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?