There is a secret weapon for dealing with something unexpected. And you may be used to seeing it as something that would undermine you, wouldn’t help you shine.
Just ask Wendy Berry Mendes, PhD. She is the Sarlo/Ekman Professor of Emotion at the University of California, San Francisco. But earlier in her life, she was a ballerina who loved to perform. While she was on stage, her body gave an extra boost to her muscles and brain, helping her dance better.
What is the scientific name for this incredibly useful reaction? Tension.
“Not all stress is necessarily bad for you,” Mendes says. She studies how people can take advantage of its benefits – sometimes called ‘eustress’ to distinguish it from debilitating ‘distress’.
Good Stress vs Bad Stress
While you’ve almost certainly heard about how stress can lead to heart disease, muscle pain, and various other ailments, there’s more to it than that.
At its simplest level, stress is a very basic process that occurs when you feel a change in demand, says Jeremy P. Jamieson, PhD, principal investigator at the University of Rochester’s Social Stress Lab.
“Nobody says they’re stressed when they’re excited,” Jamieson says, even though the rush is also a form of stress.
All those hormones your body releases are meant to give you a burst of energy and make you more alert.
“If athletes were to use them, they would be banned for a long time,” Jamieson says. “These reactions have evolved to help us survive. Otherwise we wouldn’t have them.” As Mendes points out, cortisol has been demonized as “the stress hormone,” even though it will make you sick if you don’t have enough of it when you need it.
Problems generally only arise when a stress response occurs for no reason, starts too early, lasts longer than it should, or never ends. In these cases, stress can disrupt your sleep, digestion, and other bodily functions, and instead of expanding your blood vessels, it constricts them, Mendes says. In the long run, this can lead to all kinds of health problems.
Sure, some things are out of our control and can cause chronic distress. But with many other sources of stress, our response can make a difference. And that depends on our mindset and approach to a situation.
Putting stress to the test
Take an upcoming exam for example. It’s normal to feel your body preparing for this event with an elevated heart rate and sweaty palms, Mendes says. For many people, these signs of stress cause unnecessary suffering. And that can make it harder to focus and answer questions.
But if you explain to test subjects beforehand that these are just physiological signs that they are getting a performance boost, they will get higher scores.
“Don’t deny the changes in your body. They help you,” says Jamieson. He has done repeated studies showing the same result. His takeaway: “Don’t be afraid to lean against stress.”
Fear of stress can cause people to postpone critical conversations, potentially rewarding experiences, and dreams they want to pursue. “To achieve and grow as a person, we have to do hard things,” Jamieson says. “New challenges and new opportunities, that’s stress.”
That’s the lesson Michael Gray, 60, has been working on teaching himself and his students at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, just south of Los Angeles. About 8 years ago, the educator and counselor’s blood pressure spiked so high that his doctor suggested medication.
“I wasn’t coping with life in a productive way,” says Gray, who delved into alternative options and discovered research about rethinking stress.
Soon, Gray married and took a year off from work to raise his new baby while his wife started her own business. “Who does that unless they’re willing to run into a stressful situation? We looked at it like we were on an adventure,” Gray says. “It freed me exponentially.”
Reaping the benefits of good stress
Practicing this approach to stress alongside academic skills is invaluable to young people, says Gray, who sees how many teens struggle with interactions with friends and family. Plus, it helps put them on the path to careers and other successes. “You have to meet deadlines and try things you’re not good at, like a foreign language,” he says.
For people who are used to avoiding stress as much as possible, it can take time and effort to embrace its benefits. “I’m barely getting any better at it,” admits Gray. He practices daily while driving on the Southern California highway.
It’s an area worth focusing on, especially as you get older, Mendes says. While not much research has been done on the long-term effects of positive stress, what we know is encouraging.
“There is some evidence that good stress is linked to less accelerated brain aging,” Mendes says. That’s why she recommends that you continue to look for positive forms of stress after you retire by staying engaged mentally, socially and physically.
The most important thing, Jamieson says, is to stop thinking of all stress as stress. “People get nervous when they experience stress and try to avoid it. It doesn’t work that way,” he says. “If you have to pool these resources, that’s okay.” And it can even be great.
This post What is good stress? Eustress versus distress
was original published at “https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/eustress-good-stress?src=RSS_PUBLIC”