Not all stress is bad for you. But the response system that was designed to save your life can also do some serious harm. You can take steps to see that it doesn’t.
“Stress Is Ruining Your Life and Your Health.”; “Stress Translates to Billions of Dollars a Year in Healthcare Costs.”; “Five Ways to Stop Stress Before It Stops You!”
With headlines like these, it’s obvious that the negative side of stress has our attention trapped between its tightly clenched jaws. Yet amid the clamor over this “deadly” foe, a few voices from the scientific community say: Not so fast! There’s a service-minded side to stress, too. And by better understanding the gifts that certain types of stress have to offer us, we can become better equipped at putting the not-so-nice kind in its place.
In his book The End of Stress as We Know It (Dana Press, 2004), Bruce McEwen, PhD, explains that stress is a natural and highly adaptive biological process that strengthens and safeguards us in many ways. After all, the body’s classic sympathetic-nervous-system reaction to stress, commonly called the fight-or-flight response, can save your life in an emergency. When a swift getaway or super strength is required, this is your body’s system for turning on the juice. And the stress to which you expose your body during a tough weight-training session is what triggers your muscles to become stronger. A certain amount of mental and emotional stress can actually help breed motivation, excitement and forward movement – if we know how to handle it.
The problem is not stress itself, point out McEwen and other researchers, like Robert Sapolsky, PhD, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (Owl Books, 2004). Rather, it’s that the kinds of stress we face today are vastly different from the stressors that prompted the evolution of our stress response. In times past, when humans were running from predators or stalking their own prey, the sources of stress were acute (intense, but short-lived) and obvious (“Ack! A lion!”). The resultant cascade of biological events known as “the stress response” came in handy for activities like running or fighting.
Back then, for better or worse, the sources of our stress arose and passed relatively quickly. We either went down fighting or we won and lived to see another day, during which we could recover from our fright and nurse our wounds.
Today, our struggle for survival more often involves chronic (ongoing) sources of stress: battling bad bosses and traffic jams, grappling with impossible schedules, credit card bills that just keep coming.
Yet our body’s biological response to modern stress is the same as it was when we were literally fighting for our lives: a flood of chemicals that shuts down important-but-not-urgent-for-immediate-survival functions (like digestion, growth, emotional bonding) in favor of other functions (energy bursts, enhanced focus, quick reaction times, faster blood clotting) designed to help us get through a short-term crisis.
Scientists now know that it’s the constant oversupply of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and the resultant suppression of the healing and growth hormones we require to recover from stress, that wreak havoc on our bodies and minds over the long term.
Chronic stress, of course, undermines our health. It can contribute or lead to asthma, atherosclerosis, heart attacks, strokes, depression, ulcers and ulcerative colitis, among other problems. There’s even evidence to suggest that stress may advance the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Yet when you examine the stress response, as McEwen, Sapolsky and others have, you find that some aspects of your body’s response to stress, such as heightened sensory awareness and mental acuity, can actually benefit you – at least in the short term.
The differences between good stress and bad stress really come down to two somewhat related things: duration and perception. First, duration: Good stressors, for the most part, are acute and temporary, triggering an adaptive (strengthening) response. Bad stressors are chronic, long term and persistent, triggering a destructive (breaking-down) response.
And the perception angle? Well, that’s a bit more complex.
A Matter of Perception
Your body’s physical reaction to anything it experiences as stress is always the same: The same physiological systems are involved, and the same hormones are released (more on that in a moment). You do, however, have a chance to influence your physical reaction to stress based on your brain’s interpretive ability to identify something as stressful or not, and your mental or emotional response to potentially stressful situations.
It may help to think of the distinction as good response/bad response instead of good stress/bad stress, suggests Gary Kaplan, MD, PhD, a neurologist and clinical associate professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine. “It is true that some sources of stress are almost universal in how people react to them, like the death of a spouse or child. Almost everyone would consider that an overwhelming challenge,” he says. “But other things are open to interpretation.”
For instance, you may view an argument with your spouse as a sign that your marriage is in jeopardy – or you may feel relief and optimism that the lines of communication are finally open. You could be devastated by a change in your responsibilities at work, but you might also reframe it as an opportunity to break the monotony and try something new.
In these situations, what could easily become a source of chronic stress turns out to be an acute, temporary stress followed by the opportunity for recovery and an adaptive response. That’s good stress in action, but making it work that way is largely up to you and the way you interpret and respond to your reality.
“It’s all about perception,” confirms Bruce Rabin, MD, PhD, professor of pathology and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. “Your brain has to perceive something as novel or threatening in order to invoke the stress response. And what my brain perceives as threatening may be totally different from what your brain perceives as threatening.”
Once your brain does perceive something as threatening, though, your body’s stress machinery goes to town.
Stress in Action
Our physiological response to stress is complex. In The End of Stress as We Know It, McEwen describes the mechanics:
Stage 1. The stress response begins when the brain perceives a threat. The fight-or-flight response is set in motion by the hypothalamus, which sounds an alert to the adrenal glands located above the kidneys. The adrenals release the first of two primary stress hormones, epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline.
Adrenaline speeds up heart rate and increases blood pressure as extra blood is sent to the muscles and organs in preparation for a quick getaway. Breathing rate increases and bronchial tubes dilate, sending extra oxygen to the brain to heighten our senses and make us more alert. Hair stands on end as adrenaline constricts blood vessels in the skin to prevent bleeding in the event our adversary strikes us.
Adrenaline also triggers the release of fibrinogen, a protein that speeds up blood clotting and provides extra protection against excessive bleeding. To fuel us for battle, blood sugar dramatically rises as adrenaline stimulates the release of energy from storage sites like fat and liver tissues. Finally, the brain releases endorphins, our natural painkillers, in case we’re injured but have to keep going.
Stage 2. The hypothalamus stimulates the pituitary gland, which in turn signals the adrenals to release the second primary stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol’s first job is to replace the energy stores that have been zapped by the adrenaline response, and it does this by converting food into glycogen (carbs for your muscles) and fat. Cortisol also makes you hungry, so you’ll eat more post-battle, restocking your lost nutritional reserves with food. Additionally, the hormone draws protein from muscles to use as energy and draws minerals from bone to meet your body’s urgent needs.
Just enough cortisol and all is well, but it’s easy to see how an overstimulated stress response and too much cortisol leads to cardiovascular trouble and extra fat storage. Cortisol also affects the immune system. The right amount boosts immunity by mobilizing white blood cells, the body’s main defense team against injury and invaders. Yet too much cortisol suppresses the immune response and makes us more vulnerable to disease, low bone density and other problems.
In the face of unremitting stress, our minds and bodies become overwhelmed. It’s not uncommon for people to feel like they’ve lost control of their lives and adopt a sort of “learned helplessness” – a disempowered attitude that Kaplan says often mushrooms into depression. With no recovery time, no sense of choice toward change and no relief in sight, a person’s stress continues to mount, and the danger of overload and sickness becomes imminent.
Where to Draw the Line
In defense of stress, it can be a powerful, positive motivator. “Stress causes you to get things done,” says registered dietitian Libby Mills, MS, RD, who’s also a lifestyle coach and personal trainer. “I have many clients who, under stress, reach personal and professional goals they didn’t think they could.” In fact, most of us know several individuals who claim to “do their best work under stress.”
There’s a good reason for this. Faced with a project deadline, or a brutal, final mile between you and a race finish line, your body’s fight-or-flight mechanisms can kick in, delivering focus and a temporary energy boost. The anxiety about potential failure may temporarily sharpen your mental skills, heighten your concentration and jolt your body into an alert state. As a result, you may perform better.
Still, even this type of stress is a two-faced companion. The inspired all-nighter you pull at work can leave you feeling dull-witted, crabby and strung out the rest of the week. The day after that glorious race finish, you may be sore as the dickens.
As previously stated, for stress to be “good,” it must be balanced with adequate support and recovery. The other thing about both of the previous examples is that they involve an element of choice: the decision to persist in the face of difficulty, presumably in exchange for some desired reward that’s seen as worthwhile and that’s quite certain to be forthcoming.
One popular definition of bad stress characterizes it as “a combination of high responsibility and low control” – meaning you have to get something done, but the variables determining how and even whether you can accomplish it are not entirely within your grasp. Consider this: An otherwise odious and stressful project can feel empowering if it’s in the name of something you believe in or expect to be rewarding and thus happily agree to do. The same stressor, if dumped in your lap and not in the service of your goals, will probably be experienced as punishment and victimization, thus stressing you out far more, and for long after the task itself is done.
This is an important point, because, as noted, how you perceive a stressful event (both its source and significance) dictates your response to it. Many stress-management techniques hinge, in fact, on three basic skills: 1) differentiating between those things that are and are not within your control; 2) identifying to what extent your stress is the result of your interpretation, beliefs and judgments about the events (vs. the events themselves); and 3) learning to consciously adjust your reactions and perceptions in ways that help you feel more powerful, less threatened and helpless, and thus, less stressed.
So how do you know when you’re dealing with a short-term, adaptive “good stress” opportunity and when you’re sinking into a downward-spiraling “bad stress” quagmire? That line is different for everyone, and finding it for yourself requires tuning in to your feelings.
“When you feel energized under pressure, you’re still striving, still adapting,” Kaplan says. “But when that energized feeling shifts to overwhelming, you’re in over your head.”
Your body will give you signals, too. Cross the line from adaptive to damaging and you’ll probably start noticing problems like lingering fatigue, short temper, headaches, depression, lowered sex drive, gastrointestinal disturbances, increased or lost appetite, skin problems, cravings for sweets, and weight fluctuations. Your creativity and ability to juggle multiple tasks (both of which are initially boosted by the body’s stress response), may evaporate.
“Under chronic stress, we see systematic breakdown,” asserts Shawn Talbott, PhD, an Ironman triathlete and author of The Cortisol Connection: The Breakthrough Program to Control Stress and Lose Weight (Hunter House, 2004). “Core-level metabolic disturbances often result in weight gain. They also make people more vulnerable to diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Immunity, which in the short term is actually boosted by the stress response, can be seriously undermined by chronic stress.”
Another site for symptoms? Your daily routine. “I can tell people are approaching stress overload when they abandon their normal routines for a couple of weeks or more,” says Mills. “Or their sleep patterns change and they start showing some impulsive behaviors like binge eating or drinking.”
How Healthy Habits Help
Unfortunately, poor lifestyle choices like junk food, excessive alcohol and inadequate sleep only feed the stress response. In fact, they can significantly increase cortisol production even when you aren’t consciously upset about anything. By the same token, the more stressed out you are, the more essential it is that you embrace healthy lifestyle choices that help mitigate stress’s damaging effects.
The importance of rest in managing stress, for example, was highlighted in a study published in Revue Neurologique in 2003. Belgian researchers measured the effects of six days of sleep deprivation on 11 healthy young men (participants were allowed to sleep only four hours per day). They found significantly increased cortisol in the subjects’ blood, and the rest periods between cycles of cortisol production were also shorter than normal. The men’s bodies continued producing cortisol when they should have been taking a break.
Exercise, in moderation, is a great way to counter stress, and aerobic exercise is especially effective. It provides an outlet for the residual tension created by the fight-or-flight response, and it decreases your risk of several metabolic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.
Exercise can also keep strong emotional reactions, like fear or anger, in check – so when stressful challenges pop up, you’re more likely to keep your even keel and choose more adaptive-oriented attitudes and behaviors.
But, Sapolsky cautions in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, that doesn’t mean insanely large amounts of exercise are insanely good for your body. In fact, repeated intense exercise without adequate recovery can actually suppress the immune system, reminds Rabin: “That’s why so many competitive athletes get sick during heavy training.”
Get the Better of Stress
Some of the best things you can do to counter the effects of stress and make yourself more resilient, according to Sapolsky, Talbott and other experts, are the same things you must do to stay healthy in general: Get adequate sleep; regular, moderate exercise; and good nutrition. Under stress, though, these things become even more important.
Having a good support network can help a lot, too. So can simply emphasizing more fun, pleasure and emotional intimacy in your life. Finally, keep in mind that while you can’t control everything life throws your way, by adjusting your perceptions about stressful situations, you can reclaim a lot of control over the duration of stressful experiences. The faster and more adept you become at transforming bad-stress responses into good ones, the less you will suffer at stress’s hands.
The maxim about stress used to be: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Today, given the more chronic nature of our stress experience, that maxim should be amended to say: “Whatever isn’t slowly killing you may make you stronger.”
From a biological standpoint, unfortunately, virtually anything that exposes you to stress from which you have inadequate opportunity to recover is, in essence, killing you slowly. But you can fight back. Just remember: The more stress-filled and anxiety-producing your life becomes, the more mental and emotional skills you need to help you filter and process your experiences. The busier and more demanding your work and workout schedules become, the more mental and physical recovery windows you have to open – even when your schedule seems intent on slamming them shut.