The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Spa-goers cite reducing stress as the number one reason they go to spas, according to research from the International Spa Association. Seems like everyone these days is in a constant state of excess stress, and we are all looking for relief. But get rid of too much stress, and we can find ourselves on the other end of the spectrum: bored, unchallenged, and unfulfilled.
As hard as it may be to believe, there is such a thing as good stress. Stress is the great motivator that pushes us to learn, adapt, and grow. Most of the advancements ever made in our civilization can be linked in some way to stress as a primary motivator. To avoid the stress of the elements we developed comfortable clothing and climate-controlled environments, allowing us to live pleasantly in any season or locale. To avoid the stress of conflict with nature and with others we developed complex societies, with structures and systems to protect us from harm. To avoid the stress of wanting, we developed systems of wealth, and we strive every day for a better life. If we did not feel stress, we would contentedly lie about while we froze, starved to death, or were killed by someone or something else. The point is: stress has a purpose.
When we are confronted with a challenge or danger, our bodies activate a stress response to prepare us to handle the problem we are confronting. Energy is rapidly mobilized within the body, preparing the muscles to be used for fight or flight. Other long-term uses of energy are curtailed, such as tissue repair, sex drive, ovulation, etc. The immunity system, which is normally focused on protecting us from long-term health threats, is also inhibited so that the body’s energy can focus on the challenges at hand. Pain becomes dulled, so the mind and body can withstand any trauma that occurs during the stressful encounter. And cognitive functions sharpen and narrow so we can maximize our ability to resolve the immediate problem before us.
Stress as a response to physical challenges is efficient from an evolutionary standpoint. When our ancestors were attacked in the wild, their stress levels would rise, which helped them to overcome their aggressor. Stress levels among ancient tribes forced them to relocate when drought conditions left their soil unsuitable for agriculture. But most humans in the modern world experience a great deal of stress in spite of the fact that we do not live under constant fear of predators, drought, or plague. The stress that most of us experience today is “psychosocial.” It has less to do with a fear of physical threats or scarcities, and much more to do with our own emotional reactions to the relationships and experiences we have. Today, we experience stress while making big life-changing decisions, jockeying for position in our careers, or resolving differences with those closest to us. Challenges in our relationships (both real and imagined) test our stress response on a regular basis.
Typically, it is not even the situation itself, but how we react emotionally to it that puts us into a stressful state. Unlike other animals, the challenge with humans is we have a hard time “letting go.” We hold onto stress, ruminating on problems long after they are over, and anticipating problems that we haven’t even confronted yet. Good stress goes bad when it becomes so severe that it overloads our bodies’ abilities to adapt to it, or it becomes a chronic state that the body never has a chance to recover from.
If you find yourself slipping into the bad side of stress, consider these ideas to maintain balance:
Physical exercise. The best example of “good stress” is a good hard bout of physical activity. Physiologically, exercise counteracts the harmful effects of excess stress, and psychologically, it gives us a greater sense of control and confidence to handle the challenges before us.
Relationships. The stress response not only releases hormones that help us to fight or flee, it also releases hormones that help us to “tend and befriend.” In times of excess stress, come together with the people around you. Social support, family and friendships, and human touch all help to alleviate the stress response.
Don’t stress about stress. Remember, some stress is good. Don’t let your emotional reactions magnify it. Embrace the challenges that come your way, recognizing that they ultimately will make you stronger and smarter.
Our happiest moments do not come from being stress-free. They come when we feel challenged and stimulated and are pushed to learn and grow. Feeling under a lot of stress lately? Good. Use it . . . and then let it go.