Stress: Is It Actually Bad For Us?
Let's bust some stress myths with facts, studies and some (attempted) humour.
Contrary to what the media would have us believe, stress is not inherently good or bad. It’s a survival mechanism designed to help us respond and adapt to threatening situations; an optimised biological response to a change in our environment or situation.
Whenever there’s a change in our environment, our brain rapidly processes the sensory input that we’re receiving. It links this with our own database of experiences and memories. These inputs allow our brain to assess whether we’re in a stressful situation. If we are, our stress response is triggered.
Let’s consider our hominid ancestors for a moment. If a sabre-toothed tiger appeared, we wouldn’t have time to rationally think through our strategy to survive before the tiger mauled us to death!
The purpose of our stress response is to react quickly and effectively so that our chances of survival increase. Several things happen at once when our stress response is triggered. Our brain signals our body to release a cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to influence our physiological and emotional response.
Adrenaline causes our heart rate, blood pressure and perspiration to increase. This means that more oxygen reaches our muscles at a faster rate so that we can run for our lives, and our body can also regulate its temperature more effectively as we run for our lives!
Meanwhile cortisol tells our body to release stored glucose, curb our appetite and halt all non-essential body processes. After all, it would suck to be thinking about how hungry we are or whether we’ve remembered the key facts of our presentation (did cavemen do public speaking?) as we’re running for our lives!
Our brain also sends us vivid images of us being chased down and eaten by the sabre-toothed tiger. We feel these emotions intensely to motivate us to run faster as we run for our lives!
However, there are no more sabre-toothed tigers for us to run away from. In war-torn, poverty-ridden countries, our survival mechanisms are still needed. But being at the top of the food chain in a first-world country means that our stress response survival mechanism is less necessary…
Instead, our stress response decides to go into overdrive. It activates in the modern-day equivalent of a threatening situation: important exams, sports fixtures, job interviews, public speaking, embarrassing ourselves at a party, confronting people, being punished by teachers or parents, and so on.
Stress is often a learned behaviour – we observe what other people are stressed about, and create our responses based on how they’re dealing with stress.
Stress is also contagious – if other people around us are exhibiting symptoms of stress, we unconsciously pick up on these symptoms and begin to mirror them. Makes sense if we’re cavemen and someone in our tribe thinks they’ve spotted a sabre-tooth tiger, so we all become alert to the potential danger…
Not so much in a world where we’re more likely to be fighting for approval than fighting for survival.
Unfortunately, not being aware of how our stress response works, we’re not in touch with why we’re feeling so stressed. And to make matters worse, we start get more stressed out because we notice we’re getting stressed, and we’ve read somewhere that stress is bad for our health…
Our stress response kicks up to max gear. Our blood vessels constrict like triggered anacondas, our blood pressure rises higher than Michael Jordan fuelled up on eight espressos, we start to sweat enough to fill the Uyuni Salt Flats in dry season, and we become more jumpy than a crack addict trying to solve a Rubik’s cube.
Let’s break down the problem.
Our issues with stress lie in our lack of understanding about the origins of our stress response, our negative attitude towards stress, and our inability to respond effectively to stressful situations.
We allow our stress response to activate too easily and we spend too long in a state of stress.
So, how do we fix this?
1. Educating ourselves about our stress response. The more we understand our ‘enemy’, the less we fear it.
2. Ridding ourselves of the outdated belief that stress is inherently bad for us and should be avoided at all costs, once again through increasing our awareness of the nature of stress.
3. Identifying and practising stress management tools and mindset techniques that resonate with us, such that we can apply them in stressful situations. The more we practise, the more effective they become.
We covered Point 1 in the section above. Point 3 may be the topic of several future articles. So, let’s focus on Point 2.
Not all stress has negative effects.
In fact, stress can actually have positive effects in the short-term; it can boost our immune system, overcome lethargy and enhance performance. This has been termed eustress by Hans Selye, a pioneer of modern stress.
This eustress is the stress that athletes leverage to gain a competitive edge, public speakers use to deliver enthusiastic speeches, and that students can use to perform optimally in an exam. In short bursts, this doesn’t cause long-term consequences for our physical and mental health.
However, stress can be negative when it exceeds our ability to cope, fatigues our body systems and causes physical or behavioural problems. This is distress – it can cause overreaction, confusion, poor concentration and performance anxiety. If this is experienced on a constant basis, it can become chronic stress, which can have adverse impacts on our physical health and mental well-being.
So, how do we differentiate between eustress and distress?
One key factor to consider is our attitude towards stress.
If we perceive stress to be positive, it will have a positive impact on our physiological and emotional response to it. If we perceive stress to be negative, it will have a negative effect on our performance, health and well-being.
Don’t believe me?
A study carried out at the University of Wisconsin looked at 30,000 people over an 8-year period. Each person was asked two questions. First, they were asked to rate how stressed they were. Second, they were asked about how they believed stress affected their health.
The researchers then checked the National Death Index to find out who died.
Unsurprisingly, they found that those most likely to die were the people who rated themselves as being highly stressed, and who also perceived stress to be harmful for their health.
But who was least likely to die?
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the people who were least stressed!
The least likely to die were people who rated themselves as experiencing high levels of stress; but they believed that stress wasn’t harmful for their health!
Some Harvard University researchers thought so too; they conducted a study to find out why our beliefs about stress could potentially prevent us from dying earlier.
One of the reasons why stress kills us prematurely is that it causes our blood vessels to constrict, which in the long-term can lead to heart disease and high blood pressure.
However, the Harvard researchers discovered that there was no blood vessel constriction in people who believed stress to be positive.
Their belief about stress changed the way their body responded to stress.
You might have reservations about these studies and what they convey – and that’s perfectly understandable. However, if you stand to gain so much from such a relatively small tweak to your beliefs, does it really make sense to keep perceiving your stress response in such a negative light?
Don’t misinterpret me; I’m not endorsing stress.
While short-term stress can have some benefits, being stressed isn’t a sustainable state to maintain for a long period of time. It’s in our benefits to optimise our lifestyle to reduce the likelihood of stress, for example through increasing physical activity and movement, improving our nutrition and hydration habits, getting more sleep, and surrounding ourselves with the right people who support, inspire and uplift us. (Is it any surprise that I have a chapter dedicated to each of these in my book?)
But one of the key take-away points from this article is simply that, if you feel yourself getting stressed, embrace it. Don’t resist it.
The more we resist our stress response, the more it persists. Like being stuck in quicksand, the more we struggle with our emotions, the deeper we sink. (A beautiful analogy from one of my favourite reads of 2019 so far, Emotional Agility by Susan David, Ph.D)
So, understand that your stress response is perfectly natural. Recognise that having a positive attitude to stress can help in preventing negative physiological and mental consequences in the long-term. And then manage your stress response and use it to perform optimally in the short-term.
Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you found valuable in this article and how it can be improved, so please don't hesitate to get in touch.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.