Stress...not so bad, after all.

 We all talk these days about how stressful our lives are.

“Ugh...you have no idea how stressed I am.”

“I am SO stressed out, I need a vacation!”

“Dude, chill...you’re stressing me out…”

But is stress always bad?  As it turns out, stress - both emotional and physiologic - can often be good for us.

Admittedly, consistent and uncontrolled stress is not good for your mind or body.  Clinical and epidemiological studies have identified stress as a risk factor for the progression of several diseases including cancer and alzheimers disease and is associated with weight gain and obesity.  

But, as it turns out, some stress is actually good for you, and is even necessary for your body to function properly.
On a psychological level, stress can often be important for performance - at work, athletically, during times of immediate danger.  One of my favorite thinkers, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, writes that in order to achieve your highest accomplishments (he calls it Flow) you must be challenged.  You must feel stressed in order to achieve (granted, you must also meet this stress with skills and confidence otherwise you end up feeling anxiety).  But honestly, how often do you put something off until the deadline because  “you work best under pressure”?  Stress can be a total motivator.

Model of Flow

Recently, a new school of thought within the sphere of positive psychology is emerging called Post Traumatic Growth.  Richard Tedeschi, PhD and his colleague Lawrence Calhoun, PhD have developed a research team at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, examining the idea that “positive change [can be] experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or traumatic event.”  While there is a plethora of evidence demonstrating that traumatic events can produce negative consequences, it seems as though these same events can lead to perceived benefits: a sense of new opportunity, a change in personal relationships, an increased sense of one’s own strength, a greater appreciation for life, and a deepening of spirituality…all for the better!

 

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Stress is also necessary in your body.  While we often think of the physiological consequences of stress - inflammation and free radicals (reactive oxygen species) - as bad, they are actually essential for intracellular communication in your body.  For example, hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is necessary for proper insulin signaling in your body (to maintain blood sugar and feed cells) as well as determining which cells live (because they are healthy) or die (because they are not).

 Inflammation results in remodeling and healing muscles.   After you exercise, old and damaged muscle tissue signals through these molecules that your body should, literally, chop out the junk and replace it with new stronger tissue.

So, next time someone tells you they are “so stressed out” tell them, “I’m really happy to hear that!” (and then be nice and ask them what's wrong...).  It’s easy to treat stress as the enemy, but remember it is helping you to survive and become a stronger you!  Take it in stride, have a positive attitude, and just keep going.