Stress: Can It Be Good For You?

Photo by Tim Gouw.

Have you ever had butterflies in your stomach before a first date or sweaty palms during an interview? Felt a little unnerved at the thought of someone unexpectedly popping by while the house is a mess? 

Chances are, you’ve probably felt just a bit stressed out. Whether it’s triggered by daily responsibilities such as school, family and work, or caused by dramatic changes such as major illness, job loss or death of a loved one; To one degree or another everyone experiences stress. And while associating symptoms of stress such as muscle tension, restlessness, stomach upset and fatigue with feeling healthy might seem like an oxymoron, just the right amount of stress can be healthy. 

But what is stress, and how is it healthy?

Stress is our biological survival response that when prompted by life-threatening situations or the perception of a threat, releases hormones that tell our bodies it is time to fight through it or flee from it. Whether it is physical, psychological or simply imagined, it elicits the same biological response, but only if we perceive the scenario in front of us as a threat. 

When we perceive a threat such as an abnormal noise or shadow at night, this instructs the adrenal glands to release a stress hormone called epinephrine, or adrenaline. Epinephrine dilates the bronchial tubes, the blood vessels leaving the heart, and boosts our heart rate. This creates higher oxygen levels in our blood, sending it to where it is needed most – our brain and muscles, physically preparing us to fight or flee. 

The nerve endings in the sympathetic nervous system also kick into high gear, sending the hormone norepinephrine out to constrict both the blood vessels leading into the heart and arteries that lead to our skin. 

Think about it like a preservation mechanism; in the event we sustain injury from the scenario that triggered this response, to preserve life, epinephrine will cause any bleeding to be slowed. Though our biological response is triggered by anything we perceive as a threat, an article from The American Institute of Stress titled “42 Worrying Workplace Stress Statistics” cites research from Everyday Health’s project “United States of Health,” claiming that “57% of those who experience stress are paralyzed by it. On the other hand, the other 43% stated that stress invigorates them.”

While individual responses to stress vary greatly, for some, stress can be motivational, helping us to achieve goals and go beyond our comfort zone. It regulates our flight or fight response, and according to the article “The Surprising Benefits of Stress” in which Peter Jaret interviews Daniela Kaufer, an associate professor at UC Berkeley who studies the biology of stress at the molecular level, Kaufer says “moderate amounts of stress have powerful benefits.” 

Kaufer’s research has shown that stress, under certain circumstances, can even stimulate brain cell growth in the hippocampus. She claims that “manageable stress increases alertness and performance. And, by encouraging the growth of stem cells that become brain cells, stress improves memory.” 

Considering that stress is a biological response to a scenario in which we perceive a threat, this makes sense. If you unexpectedly experience or are faced with something difficult or hostile, it’s crucial to remember what, where, and why so we can attempt to avoid similar circumstances.

In the Psychology Today article “The Perfect Amount of Stress” author Thea Singer calls stress “a wellspring of life” saying “without stress, we’d be as good as dead. We wouldn’t have the gumption to slalom down Whistler’s mountains to Olympic gold, to play Juliet or Romeo, to ask the boss for a raise, or even to get out of bed.” 

And she’s right; regardless of our biological response, it’s our sense of control over the situation that defines this as “good stress.” Singer explains “no matter how your body may respond in the moment, you know you’re going to come out fine on the other side – and perhaps even better for the experience.” 

There are factors other than our sense of control that determine why, when faced with the same situation, one person may feel challenged and motivated by the stress, and another may feel hindered and crippled by it. According to Kaufer “people who feel resilient and confident that they can manage stress are much more likely to be overwhelmed by it – and more likely to have a healthy response – than people who think of stress as bad” This sense of control and confidence that both Kaufer and Singer mention defines how we instinctively cope with stress; It is dependent on innate personality traits such as optimism and pessimism.

Our early life experiences may also shape our response to stress and determine how vulnerable we are to its harmful effects. 

Research on Holocaust survivors done by Rachel Yehuda, a scientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New York, shows that not only do Holocaust Survivors have increased levels of stress hormones, but that their offspring, who have had not experienced significant trauma, do as well. 

This consistent perception of threat can not only be a lifestyle hindrance; It can be damaging to your health, causing you to become physically and mentally ill. If our perception of stress is based on circumstances beyond our control such as innate personality traits and genetic experience, how do we cope?

If you’re among those who are not able to brush off that frazzled feeling of stress with an optimistic shrug, you know that changing your perception of stress isn’t as easy as it sounds. 

But the good news is that there are a few easy ways to minimize the effects of stress. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “feeling emotional and nervous or having trouble sleeping and eating can all be normal reactions to stress.” They also list a variety of healthy ways to deal with these reactions such as a healthy diet, regular exercise and activity, ensuring a full night’s sleep and finally “giving yourself a break if you feel stressed out.” 

Because really, while waking up every morning feeling resilient and full of self-confidence sounds like a dream, we still all do experience stress at some point or another.