Although stress has a pretty bad reputation- often touted as a major compounding factor for many diseases- some stress is actually good for you. But when? At what point does it become bad and how can you avoid this from happening?
Stress is pretty unavoidable- it’s a natural part of the human condition and being alive. However, rather than being categorically negative, both studies and life anecdotes show that it can actually be a good thing. Known as ‘eustress’ on these occasions- stress can be a huge motivator towards making things happen. Whether it comes by virtue of a deadline on an assignment or project, or a feeling of discomfort in a situation causing you to change things for the better, there’s no denying its motivational benefits.
These responses are all adaptations of our evolutionary enabled ‘fight-or-flight’ response. As a biological function, stress happens when cortisol and adrenaline are released from the adrenal glands, located just above the kidneys. While adrenaline increases one’s heart rate, elevates blood pressure and increases energy levels, cortisol, known as the primary stress hormone, increases blood sugar levels and the brain’s use of glucose, as well as the availability of substances throughout the body needed to repair damaged tissues.
All of this gives the body that extra energy push to do what otherwise would be difficult, or even impossible- from running away from the rabid bear in the forest to writing your thesis in 3 days and handing it in with three seconds to spare.
The problem with the stress response though, is when it isn't temporary. Known as chronic stress, it is at this point that it starts to take a negative hit on your physiology. While temporary spikes in cortisol may enable you to make a quick getaway from a madman wielding an axe, heightened cortisol levels also curb nonessential mechanisms for a fight-or-flight situation. These include the immune system, the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes, as well as the brain regions responsible for motivation, mood and fear.
Although non-problematic when temporary, imagine what happens when and if this response gets out of hand, and is constantly switched on. At this point, risk factors for conditions like heart disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, Alzheimer’s disease, accelerated aging and premature death rise dramatically.
So how can you avoid chronic stress and ensure you are able to control your stress levels, rather than let them control you?
Of course, recognizing and then eliminating stressful factors is one way, however, also reframing how you deal with them may also go a long way to helping navigate those stressful faucets of life that can’t simply be shooed away. To this end, several studies have found that meditation and mindfulness training may help not only to relieve stress- but many of its negative byproducts too including anxiety, phobias and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.