Why Stress Is Both Good And Bad
24th Apr 2019
April is Stress Awareness month, so what better time to dedicate a few minutes to consider the role stress plays in our lives and how that impacts our wellbeing.
Stress is stressful. Stress is also a normal part of life. Yet, according to the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope and 1 in 6 people in paid employment suffered a common mental health issue, with stress playing a role in this (Stevenson et al., 2017). Further, in 2018 work-related stress and anxiety accounted for 44% of work-related ill health and 57% of working days lost (Health & Safety Executive, 2018). It appears that millions of us around the UK are experiencing high levels of stress. So, I ask you now to reflect, in the past year how much stress have you experienced? Relatively little? Quite a lot? I suppose this begs the question, what exactly is stress?
Stress is primarily a physiological response, an inbuilt survival mechanism. When we experience threat or danger, real or imagined, our physical stress response is what’s meant to help us get out of trouble, and quickly. Our body cranks up the gears and throws all of its resources into getting you mobilized and moving, often referred to as ‘fight or flight’. This is achieved by releasing a number of hormones throughout the body and the shutting down of various systems such as digestion and immunity to conserve energy and divert it elsewhere such as to our muscles. The thing is, this emergency state is only meant to last long enough to get us out of danger and back to safety; to escape that rampaging lion or to fight off the unwelcome intruder. However, for many of us more now than ever, in our modern and fast-paced society, what stresses us looks different and can regularly get the better of us, be it tomorrows work deadlines, delivering a presentation, sorting through and responding to the endless onslaught of emails and texts, making ends meet and not forgetting mum’s birthday. As a result, our brains and bodies can stay on red-alert and the continuous presence of hormones and neurochemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine can reduce our ability to think clearly, remember things and learn new skills.
With this in mind and the inevitability of stress, it seems wise for us to consider, how can we get better at stress?
How Can We Get Better At Stress?
Let’s start with your attitude towards stress. What are your beliefs about stress? Is stress bad; is stress good? There is a lot of information out there that tells us that stress makes us sick, that it’s harmful to our health. It increases our risk to everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. But is stress itself really the enemy?
Kelly McGonigal, Health Psychologist, gave an excellent Tedtalk in 2013 where she presented some startling and highly interesting research coming out of the field relating to acute, short-term and moderate experiences of stress. She references as study that tracked 30,000 adults in the US for 8 years and asked people how much stress did they experience in the last year; and, do you believe that stress is harmful to your health (Keller et al., 2012). Researchers then followed the public death records to track who died over the time period. Here’s what they found. People who’d experienced a lot of stress in the past year had a 43% increased risk of dying. But, that was only true for people who held the belief that stress is harmful to their health. They also found that people who’d experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful, were no more likely to die. Yes, you read that correctly. In fact, this group had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who experienced relatively little stress.
So, is stress truly bad for you?
And, can changing the way we think about stress, make us healthier, even more resilient perhaps?
According to science, the answer is yes; when we’re able to change our mind about stress, we can change our body’s response to stress too.
See if you can allow your mind to take you back to a time when you felt particularly stressed. As you imagine this, what do you notice about your body in that moment? I bet there’s some sense of a pounding heart, more rapid breathing, perhaps the breakout of a sweat. A large number of us would be inclined to interpret these changes as signs of anxiety, or that we weren’t coping well under the pressure. But what if instead, we understood these changes as our body becoming energized, vitalized, preparing you to meet the demands of this challenge.
A study at Harvard University (Jamieson et al., 2013) told its participants exactly this. Before going through a social stress test, they were taught to understand their stress response as helpful; that a pounding heart helps give you strength in preparation for action and that breathing quickly wasn’t a problem, but a solution to getting more oxygen to the brain and muscles. And the results? Those who learned to view their stress response as a helpful resource were less stressed out, less anxious and more confident. Also, there was a fascinating physiological change to their stress response. Typically, during stress our heart rate goes up and our blood vessels constrict, causing an increase in blood pressure, and this is one of the reasons why chronic stress is linked to cardiovascular disease and the understanding that exposure to prolonged stress is not healthy. The study revealed however, that when stress was viewed as helpful, participants’ heart rates increased yet their blood vessels remained relaxed and open; they did not narrow as typically expected during stress. This state reflected a similar physiological state to those of joy and courage (McGonigal, 2013). Over a lifetime of exposure to stressful experiences, this one change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at 60, and living well into your 90’s. Studies like this one are showing us that how we think about stress matters.
Another interesting fact about stress is that when we’re feeling under pressure our pituitary gland releases a hormone called oxytocin. Famous as a love chemical, oxytocin seems less known about when we talk about stress. Oxytocin acts on both our brain and body and drives us to make contact with others (Poulin et al., 2013). Now, why might this be important? As social creatures, we know that community and relationship are important to our wellbeing; hence, in the face of challenging circumstances, our stress response knows that we will benefit from supportive contact. Oxytocin is known to increase empathy and compassion, and so connecting with someone to either give or receive support is going to be beneficial to our health in preventing and mitigating any potentially harmful effects of prolonged stress exposure.
And for your final consideration today as Stress awareness month draws to an end is a quick note on the emerging research demonstrating that stress may actually help you to connect with your instincts and improve your performance. For example, researchers at the University of Maine (Ell et al., 2011) found that the more stressed out participants in their study reported feeling, the better they performed on tasks that required them to respond quickly with their ‘gut feeling’, opposed to thinking it through. Imagine if we could learn to harness this enhancing effect of stress by choice; imagine what we could do and achieve.
So how exactly does one go about practically implementing this information? How can we change our minds and learn to understand and appreciate our stress in a new way, a way that’s helpful to our wellbeing. Well, the first step is complete, you’re now aware of this possibility and awareness is key. The next time you feel yourself in stress, or are anticipating a stressful situation, your mind will recall to your conscious awareness this article and its contents. Then upon remembering, take an open and curious approach to your experience; notice and name the changes that are happening; notice your heart rate, notice your breath, notice any changes to your thoughts and attention, notice any sweating and say to yourself, ‘Here is my stress response” and know that it is gearing up to help you to rise to the challenge. And then, make the time to seek out a friend or loved one. And, when you see others you care about enduring their stress, access your empathy and compassion, connect with this person and help them to better understand the helpfulness of their own stress response. Talk about and invite open conversations of stress; don’t carry it in isolation. Over time, with these interventions your bodies will respond in health and resilience will build.
If stress is a concern for yourself or a loved one, it can be helpful to get professional support to learn more about how it can managed and improved.
This is a Guest Post by Vanessa Maier.
Vanessa is a Chartered Practitioner Psychologist in private practice at Brighter Spaces Islington. She often utilizes an Acceptance and Commitment Therapeutic approach to working with individuals get better at stress and start taking effective action to move towards richer and more meaningful lives. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has been shown by numerous research studies to be an effective treatment intervention for a number of adult common and complex mental health conditions, including stress and burnout.