Go find trouble. Do something dangerous.
Expose yourself to real stress. Toughen up. Be a man. If there ever was unsound advice, this would be it. Advice born from ignorance, being irresponsible or from sheer callousness. We know chronic stress has been proven to kill. And if it doesn’t kill, it will at least lead to ill health
Unremitting stress leads to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension and major depression. And, if you follow my poor advice to pursue an extreme sport to put excitement back into your life, be at risk of breaking your neck if you escape with your life.
Therefore, logic dictates, AVOID STRESS AT ALL COST!
Perhaps that is not the entire picture. There is a new narrative.
But let’s clarify what we’re talking about. What is stress and what does it do to us? Stress exists in any situation that tax or exceed our ability to adapt to external (environmental) or internal demands, or both. Our bodies are designed that, in any given emergency situation, (acute stress), the so- called “fight-or-flight” response instantaneously kicks in. Yes, that sudden rush we feel, that acute reflex-reaction is actually good and often saves our lives.
This all happens because of our HPA-axis that is activated. (The hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis.) As adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into our circulation, we are often aware of our heart pounding, our breathing becoming rapid, sweat breaking out on our palms and foreheads, and if we don’t get control over the situation, it may cloud our decision-making abilities, because of cortisol’s effect on our brain.
As it turns out, those short-lived, acute responses to stressful situations are beneficial. It is the long-term, prolonged, and unremitting stress, that takes it toll on our bodies’ health. It has adverse psychological and physical effects and increases our risk of premature death. Not only that but the way we think about its effect on us (how we perceive it to affect us), can have further grave impact on our wellbeing.
According to a growing number of studies, stress can only really hurt you if you believe it can. What? Serious? A study published by Whitney P. Witt found that individuals who perceived (believed) that stress affects their health in a negative way, and reported a large amount of stress in their lives, had a 43% increased risk of premature death.
No, they didn’t make this up. The society we live in today bombards us from all corners with stressful situations—it has “pervaded our society.” It’s like an infestation. Close to 30% of Americans rate their daily stress levels as an eight to a nine out of 10. We live under a “great deal of stress”—be it work, family, finances, socially, physical safety or political and global uncertainty. What they found in their study was that the perception that stress affects health negatively acted synergistically with high reported stress exposure.
Although the study by Witt and colleagues, couldn’t establish a causal relationship, the results highlight the need for further research into the relationship between the perception that stress affects current health negatively, and mental health and mortality.
A similar study in 2013, a year later, confirmed these findings. It focused more specific on the perceived impact of stress on health and the incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD). More than 7,000 participants were followed over a period of 18 years. What the study demonstrated was that the “perception of stress impact on their health,” could predict the incidence of CHD, independent of “perceived stress levels.” Meaning, individuals who believed the stress they were experiencing was harming them, was an independent factor contributing to their heart disease, independent of the actual stress they were exposed to. This becomes important because of the great variation between individuals in their response to the same level of stress (for e.g. work-related stress.)
More recent studies have pointed toward the role of the immune system in vulnerability to stress-related disease. A high percentage of individuals suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD) also suffer from chronic inflammatory disease. What was first: the chicken or the egg? A growing body of evidence implicates modulating the immune system, in stress resilience and coping. Peripheral and central immune cells (monocytes), pro-inflammatory cytokines, microglial activation and the HPA-axis are activated.
These findings have opened up possibilities for developing new classes of pharmaceuticals, different from the traditional anti-depressant drugs we know. Immune modulators (exogenous glycocorticoids) and antibodies against cytokines, may decrease depressive symptoms.
So much for new frontiers for big pharma. It will serve us well to realize that these immune processes can also be modulated through, (i) what we eat, (ii) how fit we keep our bodies and, (iii) through choices we make, techniques we learn to help us cope better with chronic and acute stress on a daily basis.
It’s time to rethink what we believe and know about stress and what it does to us. And, perhaps more important, what we do about stress.
“Stress is not a sign you can’t handle it,” according to Kelly McGonical, psychologist, and lecturer at Stanford University. There is an upside to stress. It can be good for you, well, until it’s not. We not only interact with stress every single day, but if we become more aware of it, and learn how to use it to our advantage, it may become a tool in our armamentarium. It may even make us smarter, stronger and happier according to McGonical.
That is if we can learn how to embrace it. What we do about chronic stress, to a large extent is a choice.
Steps to reduce the negative impact of chronic stress. How to “embrace” it:
- Once we become aware of stress in our lives, we should do three things, according to McGonical:
- Acknowledge the stress
- Don’t fight its presence—you’re facing something you care about
- Use the adrenaline that’s pumping through your system to your advantage—use that surge of energy to tackle the thing that is causing you stress.
- Believe (realize and understand), stress will not harm you, because we can master, and reverse its negative effect on us.
- Get help. Psychotherapy can become an effective tool. But remember, the problem is not only “you.” A toxic workplace or a toxic relationship can and does harm your health. Yes, you have to change, but sometimes the healthiest (best) option is to change workplace or terminate the relationship. This is never the first option, though.
- Regular exercise. Medications work only so far and so much (and all have side effects.) Regular physical activity (aerobic especially, but also resistance training) will benefit your coping mechanisms. It increases grow factors in your brain which enhance neuroplasticity—forming new synapsises that help us utilize vast potentials of our minds and brains. Exercise lifts our mood and is an effective anti-depressant and anti-anxiety. The only side effect of moderate to intense, regular exercise: you feel better, and more in control!
- Social support. Similar to toxic relationships that harm us, true loyal friends, that “lift up,” are invaluable. Surround yourself with positive people. Learn to see the possibilities in every day. Learn to be a positive and supportive friend yourself. Encourage, listen, accept, care, challenge. That is what friends do. Get out—every day. Don’t isolate yourself. Volunteer. Join a gym. Join a book club. Join a faith community. Sing in a choir.
- Read wider and beyond what you find on Google and Facebook. The latter is all fine but read good old books (or eBooks.) Nonfiction especially can help you broaden your perspectives and teach you coping mechanisms.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. Get enough shut-eye. You need between 6 – 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night. (Ideally 7-8 hours.) It will actually make you more effective, at work and in your private life. Cheat on it, and you cheat yourself. Remember, less than 6, and more than 9 hours of sleep, are both less beneficial.
- Meditation and prayer. Try it, it works. It can and will help us break spirals of negative introspection and hopelessness, which only paralyzes us, making us unable to cope.
You can listen to Kelly McGonical’s TED talk, here.
Perhaps it is not necessary to go find trouble and seek danger in order for us to toughen up, to become real men and women. Acute, short-term stress is normal and a life saver. It’s the prolonged, chronic stress that can harm us. Especially if we believe so and allow it to.
Channel the “fight-or-flight” response’s energy and learn how to apply it to life’s daily challenges, then soar, instead of drilling into a dark and hopeless pit.
The choice, to a large extent, is ours.
Let’s go embrace stress in a positive way!
- Menard et al. Immune and Neuroendocrine Mechanisms of Stress Vulnerability and Resilience. 2016, June 13. Doi: 10.1038/npp.2016.90
- Kelly McGonical TED talk. Make Stress your friend.
- Daniel Levitin: TED talk. How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed.
- Vivian Giang.
- Keller A et al. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychol. 2012 Sep; 31(5): 617-684.
- Nabi H. et al. Increased risk of coronary heart disease among individuals reporting adverse impact of stress on their health: the Whitehall II prospective cohort study. Eur Heart Journal 2013 Sep7; 34(34): 2697-2705
- Jaime Tartar. TED talk. The Inspiring Brain.