For years we have heard the same: stress is bad; if possible, stress should be avoided. But is stress really the work of the devil? A revisited look at stress from a new perspective.
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 the exam. Most of us would feel extremely stressed in this situation. The pressure affects our body too.
It switches to alert mode in order prepare for a maximum performance: We don’t need much sleep or food and our attention span increases. So stress can actually help us here as it causes our body to switch into a high-alert state. Strange then that stress has gotten a bad reputation for many years.
Short-term positives, long-term negatives
So we do need stress when we are running away from a lion or – in modern day words – when we prepare for a life-changing exam. But when stress becomes chronic, things get more problematic. When our body is in ‘stress-mode’, hormones like cortisol, noradrenaline, and adrenaline are released that suppress inflammations in our body. But inflammations are actually necessary for us as they combat injuries and diseases. Furthermore, our blood vessels tighten with stress, which can lead to cardiovascular diseases.
What is stress?
Is there an objective way to define stress? Or isn’t stress a subjective phenomenon that makes one person lose their cool, but 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. Going back to the dreaded exam, a person could see it as a motivation to prove themselves how clever they are (eustress), or drown in self-doubt and fear of failure (distress). Which makes us conclude that stress is whatever we perceive it as.
How to make stress your ally
Revelation: It is not our actual workload that determines how stressed we feel, but our interpretation of it. Unfortunately, it isn’t always enough to tell ourselves not to stress out. Sometimes, our body will still go through the physical symptoms of stress. What we should do then, is not evaluate these symptoms as negative. Again, it is our own interpretation that matters.
A long life span despite stress
A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin found that people who suffer from chronic stress had a shorter life expectancy. They found that people who interpret stress as a useful mechanism to increase their performance, had a higher than average life expectancy. Therefore, the attitude we have toward stress is absolutely crucial and does not only influence our psychological interpretation, but also our physical reaction to it.
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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.