The purpose of stress:
The human stress response evolved as a response to emergencies when fight or flight was necessary for survival. When physical survival is your goal, stress is very helpful. Stress hormones rev up the heart rate and blood pressure, improving blood flow, which allows you to act quickly.
Negative effects of unhealthy stress:
Today, we have few physiological emergencies for we are rarely in mortal danger as we were on the African savannah millions of years ago. Yet we still react with stress for purely psychological reasons, such as worries about mortgage payments, traffic jams, and work problems. Unfortunately, stress hormones streaming through our bodies all of the time can cause all sorts of health problems.
Chronic, ongoing stress has been linked directly to a shorter lifespan and disease. The increased adrenaline and cortisol due to chronic stress kills brain cells, leads to heart problems, clots the blood, and causes kidney and liver damage. Large amounts of cortisol can raise blood sugar and cholesterol, which turn into fat around the belly. Fat retention weight gain is often a stress response.
Positive effects of stress:
We wouldn’t want to eliminate stress altogether, because it can alert us to the occasional emergency. Mild doses of stress keep you alert while driving in a snowstorm or while sitting in a business meeting.
At the right level and the right time, adrenaline provides excitement and stimulation. Without any stress response, you couldn’t enjoy a speed sport or falling in love. Many people enjoy a ride on a rollercoaster for the simple reason that it invokes the stress response, but it is safe and short lived.
In small doses, and with adequate control and knowledge that we are not really in danger, stress arouses our sensations and heightens our interest and pleasure. Thus, meeting new people and falling in love can be pleasurable partly because of the stress involved.
How to avoid unhealthy stress:
The goal should be to have the right kind of stress and in the right doses — something that is not too dangerous and is transient rather than ongoing.
Research shows that people who have more control in their lives experience less harmful stress. People in low-ranking jobs with no authority experience substantially MORE unhealthy stress than those in the apparently higher-stress, high-power jobs who have more control over their work. Unhealthy stress increases as level and control in one’s job decreases.
However, there can be relief from unhealthy stress in those who feel subordinate in their jobs. When people in low-level jobs view themselves as having a key role in another area of life, such as being captain of a sports team, a parent, or a crucial player in a volunteer organization, they tend to have reduced levels of stress. The key is that they exhibit leadership qualities in an area of life that they see as valuable and important.
Other ways unhealthy stress can be lowered include increased autonomy, appreciation through monetary reward or praise, social affiliation, exercise, laughter, and the practice of mindfulness. Everyone can benefit by finding something they love to do and people to do it with.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD