So, you’re feeling stressed. The good news is that it’s completely normal. Arguably too normal? Based on a survey distributed in 2017, around 45% of Americans frequently experience symptoms of stress, with another 35% reporting occasional symptoms. Those are some scary percentages if your understanding of stress is entirely negative. But is there a silver lining to those statistics?
Stress often has a bleak connotation to it, and that’s pretty valid: the symptoms of prolonged anxiety can feel incredibly uncomfortable, and there are a number of mental and medical disorders related to or outrightly caused by stress. But we’re not going to focus on those much today. Today, we are exploring the more positive side of stress, the side that’s entirely natural and can actually be harnessed for good!
So, don’t stress– or maybe do? — because this is a comprehensive breakdown of why we feel it, how to deal with it, and how it can actually be a good thing.
Stress is your body’s way of interpreting and responding to your surroundings, especially when they seem dangerous. The perceived danger can be physical, like seeing an angry dog charge towards you, but it doesn’t have to be. Being nervous for a big exam, mentally preparing for a breakup, or jumping through hoops to impress your boss are all reactions to perceived dangers: failure, loneliness, lack of money, etc. And believe it or not, that discomfort is one of the most essential things that our brains need to do.
When your brain feels that there might be a potential threat to your safety (physical or otherwise), it will trigger a series of networks that will help you either avoid the threat or confront it. This is called your “fight or flight” response.
Here’s how it works:
- Your brain takes in information from your senses that may indicate danger (the dog, the approaching exam, etc.)
- Your brain’s “fear center”, the amygdala, triggers your central stress response system: your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal cortex. (Among other things, these parts of the brain are responsible for creating and emitting hormones.)
- Your central stress response system releases cortisol, a hormone that causes the signature symptoms of stress (beating heart, sweaty palms, increased blood flow, etc.).
- Your glucose levels and heart rate increase as your brain sends more oxygenated blood around your body. The burst of activity awakens your nervous system, making you feel more alert.
Your body has now braced itself for whatever challenge it perceives– it’ll try to fight it off if it thinks it can, or it’ll be prepared to run away. Stress is the feeling that you get when you feel your body kick into that fight-or-flight mode, and as uncomfortable as it can be sometimes, it may just save your life!
There are two sides to every coin, and stress is no exception. That feeling you get that makes you want to pull out your hair can actually be incredibly helpful when it’s used in the right capacity! This is known pretty simply as “positive stress”.
When we are under the effects of positive stress, we are more likely to:
- Have Advanced Bodily Control: The body is known to occasionally have a mind of its own when placed under intense pressure. It’s how tightrope-walkers can remain so focused, and why feats like lifting a car to save a child are suddenly possible!
- Make More Accurate Decisions: As most test-taking experts will tell you, going with your first choice in a multiple-choice exam will often get you a higher score than if you were to keep reevaluating your options. Feeling the heat will cause your instincts to kick in, and your instincts will often be correct!
- Produce Higher-Quality Work: Chronic procrastinators may tell you that they perform best when dangerously close to a deadline, and that’s likely to be 100% valid! The perception of impending doom (i.e. getting that essay done by tomorrow or else) sharpens mental processes and increases focus.
- Have Quicker Reflexes: If you want to test this one out, try playing dodgeball again. You may not be in gym class anymore, but once your body registers that large masses are flying towards you, you’ll feel that same rush to dodge and weave that you did as a kid. And it’s all to keep you safe!
- Recall Important Information: The sharpening effect of increased cortisol on the mind can help you out in sticky situations. Stress pushes unnecessary information out of your mind so you can focus on what you need– names, four-digit codes, when your anniversary is, etc.
- Discover Hidden Potential: Pressure to succeed may still be pressure, but it often prompts us to push our limits and discover just how much we can handle. And you may just find yourself doing your best work when you feel stressed to impress.
Acute vs. Prolonged Stress
Health is all about balance– counteract the negatives with the positives, and regulate the positives with the negatives. And as much as it can heighten our productivity, stress can be just as (if not more so) detrimental to our health as it is helpful.
The best way to determine if your stress is healthy or not is to determine if it is acute or prolonged. Ask yourself these questions:
- How frequently do I feel stressed out?
- How often do I experience stomach pain, headaches, loss of appetite, etc.?
- How frequently does my hair fall out?
- How often do I lose sleep because I feel anxious?
- How frequently do I have panic attacks? How long do they last?
If your answer to most of those questions is something along the lines of “not often” or “hardly ever”, then you likely experience acute stress. Acute stress occurs for a specific reason for a specific amount of time. The cause is easily identifiable most of the time and is known to occur after traumatic, unexpected experiences; this can be anything from a pop quiz to sudden death in the family.
However, if your answers lean more towards the “frequently” or “almost always” range, then you may suffer from prolonged stress. Prolonged stress is, well, prolonged. It occurs over a much longer period of time, and the reactions don’t always have a rational cause. An overworked central stress response system is often to blame, and it is frequently linked with depression, anxiety disorders, cardiovascular diseases, and other harmful conditions.
While both can be harmful to your health, mild episodes of acute stress (i.e. periods of intense nervousness rather than panic attacks) can be turned around for the better. Acute stress leads us to have those late-night writing binges and early-morning study sessions that can save our butts at the end of the day. And once we’ve identified that our stress levels are not becoming a health problem, we can lean into them to fuel our productivity.
To see cool ways to harness your stress, check out Dr. Ian Robinson’s take here (he’s a neuropsychologist and co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute).
Stress is healthy. It’s a signal that your mind and body are working together to keep you going through challenging times. And if you ever encounter a wild boar, you’re more likely to outrun it when your amygdala is doing its job. It’s when that stress becomes inhibitory that it becomes a problem.
Acknowledging that stress can be a positive thing that may help you better cope with its more negative side effects. And if you don’t want to experience those symptoms, there are plenty of fun, healthy ways to combat and prevent them. Refocus your attention on harnessing that energy and using it to propel yourself forward.
In the meantime, if you feel you are succumbing to the harmful side effects of anxiety or nervousness, do not hesitate to reach out to a medical professional. There are people ready and willing to assist you with lowering your stress level. Prioritize your safety, and educate yourself on how to combat stress-induced ailments.
Stay happy and healthy, and lean into that positive stress!