lose weight in general)
  • Low sex drive
  • Tiredness but an inability to sleep well
  • Waking up in the middle of the night, finding it hard to get back to sleep and then desperately want to continue sleeping in the morning when you should be getting up
  • In the zone

    The health implications of chronic, long-term stress are serious, but according to research everyday stress or short-term anxiety can actually have its benefits, and recognising those benefits can help us to have a healthier relationship with stress.

    If you’ve ever said ‘I work well under pressure’, it could be that in the past stress has driven you to perform better. Dr Marilyn explains: “There is a rule called the Yerkes-Dodson Law which states that health and performance increase proportionally, as a result of stress, up to a point called the optimum stress point, and then crash down beyond it.

    “At the optimum stress point you really are in ‘the zone’, where the stress level is just right. Remember those days when you could get up and just get everything done: phone calls, errands, appointments, with the minimum of effort? You just sail through.”

    Scientists have labelled this ‘good stress’ as eustress, the opposite of distress, and there are multiple ways it can be beneficial. Firstly, it motivates us to get a job done. If there is a big deadline in work or an exam looming, the thoughts of missing it or underperforming can help us to get started and perform he task at hand. Stress also helps us to become more resilient and effective at dealing with challenges. When we face a stressful situation once and come out the other side, the next time that problem occurs we’re better equipped to tackle it. It pushes us to be more creative and find solutions in times of frustration, and on a physical level stress boots our immune system for a short period.

    For the majority of us, there’s no such thing as a stress-free existence, so learning how to see the positives in stress can help us to take advantages of those moments instead of working against it. In her Ted Talk, ‘How to Make Stress Your Friend’ health psychologist Kelly McGonigal highlights studies that prove that how we think about stress can actually effect our health in the long term.

    One study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison tracked 30,000 adults over eight years. It asked people how they felt about stress and if they believed stress was negatively affecting their health and at the end of the study they correlated he results with death records. The study found that the people most likely to die were more stressed, but they also believed that stress was harmful to their health. Those who were highly stressed but didn’t believe it was harmful were the least likely group to die.

    Kelly makes an argument for turning stress from a negative reaction into a positive: “Your heart might be pounding, you’re breathing faster, maybe breaking out into a sweat, and normally we interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs we aren’t coping very well with the pressure, but what if we viewed them instead of signs that your body is energised, preparing you to meet a challenge?” She cites a study by Harvard University where students were told to rethink their stress response as helpful, before they went into a stress test. The students who did this were found to be less anxious, more confident and have a healthier physical response to stress.

    Finding balance

    Something that makes one person stressed may not effect another, and so it is important to understand that our relationship with stress, good and bad, is unique to each of us. Like many things in life it’s about finding a balance that works for your lifestyle. Some people might be better built for dealing with stress than others, and while some stress can drive us forward and benefit us, chronic stress can have serious health implications. Stressful events cannot be avoided, they are inevitable, but how we respond to them is within our power and can make a big difference to our health and wellbeing.

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