Is Stress Really as Bad as We Make It Out to Be?

Caroline de Braganza

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(Image by Michael Maggiore from Pixabay)

We can compare our nervous system to a seesaw because you can’t be in both states at the same time—much as one end of the seesaw has to be up when the other is down.

Life would be very unbalanced if the seesaw were stationary.

Our everyday lives occur on the surface. Compare them to the oceans, with waves on the surface which can be turbulent or gentle, while a deep calm and stillness rests at the bottom.

We confront the daily demands of work, family, deadlines, decisions, studying, technology; these all create physiological responses in our bodies.

We often view stress as something we should avoid at all costs.

But there’s good and bad stress.

Without our flight-or-flight reaction when we perceive danger, our ancestors wouldn’t have survived in a primeval world full of giant creatures seeking a meal! Any peril arouses our sympathetic nervous system which activates our adrenal glands to pump more cortisol, the stress hormone, so that our heart rate increases and we breathe faster. Our bodies switch to high alert.

That’s good stress. (I’ll get to the bad stress later.)

Once the threat has passed, we our sympathetic nervous system, known as the rest-and-relax state, kicks in. Our heartbeat slows, our breathing calms and the cortisol retreats.

When the pressure’s on, our stress levels rise.

Is that good for you?

It depends on our definition of stress.

“I’m so stressed,” you say to yourself.

Then you continue with words, thoughts and images prompted by your belief stress is ALWAYS bad for you. Lose focus. Make mistakes. Miss that deadline. Lose your temper.

Then you accept the fallout as a justification of how you see yourself—you’ll always mess up. And the cycle of harmful stress continues.

Do you believe you have to work on eliminating it altogether because stress will kill you? And your failure to do that reflects how incompetent you are?

Yet some individuals excel under pressure.

Why is that?

Because they love the challenge. They don’t perceive it as threatening. They believe they can do it.

“You can’t always control what goes on outside, but you can always control what goes on inside.”—Dr. Wayne Dyer.

How do we view stress?

In a TED talk by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, she quotes a study that tracked 30,000 adults in the United States over eight years.

The crucial point they discovered was people didn’t die prematurely from stress itself, but from believing stress was bad for them. It was what they thought about stress that had the biggest impact on their health.

McGonigal says, “When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body's response to stress ... your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier.”

...

She shares another study conducted at Harvard University, where they coached participants to regard their stress responses as helpful.

  • Your pounding heart is preparing you for action
  • Your faster breathing is getting more oxygen to your brain

We can tick the boxes on our pounding heart and faster breathing being beneficial.

Yay!

But one fundamental physiological difference emerged. In a typical stress response, our blood vessels constrict. Hence, we associate chronic stress with cardiovascular disease.

The blood vessels of the participants stayed relaxed because they perceived their stress response as helpful!

So next time you feel the stress coming on as an exam or interview approaches, welcome it! Your body will be alert and ready to tackle with ease.

One more thing

We often regard the neurochemical oxytocin as the cuddle hormone. We associate it with hugs, love, trust and empathy.

But what many people don’t realize is it is also a stress hormone! Our pituitary gland pumps it out in response to stress. The good news is it triggers us to hook up with others to seek comfort, care and encouragement. This action then generates more oxytocin!

Scientific proof that sharing our worries with others when we’re not coping—whether a friend, family member or a health professional is good for us.

Final thoughts

I hope this information has shattered your beliefs about stress and you can now welcome it as a friend.

But don’t skip a daily visit to the deeps of the ocean through meditation or mindfulness practice or something as simple as a stroll in nature.

Keep that seesaw moving!

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Published essayist. Follow me for local news that impacts our lives, plus stories on public and mental health. Through writing, I also share my passion for music, politics, our environment and social justice, and hope you find value in my words.

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