February 22, 2009

Can Stress Be Good For You?

Photo: Kelvin255

According to an article in Newsweek, stress has a undeservedly bad reputation.

I saw the magazine cover: "Stress Could Save Your Life (Or at Least it's Better for You Than You Think") and thought: awesome! But I also wondered: Really, can that be right?

If true, this would be great news. I've read dozens, if not hundreds, of studies over the years saying just how bad chronic stress is for your health. (These studies are of course stressful to read. "Wait, I'll get Alzheimer's, heart disease, and Parkinsons if I don't stop worrying about Alzheimer's, heart disease, and Parkinsons??!!").

But I found myself skeptical. How could something that's generally recognized as bad for you all of a sudden be good? It's like reading we should be eating a lot more cheeseburgers and ice cream, and a lot fewer vegetables. Welcome news, perhaps, but is really OK to stop stressing about stress?

By the end of the article, I still wasn't quite sure. There seems to be growing recognition that certain kinds of stress aren't bad at all--in certain situations, for certain people. But the kind of stress that most of us worry about--the nagging, chronic, "how are we gonna pay the bills" kind--didn't exactly get the "all clear" I'd hoped for.

Trying to Put Common Sense Back into the Conversation:

The main theme of the article seems to be that stress researchers have been so focused on the negative impact of stress, they've led us to believe that stress can never be positive.

Which is silly! It's not always negative. For example, have you ever made it successfully through an oral exam, a Big Game, a music recital, a job interview, or some other situation you were scared to death of? I don't have any handy studies to cite, but surely the sense of exhilaration and accomplishment after a dreaded event must be good for us? It's so motivating and rewarding!

Yet according to the author, she kept running into researcher after researcher who claimed "good stress" didn't exist. "We never tell people stress is good for them," one said. "Another allowed that it might be, but only in small ways, in the short term, in rats." As to people who claim to thrive on stress, like some policemen or ER docs or air-traffic controllers? The author talked to experts who said these people were "pathological."

Fortunately, she eventually found a few experts with more sensible sentiments. Like: "some stress is healthy and necessary to keep us alert and occupied." Or, "most people do their best under mild to moderate stress."

Other pro-stress opinions quoted in the article: "The stress response...evolved to help us survive... In the short term, it can energize us, revving up our systems to handle what we have to handle."

"In the long term, stress can motivate us to do better at jobs we care about. A little of it can prepare us for a lot later on, making us more resilient. Even when it's extreme, stress may have some positive effects—which is why, in addition to posttraumatic stress disorder, some psychologists are starting to define a phenomenon called posttraumatic growth."

OK, I'll buy that. And the "posttraumatic growth" idea sounds interesting. Because we all know of folks who have been transformed in positive ways by really awful experiences. But what about the bad kind of stress we always hear about?

Acute vs Chronic Stress

While acute stress and the "fight or flight" response may be handy in the short term, problems can arise when we can't shut it off. At some point, "neurons get tired of being primed, and positive effects become negative ones...Neurons shrivel and stop communicating with each other, and brain tissue shrinks in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which play roles in learning, memory and rational thought."

Whoops, that doesn't sound good!

But another Newsweek article in the same issue argued that the relationship between stress and disease has been over-sold. The author claimed that while stress can worsen the symptoms of any disease, it is seldom the sole explanation for a patient's suffering. But then a related link to WebMD reminds us that chronic worrying can lead to a whole bunch of health problems, like suppression of the immune system, digestive disorders, muscle tension, short-term memory loss, premature coronary artery disease, and even heart attacks.

Again, not quite the reassurance I was hoping for.

Tough Childhoods, Zen Monkeys, and Special Forces

One important point the article made was that research has done a lousy job of recognizing how much individual difference there is in how people handle stress. Some people are easily overwhelmed; others are much more resilient. Which kind are you?

For example, research on laid-off telephone workers in the 1970s and 1980's found that while most of the workers suffered with higher rates of divorce, heart attacks, obesity and strokes--a third of the workers handled the transition well. Why? Well, many of them had "fairly tough childhoods that led to their being very hardy people." So early stress can sometimes lead to greater resilience later in life.

Similarly, a baboon researcher (wait... I mean a guy who studies baboons, not a baboon who conducts research) found that some alpha males who were subject to the usual baboon stressors—"power struggles, unsuccessful sexual overtures, the occasional need to slap down a subordinate" had stable hormone levels, unlike like other more Stressed Out alphas. These baboons were essentially "minimalist Zen masters." (Alas, none of them are leading any self-help seminars that I know of, so don't get your hopes up about learning Baboon Zen Management techniques any time soon).

The most fascinating example of individual differences? Check out how the military goes about testing and training soldiers for highly dangerous missions. (It totally freaked me out. Note to self: do not join the military and sign up for Dangerous Assignments!!) Anyway, they discovered that elite Special Forces soldiers had different physiological reactions to extremely stressful situations than the regular army guys, and thus performed much better. Apparently they released more of a brain chemical, NPY, which works as a natural tranquilizer.

But the weirdest part? One of the predictors of who would do best under extreme stress (and release more NPY) was heart rate variability. The best survivors didn't have much of it; they had "metronomic heartbeats." However, while it may make you a Superhero under extreme stress, the downside of this metronomic effect? It's "usually associated with early heart disease and even sudden death." Healthy people generally have more heartrate variability.

So for us wimpy folks who panic under stress? Perhaps we shouldn't be too envious of the Superhero types after all!

How Do You Folks Cope With Stress?

From everything I've read, it sounds like meditation is one of the best weapons in the battle against chronic stress--but as I've mentioned before, I suck at it. So I tend to pursue other options: exercise, deep breathing, relaxing music, and "cognitive" interventions. And by "cognitive interventions," I mean trying to think more like a rational person and less like a lunatic when it comes to things that worry me.

How about you guys? Feeling any extra stress these days, and if so, how do you cope? Can you turn it into a positive, rather than a negative in your life?


  1. I cope with stress by going back to bed and curling up with the covers pulled up over my head.
    Usually, stress gets so disgusted by this reaction that it goes away and looks for someone else to haunt.
    Or else I get stressed about not handling my stress well, which makes things worse. I think curling up in a ball is a healthier response.
    Good post!

  2. Crabby, I just don't know what to say. I can honestly say that I haven't been stressed out about anything in about 6 years. For some reason, stuff just doesn't bother me.

    But now you've got me wondering. Should I be stressed out? If stress is good for my health, should I worry that I'm not stressed?

    As I sit here getting stressed because I'm not stressed, I feel the onset of a new ailment ...

    PRE-Traumatic Stress Disorder!

  3. I love the curling up under the covers, Merry, it's a classic!

    And Jim, I think you're on to something with Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder! You could make a fortune off that, with seminars and books and expensive clinics to treat the Not Afraid Enough folks.

    And hey, I thought I was the only person not watching the Oscars! What are you guys doing on the web?

  4. First, thanks for clarifying about the baboon researcher. I got all excited for a second. Second, thank you for your voice of reason in regards to stress! Like you said, stressing about being stressed stresses me out. Of course people have some stress - it only makes sense that our bodies would be able to adapt to it and thrive.

  5. Good to know that "heartrate variability" is good for something.

  6. Some stress is good and is healthy. Its when we have too much stress that it becomes unhealthy. Great blog, great post, I enjoy reading it.
    I also cope with stress by hiding in my room and just watching tv and sleeping. But it doesn't last and then I go back to dealing with it head on.

  7. I get stressed out over uncertainty, but other kinds of stress, like deadlines, usually energize me.

    And even then, there can be too much of a good thing. In my last job I was given projects and deadlines galore, but rarely given what I needed to succeed. Stress! In my new job, I have full support to do whatever I need to get the job done and so even though I have the occasional frustrating afternoons, I'm much less stressed overall.

    I've known men who were total adrenaline junkies, who thrived on stress. They both had their go at college and white-collar jobs, but were deeply unhappy and stressed-out by it all. Now one is a paramedic and the other back in the military. They're happy guys because they found their fit.

    So yes, there's good and bad stress, although I'd hesitate to say that what's good for one person is good for the next. We're all wired a bit differently.

  8. For me, I've always found that exercise helps me handle stress better than anything I know off. Usually Yoga works the best. Although I do feel like hiding under the covers sometimes, this rarely helps.

    - Dave

  9. Good post Crabby!

    I like to meditate, breath, make lists of what needs to get done and prioritize. When that doesn't work, I cry. Seriously though, I am kind of like Jim, not all that of a stressed out person. It'll get done I say!


  10. you know, it took me AGES but I finally realized stress for me is oft the same feeling as excitement.

    (not always)

    so I try and focus on that piece (up in herre we call it stresscitement) if there is ANY joy in the stress as all.

    and I reread the book Stress for Success.
    And shove my head back in the sand and avoid.

  11. I think a little stress is good for me. Otherwise I wouldn't know when its time to eat :-)

  12. Good post! I actually think I handle the acute type of stress fairly well, unless I'm deluding myself, which is always possible.

    It's the chronic stress/anxiety/worry that I can't seem to get a handle on, and my body doesn't handle it well either (i.e., migraine and tension headaches galore). Therapy did help me to recognize when anxiety is starting to get the better of me, and I'm blowing the worry out of proportion. Unfortunately, realizing I'm doing this and getting a handle on the stress and anxiety have proven to be very different things.

    And my preferred method of stress management is losing myself in a book, which in the long term isn't very helpful.

  13. Now, the "good stress" seems like the type of research that fooled us about cholesterol. When the numbers came out Oh so many years ago, there was only one type of cholesterol and it was bad. Then years later, we find that there's a good one. Hey, why were they holding back on that?

  14. I think I fall into the "had a rough childhood so handle stress well" category. I do not think that this is the optimal way to learn to manage stress, though.

    I'm actually pretty ok with stress as long as it is finite, as long as I can see a time ahead when whatever it will not be going on. It's the uncertain things that really make me a little crazy.

  15. mmm... I'm one of the wimpy folks! My sr year of college, when i was freaking out about not getting into grad school and not having a "real" job, I ended up getting my first case of Shingles! Not an issue anymore, but since then if a job makes me feel stressed like that, something HAS TO CHANGE. Now! Not the most financially responsible way to go, but I usually end up leaving that job.

    Shingles suck!

    It's a good thing Lilly doesn't stress me out, huh? :)

  16. What a coincidence; I just posted on Mizfit's blog that I enjoy my low-level stress.

    I think most people look at stress the wrong way. Rather than being a problem in and of itself, I think it's usually a symptom that something is awry with your life that you're supposed to be doing something about.

    Hate your job? Have a hubby who beats you? Need to lose a hundred pounds? Of course you feel stressed! The solution isn't to sit and meditate every day, but to get a job, dump the hubby, and lose a hundred pounds.

  17. I am so glad I checked in here today. You just made me realize something.

    The part about people who have had hard childhoods being able to withstand high stress later in life--THAT'S ME!!!!!

    I had a very stressful childhood growing up with a brother with mental illness. When I've gone through stressful things with other people, they've always been amazed at how I just coast through. Well, it's not that simple, but I don't get as worked up about things.

    Maybe I can finally put a positive spin on what I went through as a kid.

    Thank you. Really, thanks.

  18. Stress is one thing I'm never in short supply of. My favorite way to combat stress is to lug my knitting out to a nice warm sunny spot in a park and knit for a few hours in peace.

    I can't wait for spring!

  19. I think stress can be good and bad. Short term, it can force you to act, and give you that extra push you need to finish something or get on with things.
    Long term tho? Not so good...it can eat away at your mental and physical health.
    I think a lot of it would have to do with how an individual deals with stress. I'm pretty mellow and level and tend to deal with stress OK. My shusband is a worrier and stresses himself out too much. It's all about balance I think.

  20. Eustress! I love it! It's one of the reasons why I love tight deadlines! But there are other stressors I DON'T like, especially ones associated with GUILT (like, "OMG I'm totally stressing because I totally killed my diet with that whole cake I just ate") or stress associated with money (like, "OMG I don't have enough to pay the internet bill this month!"). To cope, I swim, and sleep. I don't mean go to bed in the middle of the afternoon and sleep all day, but I make sure I get a good sleep every night so I can productively deal with stress during the day. This is where meditation comes in... it's how I actually manage to put the stress out of my mind for long enough to put me to sleep. =) Man, we're such a bunch of worry warts.

  21. Crabby,

    It sounds like you do meditate in your own way (deep breathing can certainly be meditative). It doesn't really matter if you are meditating the "right way"--the purpose of meditating IS NOT to become a "good meditator" (and so many of us are hung up on being "good" at everything we do, that this can be a hard expectation to let go of), but to be a calmer, more hardy, compassionate and effective person in life. If what you're doing to calm down achieves that end, you're all set!

    Besides meditation, exercise, etc., when I'm faced with a stressful situation and find myself going over and over it in my mind, I tell myself to "do something about it, or SHUT UP!". In other words, is what I'm worrying about something I can and should take action on? If so, I do. Is it just useless rumination over something I can't change? If so, I accept it, and move on.

    The toughest category for me is the "wait and see" category. Meaning, I can't take action now, but there is the potential to change the situation, and I don't feel right just ignoring it. In this case, it helps me to write that thing down (somewhere I can find it in the future--very important!). Then my mind relaxes a bit.

    This is a bit long--worry and stress are issues I've really worked on (my dad died from heart disease, mostly related to stress, IMO).

  22. I'm like bunnygirl - I don't like uncertainty but I'm generally OK with deadlines (which is good since I'm in grad school). I'm pretty good with time management and setting mini-deadlines for myself. I'm not one to stay up all night to finish something ... I'm less than pleasant to be around then. ;)

  23. It stressed me out to read about them typing sailors hands and feet and throwing them in a pool! I have a terrible fear of water (and heights, and bridges, and small spaces and, and, and). Do I sound neurotic? Now I'm stressed that I sound neurotic..... sheesh.

  24. Great suggestions and I love that you folks are so much more sophisticated and nuanced in your approaches than the researchers.

    Like Dragonmamma said, sometimes the answer isn't to meditate, but to DO SOMETHING about what's stressing you. Other times, like Ruth points out, the challenge is to stop ruminating, or to find a way to cope with a problem that may need attending to in the future but that's not amenable to change now.

    And just reframing "stress" as "excitement" can really help sometimes, like MizFit says.

    Elizabeth, SO GLAD that you found a way to put a positive spin on what must have been a painful situation.

    And everyone's examples are really helping me put my own responses to stress, both good and bad, into perspective. Thanks!!!

  25. I've wondered for a while why all the stress on stress, and not stressing the importance of our reaction to stress, which seems to have been unstressed. Can I stress that enough?

  26. I tend to keep a notebook around for stressed out times, because my best ideas tend to come from stress.

    Ironically, following those ideas resolves more than the initial stressor, making the stressful times of creative goodness rarer and rarer.

  27. I think generally stress tends to put some unnecessary strain on ones physical, emotional and mental well being. On the other hand if we can find a way to control stress so that it doesn't guide us down a negative path it could possibly be a way to dig deeper into the root of a problem? The challenge I guess would be to avoid compulsive behavior?

  28. I've thought a lot about stress lately. Even wrote a posting for a blog I run on a topic completely unrelated to getting healthy. Worthy enough for my Hubby and I to have a frank discussion about last night. Thanks! Vee at www.veegettinghealthy.blogspot.com

  29. I'm not sure how well I cope with stress because my reaction to stress has changed. I've been letting the little things slip by and don't get bothered by them as much as I used to. Don't know why. It could be improved health (quit smoking, healthier eating, more exercise). Or it could be I'm older and just don't give a crap about the small stressors anymore.

    But, the big stressors actually ride my ass harder, it seems.

    Interesting study, although there are still more questions than answers (ain't that always the case?)

    Oh, and I lol'd when the study listed the following behaviors as stressors in primates:

    1. unsuccessful sexual overtures,
    2. the occasional need to slap down a subordinate

  30. The article made a really good point about stress being individual, in that what is stressful to me may not be stressful to you, depending on our own experiences & life path. How true, that we each handle it so differently!

  31. I just finished the most stressful two months of work that I've experienced in a long time. I coped by a) exercising; b) drinking moderately (instead of either teetotalling or drinking heavily) and c) reminding myself that there was an end in sight (2/20). It worked pretty well, and I'm very pleased with myself! I used to handle stress by eating, smoking & drinking (heavily) so I feel I've come a long ways. And now? I am sitting on my sofa at 9:30 on a Monday (week-long vacation to celebrate the stress being over) with a cat on my lap. I am definitely relaxed right now!

  32. Ah, stress. Now I feel that I'm kinda stressed out about not knowing how I feel about stress. Do I have the good kind? The bad kind? What kind of comment can I leave that is both interesting and witty.

    Sigh. Time to do yoga.

  33. I so don't want a case of shingles...

    I'm usually a person who doesn't stress out much, but the Bush Administration nearly did me in. I'm not kidding. I thought there for a while I was becoming an alcoholic, but now I'm a lot better.

  34. breathing works really well for me........or a long, fast walk ALONE with good music that makes me happy :) Also.........not procrastinating......that takes the stress off of me big time!

  35. Well, my mom did have Parkinson's, heart disease and Alzheimer's, and what's great is if you have Alzheimer's, it kind of wipes out knowing about everything else. I, her daughter and caregiver was acutely aware of all of her conditions.

    So, how to cope with stress?
    Grow a sense of humor. Give into your sarcastic, sardonic, dry wit, over the top and at times, inappropriate take on life.

    When life gets crazy, the crazy get a life!

    ~Carol D. O'Dell
    Author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter's Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir
    available on Amazon

  36. Stress as a good thing? Now that's something that never entered my mind. It seems like with any research that almost anything is possible. My stress reliever is watching my dogs eat carrots.

  37. I am overwhelmed by the need to go interview some baboons about their research.
    Being the caretaker for an elderly not-well parent opens whole new vistas of stress. Oh, yes.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  38. Sometimes I cope best by covering up the stress by keeping myself too busy to address the issue. And then I get all those tasks out of the way that were stressing me out. :)

  39. I was all set to talk about my experience with meditation but found that Ruth said it all. But to repeat an important point: There's no 'right' way to meditate. We just need to give ourselves the opportunity to slow down and stop thinking. We may not be able to stop the thinking, but shouldn't beat ourselves up about it when we can't. We still benefit from the practice of trying to stop it.

    One of my favorite ways to meditate is to close my eyes and focus on the light I see. If I'm lying down, I will fall asleep. Great way to get myself to sleep when I'm having trouble with that.

  40. Yeah, I'll probably die of a heart stroke in ten years, if only because chronic stresses makes me unable to sleep, and of course that can't be good in the long run, right? (Wait, I wanna be a teacher when I grow up in 6 months... I'll never be free from stress!)

    On the other hand, I now know I'm of those people who thrive under stress, rather than collapse. I've taken exams in awful conditions (fever, exhaustion, being literally unable to proof-read my paper, &c.), and yet I aced through them. The day some random guy in the street found i tfunny to jump at me screaming "BOOO!" while I was biking, I punched him in the face while managing not to fall and going on biking (all of this instictively... I never went back to check on him, I admit ^^;). I don't know why I'm like this. Tough childhood? Why not, if "living for ten years with parents in perpetual bankruptcy" counts. But I'm not sure it would explain it either.

    These days, I cope with stress by being physically active--biking, walking, running, whatever gets some oxygen and nice endorphins in this lil' brain of mine. (At least I'm not resorting to food anymore, which is good.)


Thanks for commenting, Cranky Fitness readers are the BEST!

Subscribe to comments via RSS

(Note: Older Comment Threads Are Moderated)