We see stress as a monster to our peace and health and something we need to battle. But what if we told you that seing this old foe of ours in a different light could empower us to feel better when faced with it. Here is a revolutionary new way of looking at stress.
The big final exam is one day away and it is the only thing standing in the way of you and your independence. A new life chapter awaits and all you have to do to get there is pass this exam. Who wouldn’t feel stressed under such pressure? Even our body reacts by switching to alert mode in preparation for a maximum performance. We don’t need much sleep or food in this state and our attention span increases. We stay focused longer, making it easier to remember what we need to study. So in fact, stress helps us in this situation as it causes our body to react in such way that studying suddenly becomes easier and we remember more. Without it, we wouldn’t reach a high-alert state. Why then, does stress have such a bad image?
Useful in an evolutionary sense
Our life as we know it today has only been a reality for a split second from an evolutionary perspective. This means that there are still primordial characteristics in our genes. Our ancestors needed to be able to save energy in certain situations and have plenty of energy available in others. Therefore, our body established two systems: The first one prevails when we are relaxed, the second one takes over when we feel stressed. Seen from an evolutionary perspective, stress symbolizes fight or flight, meaning that under stress, our body needs to tap into all of its energy – a state that we call ‘alert mode’. This intense state accelerates our pulse and we start sweating. Our pupils expand and increase our field of vision to not miss any lurking enemies, and the blood flow in the parts of our brain that control our attention increases. Our hands start to sweat (this made it easier for our ancestors to grab and better hold on to stones), and injuries are overshadowed by adrenaline.
Good in the short term, harmful in the long term
In other words, we do need stress when we are running away from a lion or – in modern day words – need to prepare for a life-changing exam. But when stress becomes chronic, things get more problematic. A body in ‘stress-mode’, releases hormones like cortisol, noradrenaline, and adrenaline that suppress inflammations in our body. But inflammations are actually necessary for us to combat injuries and diseases. Furthermore, when we are stressed, our blood vessels are tightened, which can lead to cardiovascular diseases. Also, have you ever tried to get a good night’s sleep while being on high alert? This is definitely not the best way to find a relaxing sleep. Stress also has negative effects on our bones as our body increasingly discharges calcium – a necessary substance for a healthy bone structure – when cortison levels are elevated.
What is stress?
Therefore, this ‘stress-mode’ can be harmful in the long run. But how do we actually define stress? After all, isn’t stress a subjective phenomenon: What makes one person lose their cool, leaves the other unfazed? Scientists came up with a distinction between positive eustress and negative distress. Eustress motivates us, and is not at all bad for our body. Distress on the other hand, is felt as pressure, which frustrates us and narrows our thinking – not only the famous damsel in distress suffers from it, we all experience it as a strain on our body. Going back to that dreaded exam we mentioned before, a person could see this as motivation to prove how clever they are (eustress), or drown in self-doubt and fear of failure (distress). Which leads to the conclusion that stress is whatever we perceive it as.
How to make stress your ally
This is a revolutionary way of looking at stress. It is not our actual workload that determines how stressed we feel, but our interpretation of it. It is up to us to decide how we look at a situation and how this situation then affects us. The student frantically studying for their upcoming exam can decide whether s/he wants to perceive this as a positively motivating challenge or a difficult barrier. However it isn’t always enough to tell ourselves not to worry. Sometimes, our body will still go through the physical symptoms of stress (sweating hands, an accelerated pulse, a dry mouth etc). We might not be able to avoid these symptoms but we can still decide not to see them as something negative. Again, it is our interpretation that matters. We can interpret even these physical symptoms as something positive. If we let ourselves get swamped by stress, it can be quite harmful in the long term – as was demonstrated by a study at the University of Wisconsin. The researcher Abiola Keller and her team examined the effects stress has on our life expectancy . The findings showed that people who suffer from chronic stress had a shorter life expectancy.
An increased life span despite stress
The researchers also analysed how the interpretation of stress can influence our life expectancy. They found that people who interpret stress as a useful mechanism to increase their performance, had a higher than average life expectancy. Another study at the University of Harvard conducted the following experiment : Participants were divided into two groups. The first group was told to see their body’s reaction to stress as a positive means to increase their physical and mental performance. The other group did not get any instructions. They then examined how the two groups dealt with a stressful situation. Participants of the first group felt more confident under stress and less afraid. Furthermore, their blood vessels did not tighten up as a reaction to stress. Normally, stress leads to a narrowing of blood vessels and a faster heartbeat. Such blood vessel narrowing increases the risk of a heart attack. Therefore, the attitude we have toward stress does not only influence our psychological interpretation, but also our physical reaction to it.
Stress has been our body’s natural way of dealing with challenging situations since the beginning of human existence. It is therefore an increadibly valuable asset of ours. And as we have seen, it can have positive (eustress) and negative (distress) effects on our physical and mental health. It is up to us to decide if it will raise us up or beat us down.
1: Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 33(5), 677-684.
2: Jamieson, J. P., Mende, W. B., & Nock, M. K. (2013). Improving acute stress responses: The power of reappraisal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1), 51-56.