The negative impact of stress on physical and mental health is no longer news to anyone. Seeing as stress is said to be the ultimate cause of all ailments, we try to avoid stressful situations, practice meditation, and take care of our emotional hygiene. This is a mindful and responsible approach, yet one which does not account for the different types of stress.
Indeed, chronic stress is a contributing factor in the development of hypertension and other cardiovascular disorders, as well as eating disorders and immune deficiencies. A constant state of emotional tension on top of increased cortisol and adrenaline levels overload the nervous system. As a result, attention span and critical thinking are reduced. However, there are certain situations, in which a short-term outburst of stress hormones can serve well.
We have previously covered the stimulating influence of hormesis and such factors as physical activity and contrast showers. Today, we will address the beneficial psychological aspects of stress, for they do exist.
1/ Stress motivates
Had students not experienced any pre-exam stress, they would not have the motivation to diligently prepare for it. Professionally, moderate stress is also truly beneficial for productivity. Having deadlines helps set priorities and take responsibility. The carrot and stick approach doesn’t work with carrots alone.
A crucial “but” here is that stress only offers stimulation up to a certain point. On the contrary, overwhelming emotions, which cannot be subjected to conscious control, demotivate and overload our nervous system. This effect has been described back in 1908 by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John D. Dodson. They discovered that the best results are achieved at medium motivation levels. There is a threshold to stress, a turning point, after which its increase only leads to burnout, rather than increased productivity.
Many would have first-hand experience of this: some anxiety ahead of a demanding task stimulates, helps pull yourself together and focus on the goal. Meanwhile, an inexplicable fear of failure is only detrimental to getting the job done.
Therefore, it is necessary to learn to accept some amounts of stress as an inseparable element of work and channel it into productivity, rather than attempt to eradicate it at all cost. It is very naïve to expect professional and personal growth (more on this below) without leaving one’s comfort zone. A full denial of the so-called safe space, where energy can be replenished, risks causing chronic stress. A middle ground is always best.
2/ Stress builds character
“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” was the phrase Nietzsche used to describe the terrible migraines that tormented him his entire life. Little did he know, that, with time, researchers would discover scientific evidence to back his words. It has become apparent that stress enhances the brain’s neuroplasticity and stimulates the formation of new neural connections, which improves our ability to learn. Personal growth is impossible in an atmosphere of total safety and comfort, without having to overcome challenges.
According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “people don’t experience joy from a feeling of control but rather from having a sense that they are capable of overcoming difficult situations.” It is virtually impossible to get a sense of this experience without having to abandon life’s organised daily routine for a period of time. A conscious risk develops thicker skin, shapes mental resilience and confidence. Washington University’s Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, Peter Vitaliano says that in overcoming stress, a person feels less dependent on external circumstances and takes control of their circumstances into their own hands.
Only when coming face to face with fear, can we overcome it. Only by making an effort, can we achieve something worthwhile. In seeking to avoid stress at all cost, we risk missing something truly valuable. That what develops us, provides life experience and ultimately helps us to achieve more. Nietzsche was right therefore in that stress does make us stronger in a way. It is exactly this experience of overcoming difficulties that shapes resilience, strength of character and belief in oneself.
3/ Stress unites
Even more substantial stress, caused by such negative factors as a romantic break-up, job loss or illness, can have an important positive impact, which is rarely considered. The truth of the matter is that by living through hardships, people become kinder.
Subconsciously we feel the need to share our hurt with loved ones, which in turn makes our relationships grow stronger. Having overcome hardships, we are ready to express empathy in a more selfless way further down the line and care for other people, when they are in need. For we know from experience, what that is like.
This can be explained biologically via the fact that in stressful situations we not only produce cortisol but also oxytocin, an attachment hormone. A healthy reaction to stress is a desire to share one’s emotions with others, rather than keep them to yourself.
Yet, typically we are afraid to talk about our problems because of our conviction that people who wear they heart on their sleeve suffer more, become more vulnerable and helpless. This is a myth that psychologists have been tirelessly trying to debunk. In truth, by opening up to another person, we bear stress more effortlessly, than in total solitude. Many of our friend and family relationships would not have been as strong, had they been built exclusively on positive emotions.
Stress is useful, if you think so
Stanford University Professor and author of “The Upside of Stress”, Kelly McGonigal is convinced that the way we think about stress has more significance for our body than the stress itself. By changing our attitude from taking our negative emotions as entirely malicious and the cause of all evil, their destructive influence is brought to a minimum.
This is not just words, but a scientifically validated fact. As part of a case study carried out by Harvard University, one group was told ahead of completing a test that fastened heartrate and increased sweat production were a positive sign, the other – that it implied a reduction in productivity. The level of resilience to stress turned out to be much higher for the first group. “Fastened breathing? Great, that means I’m pumping more oxygen into my brain. Racing heart rate? My body must be full of energy.” With such reasoning, case study participants were less nervous in carrying out their tasks and were more confident.
The way we think about stress has more significance for our body than the stress itself.
“Stress exists where we experience it within ourselves,” writes Csikszentmihalyi. What one person interprets as highly demanding, becomes an engaging challenge for another. Events are neither positive nor negative in themselves. Rather, it is the qualities we attribute to them. Therefore, it is important to learn to perceive stress, rather than to try to avoid it altogether.
Rather than suppressing negative emotions caused by one or the other unpleasant occasion, it is best to think about how these situations may have enriched your experience, what you have gained from them. Life without stress is impossible but through conscious work we can make it our ally, rather than foe.