Perspectives on Stress: Is it all bad?

941737_598275593529458_351690808_n[The following is a guest post by Jeremy Peres. Jeremy is an Applied Biopsychology doctoral student at the University of New Orleans studying stress physiology and emotions. He is also Kathy and Seth’s nephew.]


Hello, SOS readers.  Thanks, Kathy, for giving me the opportunity to write this guest blog post.

I’m writing about something people experience on probably a daily or weekly basis throughout much of their lives: stress. It has shown itself to be a rather hot topic in mental health and medical research and clinical practice over the past 50+ years. From a biological perspective, stress responses (e.g., “fight or flight” responses) typically involve several changes within the body such as increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and the release of the hormone cortisol. The advantage of having such a response that maximizes strength, speed, and awareness is easy to understand when picturing, for example, a human fighting (or more likely running for his life from) a bear that he or she has come across in the forest.

From the psychological side, stress is typically equated with difficult situations that involve discomfort, negative emotions, and anxiety. This makes sense when applied to people in modern society because, though the same physical changes happen as in a fight or flight response, our stress usually does not come from this rare run-in with a bear in the wild that lasts just a few minutes. Rather, modern people experience stress when navigating long work hours, relationship conflicts, financial struggles, etc. and on top of that also experience that same stress just from worrying about work, relationships, finances, etc. even when they are not actually happening.

Rather than escape the bear and move on, our bear prefers to morph into these different modern stressors and follow us around for long periods. Research has shown that this chronic nature of our stress literally makes us sick by weakening our immune system and increases the chances of developing serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer. For a great popular book about this research, check out Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.

That’s a lot of bad news about stress. However, as early as the 1970’s, researchers differentiated between distress and eustress which implies a positive perception, such as in being motivated to complete a goal or enjoyable challenge. Regardless, this positive side of stress is often overlooked in large part. In my own reading and conference attendance over the past few years, stress is almost universally presented with a negative connotation, referring solely to the distress side of things. Sometimes research even seems to oversimplify these naturally occurring biological processes (e.g., elevated heart rate) by labeling larger stress responses as being “maladaptive” even if they are not necessarily longer. Additionally, there have been several programs and articles with the phrase “killer stress” (a quick google search shows several examples) in them that, while often showing some great research, tend to be a little overly dramatic and heavily skewed towards the negative.

It is not all bad news though. For one, there are many well-researched ways to reduce stress including meditation, deep-breathing, and relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation. Secondly, over the past year, I’ve been happy to come across a few different instances showing that there may be some resurgent interest in clarifying that stress is not always a bad thing. This makes me happy because I’m of the opinion that promoting the alarmist “killer stress” viewpoint might have a damaging effect. It not only oversimplifies the biological impact but also promotes an overly negative perspective of a process that is natural and arguably beneficial . . . as long as there is some opportunity for rest and relaxation in between periods of stress or challenge.

This great TED talk by Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal talks about how she has changed her mind about making stress the enemy. She cites research showing an association between people simply believing that stress is harmful for your health and increased mortality rates. She also cites research by Jeremy Jamieson and colleagues showing that a simple instruction to participants to reframe their body’s arousal during a stressful public speaking task (as being a beneficial and normal process) decreased negative emotions and increased cardiac efficiency. That is, people are better able to overcome the stressful task in a more positive way cognitively and physically. Another study from this group similarly showed that this simple reframing helps socially anxious participants show less anxiety and perform better during the public speaking task.

Another point that Jamieson made at the end of this Psychology Today article talks about the limitations of the typical stress-reduction approach: “Lots of the advice out there for anxious people focuses on promoting relaxation techniques (deep breathing, etc.). These calming techniques are helpful in situations that do not require peak performance, but when gearing up for a speaking engagement reframing how we think about stress may be a better strategy.” Much of this might seem like common sense to behavioral-health professionals, reframing anything in a positive way is good…so what?  I think the important thing here is to just remember that, in light of all the gloomy press that stress receives, there is also a brighter side. And that is important to remember.

In addition to the general point that stress isn’t always bad, I very much like this idea that reframing stress in a positive or adaptive way may be a better strategy for overcoming a challenge (when relaxing and decreasing your heart rate isn’t exactly helpful). I think this perspective might be particularly important in the coming years with the increasing popularity of health-tracking wearable devices such as the Jawbone UP and the Fitbit devices. These types of devices tend to track lots of interesting data about sleep patterns, diet, and “activity” (through movement and/or heart rate). Some devices are now even tracking heart rate, skin temperature, and perspiration, basically acting as simplified and portable biofeedback devices. With more people than ever potentially having access to information showing these markers of physiological stress, it might be more important than ever to educate people that stress is complicated and being “stressed” is not so bad as long as you make stress your friend and find some time to relax now and then.

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