A big deadline at work. A life-changing event. A public speaking engagement. The thousand daily tasks that never seem to get finished. All of these things cause stress. But what is the purpose of stress in our lives, and is there anything positive that comes from feeling stress?
What is stress?
Stress. We hear the word nearly every day and probably say it just as often. Phrases such as, “I’m stressed” or “That was stressful,” fly off the tongue, but what do they really mean?
Stress, a physical reaction, results from stressors—changes in your environment or threats to your well-being. These demands can be short-term, often called acute stress, or long-term. They can result from outside influences, such as work or home life, or physical conditions, such as a chronic pain, an illness, or hunger. People often think of stress in terms of negative events, but happy times can also cause stress.
For example, did you know marriage ranks higher than losing a job or experiencing the death of a close friend on a widely used stress scale? The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory ranks common life events in terms of stress. The greater number of events on the list a person experiences in any given year, the greater that person’s risk of a stress-induced health breakdown. Significant life events require adaptability, resilience, and coping skills—even if they’re positive.
What is the purpose of stress?
Stress is an evolutionary response.
When the body senses an event that requires an additional burst of instinctive action, adrenaline and cortisone flood the body in vastly increased quantities. Neurotransmitters also signal the brain to feel emotions such as fear. This fight-or-flight response can be helpful in times of immediate physical danger. In those cases, the body’s functioning returns to normal after the threat passes.
Out on the plains of Africa, this helped our earliest ancestors to avoid getting devoured by lions. On today’s city streets, it helps us leap quickly out of the way when a car swerves towards the curb. It sets our heart racing when a clap of thunder or a bolt of lightning hits a little too close.
Adrenaline increases the heart rate and gets the blood pumping. This rush of blood also delivers more oxygen to our organs, including our brain and our muscles, enabling them to work more quickly and effectively, decreasing reaction time. At the cellular level, the purpose of stress is a protective one, but it also helps us in other ways. When we are called to speak in public, adrenaline helps us think on our feet and come up with clever answers to unexpected questions.
Our bodies are designed to handle this sudden release of adrenaline and cortisone in response to emergency situations. However in the modern world, stress more frequently results from navigating office politics and family drama rather than confronting an angry black bear. These ongoing pressures result in a chronically stressed system on high alert for a black bear that never materializes.
Why is too much stress bad for our health?
Whether the stress is good stress like the kind you feel on a roller coaster or on your wedding day, or bad stress like the death of a loved one or too many commitments and not enough time, we are able to use this response to our advantage.
The problem with stress becomes when we are unable to turn off the response by moving away from the stressful situation. A toast at a wedding is a brief, stressful event, but what if you had to be in the front of the room, speaking to a crowd for weeks at a time? What happens if, after you turn the big project into your boss, she turns around and hands you another, equally large and equally stressful one?
The point of a reaction to stress is a quick burst of responsive energy, followed by a restful period of recovery. If we are unable to have that restful period, then stress becomes a negative thing, and the results can be chronic.
Symptoms of chronic stress
Physical symptoms of stress range widely from person to person, but may include:
- Cold or sweaty extremities
- Weight gain or loss
- Pain flare-ups
A chronically stressed system can result in a host of health issues including increased rates of:
- Chronic pain
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
When is stress good?
Keep in mind that not all stress is bad. Some stress can actually be healthy, improving brain performance and keeping people alert.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that acute stress—like a work deadline—can result in new nerve cell formation in the brain that can enhance performance. Stress can mean adventure and excitement, and without it, life would get boring. The problem is finding the balance between good stress and bad stress.
Unfortunately, much of that isn’t in any one person’s control.
How to reduce stress
Stress is a normal response to an intense situation, but chronic stress can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds. Here is how to reduce your stress levels.
Stop over scheduling
Pare your schedule down to a manageable size. Stop saying “yes” when you want to say “no!” Down time is essential to stress management.
This is probably the most recommended practice for stress management. Exercise regulates the stress hormone cortisol, improves insomnia, and helps alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes a day of moderate-intensity exercise such as walking, some types of yoga, or jogging. Consistency is more important than intensity, so break a sweat daily!
Clean up your diet
Stop overeating or overindulging in fatty, salty, or sweet snacks. Manage stress with a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables (including stress fighting leafy greens), seeds and nuts (like pumpkin seeds and almonds, both proven stress fighters), and lots of liquids.
Horticultural therapy is gaining acceptance as a practice for stress reduction, and it’s no wonder why. Numerous studies indicate the benefits of digging in the dirt, walking in the woods, or playing in the park.
Volunteers in one study reported that that felt more positive about their lives and less stressed after volunteering. Find a cause you believe in, and go help out. You will feel better!
Meditation has been shown to help with anxiety and depression as much as antidepressants. Spend 30 minutes a day breathing in and out in a quiet place and feel the stress melt away.
Spend time with your social network
Not online! Turn off the TV, put down the smartphone, and go meet a friend for coffee or a walk. People with strong ties in their community report less stress than those without them, so spend some time nurturing your relationships.
Take a moment every day to say thank you or to write down the things that are wonderful in your life. Sometimes we get so caught up in the whirlwind that we don’t stop to think of how good we really have it. Stop and make a note of the good things in your life.
Identify the source of your stress
Figure out what is causing the stress and either work to eliminate it or work to develop better techniques to deal with it.
Are you the cause of your stress? Are you keeping up with the Joneses? Are your expectations unrealistic? The only person you can really change is yourself. Change what you can, and let the rest go.
Bonus tip: Ask for help, and get some support. Maybe you have a particularly thorny problem that you just can’t work out by yourself, or maybe you need to talk to a professional. Smart people ask for help when they need it, either in person or online. Don’t be afraid to admit you need help. Sometimes just taking that first step itself can alleviate a lot of the stress!
Tell us: What stress management technique works best for your stress levels? To learn more about the purpose of stress and how it can impact your life, check out our post “Top 10 Most Stressful Life Events: The Holmes And Rahe Stress Scale.”