Stress gets a bad rep. Yes, chronically being on the edge isn’t good for anyone. But, deployed correctly, it turns out a little bit of stress can go a long way.
According to UK government findings, even prior to the covid virus, “the rate of self-reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety had shown signs of increasing” with 2020/21 levels at a record high. It’s no wonder that 74 percent of UK adults said they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope in the past year. Gloomy start we know, but stick with us – it gets better.
Ok, we all know stress is bad. But what we might not know is that stress comes in many different forms. “Stress in itself is a physiological state, however, the type of stress, how severe it is, and when it happens can affect us in different ways, and even be life-threatening,” explains Dr. Hana Patel, a GP and mental health coach.
Dr Patel explains that stress can add to potentially fatal health conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and sleep problems. Meanwhile, chronic stress elevates levels of glucocorticoid stress hormones, which in turn suppress the production of new neurons in the hippocampus, impairing memory.
Stress isn’t always bad, though. Dr Patel explains, from a biological perspective stress is a positive response. “When we’re stressed, our bodies react to an increase in the hormone adrenaline and cortisone which helps increase our blood pressure and sugar level to activate our 'fight or flight' response to respond to a threat,” she explains. Need to pull your dog away from an aggressive pooch? Car in front of you suddenly slams the breaks? Your fight or flight can help.
This ‘good stress’ can lead to feelings of excitement, fulfilment, and satisfaction. The thrill from a rollercoaster, the runner’s high you get after a gruelling jog, and the feeling after a pitch meeting has gone well are all examples.
“Stress is your unregulated emotional reaction to your perception of life’s events, or stressors,” explains Louise Sanders, a stress consultant at The Stress Experts. “We have an emotional response based on those perceptions, which we label good or bad.”
Sanders explains that you might see a work project as “a huge obstacle, a roadblock, a lot of work, a drag, or an insurmountable problem” which could lead to feelings like dread, depression, fear, frustration, or anxiety. “In a state like this, your body, brain, heart, and mind would not be in top form,” she explains.
However, the next person might look at the same work project as a challenge, a puzzle to solve, or a life lesson to learn. “A perception like this would lead to emotions and feelings such as courage, persistence, joie de vie, which would enhance brain function and cause the release of DHEA, resulting in better self-rated health, vitality, and well-being,” says Sanders. In short, most events are neither good nor bad, but your perceptions influence your judgement of them.
There’s a case to be made, then, that stress has been misunderstood. There’s a growing recognition of ‘eustress’ – a stress response that leads to a positive response and can be seen as the opposite of negative stress. Research by Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, found that a degree of stress can be beneficial. “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioural and cognitive performance,” explains Professor Kaufer.
Kaufer and UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby found that this short-lived – as opposed to chronic – stress primes the brain for performance. Or at least it does in rats. According to Bruce McEwen, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University, these findings “reinforce the notion that stress hormones help an animal adapt – after all, remembering the place where something stressful happened is beneficial to deal with future situations in the same place.”
Dr Patel believes the same process may help humans too, particularly when it comes to reflecting on experiences and situations positively. “The term “stress” has been narrowed by habitual use to equate with the negative outcome of distress; this article takes an alternative view that ultimately rejects the myth that demonises stress. The avoidance of distress is important, but a broader view of stress as something that can have either positive or negative outcomes is considered,” write the authors of a 2019 study titled The Stress Paradox which looks at stress from the perspective of students and learning.
“In health professional education today, the words “stress” and “distress” have come to be casually equated. The presence of stress tends to be portrayed as a hindrance to learning,” the study authors continue. “However, focusing only on ‘distress’ may be limiting as it curtails recognition of the positive benefits of stress.” The authors go on to discuss ‘eustress’ as “an optimal amount of stress” and references its positive associations in sport and work.
The key takeaway is that some stress has been linked to enhanced motivation, support-seeking behaviour and working harder as well as improved mental function, brain processing and memory. According to the 2019 study authors, it is our interpretation of stress which gives it a negative or positive effect
It follows, then, that we should then be able to harness feelings of stress to our advantage. “There is a lot of truth to the saying ‘mind over matter’,” argues Desiree Silverstone, a psychotherapist and executive coach at Head Honchos. “Feeling stressed is directly related to how we perceive it. The power of the right mindset cannot be overstated.”
Silverstone explains that stress can be our ally in situations like beginning a new job, or moving to a new town, with the adrenaline and cortisol in our bodies making us more motivated, and more adept at coping with new situations.
Stress also helps us form social bonds. When we pour out our stress to a friend, Silverstone explains, we release oxytocin which makes us feel more connected, and socially open. “Disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis demonstrate this,” Silverstone says. “When we are under acute stress, we become more open, cooperative, and giving.”
Over time, exposure to stress affects our neuroplasticity, imprinting itself on our brains and helping us cope better next time we’re in a similar situation. The more we confront stressful situations, Silverstone explains, the more our dopamine levels increase, effectively rewarding us for handling a stressful situation well. This is why we become more confident the more job interviews/Hinge dates/pitch meetings /bungee jumps we experience.
In other words, if we’re able to recognise stress and see it as something beneficial as opposed to something to be avoided, with time we can learn to use it to our advantage – especially when it comes to overcoming big work meetings and taking on huge projects that at first seem out of our ability. Big presentation to prepare? You aren’t a floundering office worker, you’re a caveperson taking down a saber-toother tigers to protect the tribe – and just imagine how good that will feel once you’ve achieved it.
Which isn’t to say that all stress is good. Don’t make the mistake of equating continual overwhelming stress with fuel to feed your career goals. Quite the opposite. As outlined above, its effect on your longterm mental and physical health can literally be deadly.
The key is becoming aware of your stress, and deciding how best to deal with it in a balanced and healthy way. “It’s important to check in with yourself,” advises Rebecca Lockwood, a teacher of neurolinguistic programming. “If you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed daily then this is a sign that you may be experiencing chronic stress which is not good for you.”
And, naturally, no amount of beneficial stress feels the same as kicking back on a beach with a glass of something cold. Even the most ambitious, high-powered exec among us needs to take it easy from time to time.
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