Why We Need Stress… In Moderation

By Jordan Pennells

Originally posted on LifeApps

COVID-19 Foreword

When writing this article, I was hoping to convey how stress is an essential aspect of life when experienced in moderation, especially in the contexts of productivity, exercise and the immune system. But I’ve also realized how relevant this idea is to the global health crisis that we are all currently facing in one form or another. Many of us are feeling stressed – justifiably so considering the sheer magnitude of the challenge in front of us. But that doesn’t mean stress won’t play an important role in our response to COVID-19.

Without the stress of a potential catastrophe, we wouldn’t feel the motivation to abandon our regular everyday lives in place of social distancing measures that can slow the spread of this virus (which can have significant social, economic and personal costs for some people). Without stress, we wouldn’t respond appropriately!

Although, this isn’t to say that maxing out our stress levels by inundating ourselves with news and social media coverage is a healthy or effective way of dealing with this crisis. Past a certain point, stress can overwhelm our mental health, and can even have lasting impacts on sperm health and brain development of our future children (Chan et al., 2020). With too much stress, reasonable behaviour can go out of the window – cue panic buying at supermarkets!

The key is to find a healthy balance between these two extremes; between a lack of caring and lack of awareness that lead to not following public health guidelines, and a level of stress-induced hysteria or fatalistic apathy that can lead to irrational behaviour. Hopefully we can see that a healthy level of stress is an important aspect of life, and that it can help us here in navigating the challenging situation we find ourselves in as a global population!

Need help handling today’s stress in a way that makes you stronger, and doesn’t over-burden you? Download the LIFE Extend app for help with stress-busting activities like exercise, eating healthier, sleeping longer and better, meditating and intermittent fasting.

Also turn to your friends, family and other app users online to get social support on your journey. Need more help? Turn to a mental health professional or chat with our meditation experts – access meditation coaches in the Connect pop-up on our mindfulness FAQ page here.

Why we need stress… In moderation

We have a complex relationship with stress. The same love-hate relationship we might have shared with a sibling growing up – they would drive you crazy, but you couldn’t live without them.

The trick is managing this kind of relationship with the care that it deserves. When your sibling stresses you out too much, the best response you can take is to step away from the conflict and find some personal space.

And it’s the same when it comes to stress itself – step away from the source of stress and into your personal space, whether that’s stepping out into nature, or finding space within your mind (cultivated through meditation).

Reframing Stress

It has been scientifically proven that nature and meditation can reduce “stress”. But this fact doesn’t inform us at all about the nature of stress itself. It doesn’t help us understand how to frame stress as an unavoidable experience of life, as opposed to treating its symptoms like an incalculable disorder.

The focus of this article is exactly that – a more focused, higher resolution understanding of the complexities of stress:

  • Its necessity in the origins and evolution of life;
  • Its role in the development of our adult lives; and
  • Its potential to promote growth – both in the physical sense through exercise, and psychological strength, as well as the implications of its over-abundance.

Don’t stress… but the reality is that stress is a fundamental law of nature! It is the simple yet multi-faceted consequence of a population of living beings residing in an environment with limited resources – which is all environments!

Competition itself is a rudimentary form of stress; this is the principle that all of life is dependent on and flourishes from. Natural selection has encoded all life on Earth within the tumultuous battlefield of competition and stress!

Now, this may paint a depressing picture of reality, especially when we consider the mountains of scientific research on the impacts of stress on our health…

Popular results from a Google Scholar search on stress

But, identifying this biological pattern allows for the emergence of an insight. Within the core of struggle and stress, there is an opportunity. An opportunity to overcome the challenge of stress, and succeed, making your psychological self stronger.

Good Stress – Resilience 

Research published in 2017 summarized this idea.

“Strength through adversity: Moderate lifetime stress exposure is associated with psychological resilience in breast cancer survivors”. – Dooley et al. (2017)

The article begins with the same counter-intuitive claim that I’ve presented so far; that while scientists have largely focused their attention on the “toxic effects” of stress, there is mounting evidence that stress in moderate doses can promote psychological resilience in the face of life’s trials and tribulations – in the case of this study, surviving a breast cancer diagnosis for example (Dooley et al. 2017).

Stress isn’t simply a slippery slope towards pathology… Rather, stress is a staircase, with each stress exposure being a step that leads up to becoming a stronger psychological self!

“Dienstbier’s model of psychophysiological toughness posits that stress exposure can have a ‘toughening’ effect that improves coping with future stressors… practice dealing with challenging yet manageable stressors can provide an individual with opportunities to develop personal resources (e.g., adaptive coping strategies and a sense of mastery) that can then improve the person’s ability to cope with subsequent stressors” – Dienstbier, 1989; Dienstbier, 1992.

Good Stress – Productivity

Take productivity as another example – according to Blumenthal (2003), some degree of stress is necessary to achieve productivity.

“An inverted U-type curve has been used to depict the effect stress has on performance… As stress increases, so does the performance. However if stress continues to increase beyond an optimal point, performance will peak and start to decline… To achieve a peak of performance, stress should be managed effectively, with the negative effects of stress minimized.” – Blumenthal (2003)

The Inverted U chart for the effect of pressure on performance. Adapted from Yerkes & Dodson, 1908.

Almost 100 years after its initial description, this U-shaped principle was justified by a 2007 review article looking into the relationship between stress and performance. The authors found a similar relationship between the concentration of glucocorticoids – a family of stress hormones – in the blood, and memory and performance.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Yes, it is necessary to have some stress in our lives. But don’t get me wrong, there are some serious side-effects from overdosing on stress.

Subjective effects: Stress leads to anxiety, depression, frustration, fatigue and low self-esteem.

Behavioural effects: Stress leads to accident proneness, substance abuse, impaired speech, restlessness and forgetfulness.

Cognitive effects: Stress affects our thought process, leading to a difficulty or fear of making decisions, forgetfulness, hypersensitivity, mental blocks and difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly. This may be intensified by substance abuse.

Physiological responses, which begin in the brain and spread to organs throughout the body. Catecholamine from the adrenaline medulla causes the kidneys to raise blood pressure and the liver to release sugar into the blood stream. The pituitary gland then stimulates the release of corticosteroids, which help to resist stress but, if in the system for a prolonged period of time, suppress the immune system.

These responses are adaptive for dealing with stress in the form of the fight or flight response, but this response is rarely useful in our modern urban settings. Instead the accumulation of stress products in the body is immune-suppressive, playing a part in degenerative processes and disease (Ekundayo, 2014).

Effects on health: Prolonged exposure to stress has profound and detrimental effects on health. Among possible complications, stress may exacerbate or play a role in causing ailments like asthma, amenorrhea, coronary heart disease, chest pains, diarrhea, dyspepsia, headaches, migraines, diabetes mellitus, ulcers and decreased libido.

In a world where AIDS is frighteningly prevalent, people need to be aware that stress is can suppress the immune system and its ability to fight infection. HIV also breaks down a person’s immune system, which leaves them vulnerable to potentially fatal infections and diseases (Ekundayo, 2014).

Fight Bad Stress with Exercise

The necessity for stress in the context of exercise is one of the most well established scientific concepts, and one that is very important for our health. In fact, exercising is a moderate stressor that can help your body and mind fight stress from other causes, such as the psychological stress of social distancing in the current pandemic. Exercise (ie mild physical stress!) is so important to health that I’ve already written a whole article about it here!

TL;DR – the key message here is that, like trees that need to be stressed with wind to fortify the strength of their trunks, humans need exercise to strengthen our heart, muscles and mind! The lack of stress that the majority of us experience in this context – i.e. having abundant access to energy-dense food and living a sedentary lifestyle – is strongly linked to the rising tide of metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Finding Balance in Stress is Important for the Immune System

So far, in this article I’ve described in flowery, less scientific terms some of the ways in which stress is necessary for personal and physical development. We need to keep a balance, according to the Inverted U-shaped chart above – between too much and too little stress. Exposure to moderate stressors can lead to learning and development, while too much stress can hurt our health.

But these ideas are distinctively embodied in the very scientific realm of our immune system:

Balancing the Inverted U

With the presence of billions of bacterial and viral microbes all around and within us, as well as countless chemical toxins, our bodies have had to develop a strategy to deal with all these infections and irritants. The immune system fills this vital role. However, the main challenge of the immune system is establishing a balance between the two ends of the Inverted U: Too little reaction, which could allow pathogens to slip through the body’s defenses, and over-reaction, which could lead to chronic agitation (inflammation) to low level stressors (allergens), or autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s disease or Multiple Sclerosis.

Stress Exposure for Toughness

As mentioned earlier, Dienstbier’s model of psychological toughness describes the benefits of exposure to moderate stressors. This model is mirrored in the theory behind immunization – that exposure to deactivated forms of pathogens (i.e. the seasonal flu strain) teaches the body to recognize this pathogen and strengthens its defenses against it. Otherwise known as “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Read more about this concept in another previous blog post here.

Summary – An Opportunity

As I hope you now see, stress is inevitable. But it couldn’t be any other way. Our very existence is a result of millions of generations of our ancestors experiencing stress and succeeding. So instead of viewing stress as a burden, I hope this article can help you reframe stress as an opportunity of something to overcome, and strengthen yourself physically, psychologically, physiologically and professionally in response!

References 

  • Addai, E., Peace, K., Lord, A.E., Gyamfi, A. (2017). The Effect of Work Stress and Its Relationship with Employee Health at Sunyani West NHIS. Eur. J. Bus. Manag. 9, 151–165.
  • Blumenthal, I. (2003).  Employee Assistance Conference Programme. Services SETA. 2 (2). p5-21
  • Chan, J. C.,  Morgan, C. P., Leu, N. A., Shetty, A., Cisse, Y. M., Nugent, B. M., Morrison, K. E., Jašarević, E., Huang, W., Kanyuch, N., Rodgers, A. B., Bhanu, N. V., Berger, D. S., Garcia, B. A., Ament, S., Kane, M., Epperson, C. N., Bale, T. L. (2020) Reproductive tract extracellular vesicles are sufficient to transmit intergenerational stress and program neurodevelopmentNature Communications; 11 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-15305-w
  • Dooley, LN, Slavich, GM, Moreno, PI, Bower, JE. (2017) Strength through adversity: Moderate lifetime stress exposure is associated with psychological resilience in breast cancer survivors. Stress and Health; 33: 549– 557. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.2739
  • Dienstbier, R. A. (1989). Arousal and physiological toughness: Implications for mental and physical health. Psychological Review, 96(1), 84–100.
  • Dienstbier, R. A. (1992). Mutual impacts of toughening on crises and losses. In L. Montada, S.‐H. Filipp, & M. J. Lerner (Eds.), Life crises and experiences of loss in adulthood (pp. 367–384). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Lupien, S. J., Maheu, F., Tu, M., Fiocco, A., Schramek, T. E. (2007) Brain and Cognition, Vol.65(3), pp.209-237
  • Yerkes, R. M. and Dodson, J.D. (1908), The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit‐formation. J. Comp. Neurol. Psychol., 18: 459-482. doi:10.1002/cne.920180503

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