Stress: Friend or Foe?

“People are disturbed not by a thing, but by their perception of a thing.” — Epictetus

Happy Monday, Everyone!

Wait…I take that back… These days, the phrase “happy Monday” has become more of an oxymoron than a friendly greeting. So, as an ode to our stress evoking pal, Monday, this post is going to focus on different types of stress and its implications on our physical and mental health.

Many people often try to imagine what their lives would be like without stress. When we are laying in bed at night, we use up our valuable mental energy to question why certain things happened to us and worry about what is going to happen in the future. If you are like me and often find yourself wishing away all of your stress, it is time for some lifestyle changes.

When I was younger, my parents (who both happened to be psychology majors in college) always tried to remind me to live in the now. When they did this, I often found myself scoffing and wondering why they kept telling me to do this. In retrospect, this is a life skill I am happy to have today.

Stress is a widely complex and misunderstood construct. There are many disconnects between the lay person’s view of it and the scientific understanding of its function. Society often advertises only the negative cognitive and neurobiological aspects of stress. Don’t get me wrong, there are many detrimental aspects of chronic stress, but the universal negative outlook on acute, short term stressors is ultimately causing people to become more stressed.

Thanks to Bruce McEwen, an American neuroendocrinologist who passed away just last month, the scientific understanding of how stress affects overall health has skyrocketed. Before McEwen published his work, many scientists believed that the brain did not change after it was fully developed. McEwan and other scientists recognized the malleability of the brain and the way in which different hormones impact and modify brain functions. After this scientific discovery, McEwen soon coined the term “allostatic load” which refers to the departure from homeostasis (a balanced internal state) to a counter-balance of internal systems to meet the energy demands of the chronic stress (McEwen & Stellar, 1993; Picard et al., 2018 ). What McEwan and other scientists highlighted were the ways in which chronic or repeated stress take a toll on the brain and body, and lead to certain types of psychological and neurological diseases. Figure 1 displays the brains various roles in regulating and protecting the body from environmental stressors as well as trauma other major life events.

https://www.nejm.org/na101/home/literatum/publisher/mms/journals/content/nejm/1998/nejm_1998.338.issue-3/nejm199801153380307/production/images/img_medium/nejm199801153380307_f1.jpeg
Figure 1. Stress Response and the Allostatic Load (McEwen, 1998)

So, what does this all mean for us? In 2014, a study conducted by the American Institute of Stress found that 77% of U.S. citizens regularly exhibit the physical symptoms of stress. These results confirmed that most people experience some sort of stress, so I want you to know that you are not alone! Although the concept of stress has a universally negative connotation (One example being the dread of Mondays because of how stressful they are), it is very important to acknowledge the positive aspects of stress.

Figure 2. The Effects of Stress on Your Body

“Good stress” can be healthy for us. We know this because of the bulk of scientific literature inspired by McEwen’s initial findings. Psychologists have experimented with the idea of “good stress,” and coined a new term, “eustress.” The occurrence of good stress events often enables the adaptive psychological stress response which promotes survival during stressful situations. In 2014, Kupriyanov and Zhdanov released an article in which they addressed the term, “eustress,” a new term used to explain the positive aspects of having some stress within our everyday lives. Events of “eustress” such as school work, time constraints, job interviews, or unexpected social interaction trigger our stress response and quicken our pulse and create a surge of hormones which makes us feel alive. Our bodies and minds are equipped to manage these types of stress (McEwen, 2012). Interestingly, the state of “eustress” has also been associated with positive outcomes within the work environment (Hargrove, 2013). What you do need to keep in mind is that once these stressors occur chronically and repeatedly, our bodies are in danger of reaching the harmful state of imbalance that can led to disease.

Without the research from McEwen and other scientists, we would most likely all be living unhealthy lives, unaware of the positive aspects as well as the consequences of stress. Although the concept of “eustress” is still a growing one, psychologists and neurologists can work together to truly understand and promote healthy lifestyles. I encourage you to read more about the positive effects of stress and ways to understand the difference between good and bad types of stress.

So, my takeaway message is to live everyday in the now. After all, a little bit of stress is okay, but when it impacts your ability to be yourself in your everyday life, you should seek help from a family member, friend, or doctor.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to know more about stress and its effects, please visit the websites listed below:

The American Institute of Stress: https://www.stress.org

American Psychology Association: https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-facts

Why Stress and Anxiety Aren’t Always Bad: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2019/08/stress-anxiety

Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/stress

Eustress or Distress: https://ubicomp-mental-health.github.io/papers/li-eustress.pdf

Distress, No Stress, Anti-Stress, Eustress: Where Does REST Fit In?: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4613-9701-4_2

References:

American Psychological Association (2014). 2014 Stress Statistics. What is Stress? http://www.stress.org/daily-life/

Hargrove, M. B. (2013). Hargrove, MB, Nelson, DL, and Cooper, CL (2013) Generating eustress by challenging employees: Helping people savor their work. Organizational Dynamics. 42, 61-69. Organizational Dynamics42, 61-69.

Kupriyanov, R., & Zhdanov, R. (2014). The eustress concept: problems and outlooks. World Journal of Medical Sciences11(2), 179-185.

McEwen, B. S. (1998). Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators. New England journal of medicine338(3), 171-179.

McEwen, B. S. (2012). Brain on stress: How the social environment gets under the skin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109 (Supplement 2), 17180. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1121254109

McEwen BS, Stellar E. Stress and the Individual: Mechanisms Leading to Disease. Arch Intern Med. 1993;153(18):2093–2101. doi:10.1001/archinte.1993.00410180039004

Picard, M., McEwen, B. S., Epel, E. S., & Sandi, C. (2018). An energetic view of stress: Focus on mitochondria. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology49, 72–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yfrne.2018.01.001

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