“Reduce your stress.” “Stress kills.” “Reduce your anxiety.” Oh… Ok. I’ll go ahead and just do that. Let’s see, my job causes stress, I guess I’ll quit. My bills cause stress. I’ll ignore them, maybe they’ll go away. My family life at times causes stress. I guess I’ll move out and live on my own. I hate doing squats…I guess I’ll quit working out. I achieved a master’s degree and have my RN license. Obtaining those were stressful experiences, maybe I shouldn’t have done that. Or…maybe stress isn’t quite the enemy we think it is…
In the book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You (and how to get Good at it) by Kelly McGonigal (2015), the author points out the surprisingly obvious…anything that has meaning for you produces stress. Stress is caused when something that matters to you is perceived as being at risk. Essentially, a life without stress thereby is a a life without meaning or purpose. A copy of the book can be obtained here.
Kids, education, work, family, marriage, achievement…stress is inextricably woven through the fabric of our lives. McGonigal (2015) goes one step further…arguing stress is not simply a byproduct of a meaningful life. Stress can be a powerful motivator and even essential to our health and happiness! So…if stress is inescapable, how can we tap into the lesser-hyped benefits while avoiding the highly-hyped adversities of stress?
We all have “anxiety,” we just interpret the feelings differently
“Anxiety” is simply energy. As an article notes in the journal Frontiers in neuroendocrinology (Dhabhar, 2018), the short term stress response is NOT an outdated “flee from a saber toothed tiger” phenomenon gone awry in the modern era. Instead, the surge in the stress hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol have been shown to boost mental performance, as well as provide a boost to the heart, muscles, and even immune system in order to meet modern day challenges (Dhabhar, 2018).
This energy is sometimes interpreted in our brains as “anxiety” as opposed to recognizing such as potentially our body’s own performance enhancing “drug” cocktail! The same surge of hormones that may be interpreted as a “pump” before a game, competition, or thrill ride are interpreted as “anxiety” in other situations. The symptoms of this energy and its purposes are outlined by McGonigal (2015) in her book as follows:
“Anxiety” is energy–symptoms: Heart beating harder and faster, sweating, rapid breathing, heightened focus, restlessness:
- Purpose or function: the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol are released and are flooding your body with energy, oxygen, and blood flow for boosted performance. This helps in motivating you towards action, in narrowing your focus, and boosting brain and muscle function.
Anxious energy makes you want people you care about to be closer/ nearby: you may be a little more sensitive to actions and comments of others, you may find yourself feeling more defensive, protective about the meaningful aspects of your life, and you may want to experience the safety of your family or friends at the moment.
- Purpose or function: the hormone oxytocin is being released to boost your social sensitivities. We solve problems best as a team. You may crave your family or friends for life stressors, but your coworkers can be major assets for solving challenges you face in the workplace. Seek out others who can help you achieve your goals, help you take necessary action, and help you overcome the challenges you are facing. We are wired to work together, maximize the oxytocin advantage and collaborate productively with others!
Post stressful event or situation: You may feel upset/ irritated or elated, you analyze and re-analyze the experience, you may feel hyper-aroused.
- Purpose or function: the hormones oxytocin, cortisol, DHEA, and nerve growth factors are working together to ensure you learn from the stressful event. This gives you the power to perform better in a similar situation at a future date. Lessons learned are literally being encoded into our brain as new nerve connections are made or streamlined to boost future performance!!
Short term stress bursts are health promoting
Short term stress is defined in the research as lasting minutes to hours at a time (Dhabhar, 2018). Long term stress is defined as hours per day lasting weeks to months. Our bodies are designed to respond positively to SHORT TERM stress bursts.
Research indicates that even REPEATED, short term bouts of stress (so long as followed by interludes of low stress periods) can be stimulating to our immune system and brain (Dhabhar, 2018). For example, short term stress boosted immune cell mobility, causing immune cells to leave storage areas of the body such as the spleen and other organs, move into the blood stream and then into the mucous membrane barriers of the bladder, lung, gastric tract and elsewhere to block potential invaders. Improved novel antigen (such as a new variety of bacteria, virus, or toxin) response occurs after exposure to short term stressors in both animal and human studies (Dhabhar, 2018).
The study authors conclude that such improvements may result in infection resistance, improved vaccination responses, wound healing, and immune response to surgery. Not only that, the immune system appears to react more effectively to cancer cells following a short term stress. An example includes increased activity against squamous cancer cells following UV radiation exposure in the skin (Dhabhar, 2018).
What is important, however, is that we are able to swing our nervous system from the stress response back to the relaxation mode in-between the stress encounters. This is where deep breathing exercises, mindfulness of present moments (as opposed to rumination or worrying of unknowns in the future or an unchangeable past), sleep, meditation, and moderate exercise (as opposed to strenuous exercise) are essential. Our stress encounters should be waves followed by recovery in between. Cortisol hormone cycle dysregulation can occur if these recovery efforts are not taken between short term stressors. Interesting, early research notes that “earthing” may assist in resetting cortisol hormonal cycles.
Stress boosts performance
Athletes, actors, public speakers, emergency workers, police, doctors, nurses, and workers facing deadlines all experience the familiar anxiety response in anticipating the challenges they are facing (Hargrove, Quick, Nelson, & Quick,2011). When paired with viewing the stress as a challenge to be met as opposed to a threat, performance and motivation are enhanced while a sense of strain is minimized (Hargrove et al., 2011)! Even more surprising, persons showing the strongest short-term rise in the stress hormone cortisol when facing a challenge, such as an increased workload, rate their job satisfaction the highest! Further, they experience lower frequencies of illness and are rated more highly by their coworkers in terms of job performance!
A stress-free life is–harmful?
As noted above, short term stress boosts mental sharpness, focus, and energy levels. In contrast, a “stress free” life can actually have negative impacts on health. Chronic lack of stress and arousal leads to declines in mental focus and performance, as well as declines in physical performance and mood (Hargrove et al., 2011). Bursts of stress are essential to maximize the potential of our minds and bodies (Hargrove et al., 2011).
Your attitude towards stress makes a physiologic difference
How we mentally interpret life’s challenges, threats, risks, and stressors we face impacts actions we take, impacts the paths of our lives, and impacts the mix of hormones and immune system mediators that surge through our bodies (Dhabhar, 2018; McGonigal, 2015). Anger during a stress situation raises pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-6, which not only boosts inflammation but can lead to worsened moods and depression. However, IL-6 is not raised nearly as high during a stress situation when social support and positive social engagement occurs (Dhabhar, 2018).
Taking a team work, collaborative approach to a stress situation can significantly reduce the inflammatory response during a stressful situation (Dhabhar, 2018). In research cited in McGonigal’s (2015) book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You (and how to get Good at it), viewing a stressful situation as a challenge–something to overcome to achieve a desired end or goal, as opposed to a threat–causes physiologic changes that are protective. These changes include enhanced focus and energy while reducing the negative reactions of blood vessel constriction and blood pressure spikes. Even more shocking is research cited in the book that notes when trauma survivors engage in activities such as volunteer work or helping others, the normal expected negative health outcomes following trauma disappear!!!! This phenomena occurred even in the face of several severe stressors such as divorce, financial difficulties, death of a loved one, or other traumatic events!
Stress- why the bad rap?
The negative associations with stress are largely related to the well known and well documented negative effects of CHRONIC, inadequately relieved stress. With chronic stress, failure to return the body and mind to a state of relaxation between short-term bouts of stress can result in negative impacts on the cardiovascular system, immune system, psychological health, hormonal cycles, and result in increases in cancer, heart attack, stroke, susceptibility to illness, depression and other adverse outcomes (Dhabhar, 2018; Hargrove et al., 2011). Even in the face of chronic or severe stress, McGonigal (2015) notes how many of these negative health outcomes can be prevented through a shift in mindset and social engagement/ social connection.
As already discussed, the goal should not be to eliminate or even minimize stress in a person’s life. Rather, the goal is to cultivate protective mindsets and habits described above to boost resilience. Avoidance of stress is neither healthy nor conducive to living a life full of meaning and purpose.
Measures to restore the resting response between stress bursts and enhance immunity include a variety of mind-body techniques along with positive social and behavioral habits (Hargrove et al., 2011; McGonigal, 2015):
- Seeking out training to improve perceived weaknesses and enhance strengths
- Cultivating both friendships and finding mentors/ senior workers and coaches to help you with your challenges
- Finding even little ways or big ways to help someone else every day
- Relaxation techniques
- Faith practices
- Moderate exercise (as opposed to no exercise or strenuous exercise)
- Health promoting diet (such as a predominantly plant-based diet)
- Support groups
- When necessary, psychological and medical therapy
- Excellent sleep habits
Stress and anxiety are universal, inescapable, and in fact, necessary to live a life of meaning and purpose. Not only that, when we recognize our feelings of “anxiety” as our body priming us for enhanced performance to meet a coming challenge, our bodies shift into “challenge” mode as opposed to “threat” mode. The challenge mode enhances our immune response, boosts our performance, protects our heart health, and can even increase our overall satisfaction with ourselves and current situation.
Even better, stress can stir us to action–leading us to form or reinforce life enhancing relationships with friends, coworkers, family, mentors or others who may need our help as well. This pattern has been found in people after experiencing traumatic events (McGonigal, 2015). Stress can lead us to seek out training, skill building, reinforce faith practices or stimulate renewed interest in health promoting behaviors such as meditation, healthy dietary practices, or create a renewed sense of purpose. Even if the stress event itself is terrible, we have the power to use that propel ourselves to new levels of achievement, engagement, and ability. Indeed, a stressful life is a “full” life!!
Dhabhar F. S. (2018). The short-term stress response – Mother nature’s mechanism for enhancing protection and performance under conditions of threat, challenge, and opportunity. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology, 49, 175–192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yfrne.2018.03.004
Hargrove, M. B., Quick, J. C., Nelson, D. L., & Quick, J. D. (2011). The theory of preventive stress management: a 33-year review and evaluation. Stress & Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 27(3), 182–193. https://doi-org.lopesalum.idm.oclc.org/10.1002/smi.1417
McGonnigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it). London, UK: Penguin Random House