Posted by: Thixia | June 29, 2008

Stress 3 of 9

Is Stress a Friend or Foe? 

You know the feeling.  You’re driving along the highway minding your own business, listening to music and looking aimlessly at the scenery around you.  Suddenly, in your rearview mirror, you see a police car coming up behind you, its red light flashing.

You look down at the speedometer and realize that you’re going 20 clicks above the speed limit.  Instantly, your heart starts pounding, your muscles tense, your hands squeeze the wheel, your breathing gets faster, your senses heighten and your mind becomes instantly alert (possibly to calculate the fine and demerit points awaiting you?).  Other silent changes occur as well: rise in blood pressure, increase in blood sugar and fats, etc.) Welcome to the world of stress reactions!

But then something unexpected happens.  As you slow down, the cruiser catches up to you, pulls out into the passing lane and flies on by.  You realize that he wasn’t chasing you after all.  With a great sense of relief, you notice the stress reaction melting away over the next minute or two and you slowly return to the relaxed state you were in before (well, almost…).

We have all had experiences – triggered by any number of situations – where our bodies go into a temporary state of “high alert”.  This is what the stress reaction was meant to do; turn on for short periods of time in situations of real or anticipated danger, and then turn off when the danger has passed.

Unfortunately in today’s world that is not what happens.  Our stress reactions are activated far too often and by situations that are not physically dangerous or life threatening: rush hour traffic, rude customers, being put on hold, computers that misbehave just when you’re almost finished a document.

We also react to ongoing situations: heavy workloads, deadlines, job insecurity, money worries and relationship problems.  The result is that we switch on our stress reactions much more often and for much longer periods of time than nature originally intended.  The resulting wear and tear on our bodies is not only unpleasant, but also unhealthy.

We inherited the stress reaction from our caveman ancestors and, because of its protective nature, it was passed down genetically through the millennia (Darwinism in action).  Think of a caveman confronting a wild animal or a warring tribesman and you understand why the stress reaction was so vital to survival.  In an instant, our forebear had to mobilize enough energy to either fight or run away from the threat to his physical safety.  This is the classic “fight or flight response,” mediated by adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones, that allowed our predecessor to either defend himself or flee.

This is the same reaction we experience today – and while it is crucial in a real crisis, it is inappropriate for our day-to-day lives.  Not only are most of our stressors not life-threatening, but fighting and running away are not exactly acceptable responses to most stressors.  If someone is chasing you down a dark alley, the stress reaction can be lifesaving.  But, when the stress comes from an angry boss or a long line at the bank, hitting your boss or running down the street at high speed would hardly be helpful.

Dr.  Hans Selye defined stress as, “the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it.” The demand can be a threat, a challenge or any kind of change that requires the body to adapt.

The first important thing to note is that the stress reaction is in your body, not in the situation.  Stress is not your two-year-old who won’t go to bed, nor the person who just scooped your parking space.  The stress reaction is what happens in your body in response to those situations.

Secondly, the stress reaction is neither good nor bad in itself.  It depends on the circumstances.  Hans Selye had different words for these.  He called good stress, “eustress” (from the Greek root, “eu” which means “well” – the same root as in the word, “euphoria.”).  Stress is good when it protects us in times of danger or helps us to adapt in times of change.  It is inevitable and necessary to survival.  But it serves us in other ways.  It is the good stress that helps us study for exams or work toward a deadline.  It’s what athletes rely on to perform well in competition and what helps actors to give a brilliant performance on stage.  It motivates and stimulates us in our work, allowing us to be productive and creative.

Stress becomes a problem (“bad stress”), when there is too much, when it lasts too long, or when it comes too often.  This is when stress starts to create unpleasant symptoms and eventual damage to the body.  Hans Selye called this “distress.” Technically, when we speak about negative stress, we should use the word, distress, but people generally understand “stress” to be bad stress.

So, is stress a friend or a foe?  It can be either, depending on the situation.  We need to learn how to decrease the negative stress while still maintaining the positive effects.  I call this balancing act “Stress Mastery” and we can all learn to do it better.


Compliments of and written by:


Dr. David Posen


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