Fresh perspectives on stress

This Mental Health Awareness Week, Megan (Fundraising & Digital) is surprised to find out how our stress can help us out 


We’ve all been told how to get rid of our stress. From that ten minutes of meditation (that very few of us actually have the time for), to all manner of pseudoscientific miracle cures, it seems there’s no magic bullet that works for everyone. If only it were possible to live a truly stress-free life..

When I learned that the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is stress, I was reminded of all these tips and tricks I’d been offered to eliminate stress in my life. But I also started reflecting on how little they’d actually impacted my own day-to-day experiences of negative states of mind – and I started to wonder why.

The stress response must have a purpose other than making us feel uncomfortable – otherwise, what’s the point of it?

I decided to see if there was any material I could find floating around the internet on what these benefits might be. My hopes weren’t high – but the more I searched, the more pleasantly surprised I was to find evidence for the advantages of the stress response. What I learned felt reassuring, and validating: we often experience stress for good reasons.

It’s important to remember that stress can have an impact on your health and well-being if it’s not taken care of properly. It can become a symptom, or even a cause, of other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. If you or someone you know is struggling to cope with stress, there’s a range of treatments available that can help. You can read more about these at Mind’s website.

If it’s only the moderate, day-to-day kind that you’re looking to tackle, however, you might just find relief in these refreshing perspectives on stress.

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Dr Susan David recently gave a TED Talk which gained quite a bit of popularity across social media. David makes the brilliantly blunt point that “Only dead people never get stressed”, in her discussion of what she calls ‘emotional agility’.

Her encouragement to not shy away from painful states of mind struck me because, as she rightly points out, it’s unusual to hear within our culture of ‘relentless positivity’.

She encourages a kindly, adaptive method of self-care for tackling feelings of upset: try to gently understand where your feeling is coming from, and work with it rather than against it.

Whether it’s stress, sadness or rage, your feeling matters because it is a reaction to something in the world that you find important. “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life,” she says: food for thought indeed.

 

Randolph M. Nesse and Elizabeth A. Young based their study, ‘Evolutionary Origins and Functions of the Stress Response’ (2000), on our common mistake of confusing the stress response with the unpleasant events that trigger it. We tend to view both as things to avoid and eliminate, wherever possible.

However, they reconsider the advantages of our evolutionary ‘fight-or-flight’ response to explain why it might not be so helpful to stay chilled 24/7.

Our bodies and brains are designed to act incredibly quickly in situations that require immediate action. Millions of years ago, our ‘sympathetic arousal’ response system helped our ancestors out of life-threatening situations by priming the heart, lungs, muscles and even cognitive brain for immediate action.

The researchers admit that today’s stresses are far different to our ancestors’ – we no longer have to fight off bears on the daily, thank goodness – but their study helps make sense of our modern-day reactions to tough events.

In a work-related or exam situation, this same quick-fire response could help us meet deadlines, fill that word-count or get immediate help for a loved one when they need it. In a worst-case scenario of real danger, in fact, it could still save your life.

 

Finally, Dr. Kelly McGonigal goes so far as to say that stress is actually good for you, on the cover of her new book The Upside of Stress. She too believes that the stress response can save your life, and she’s got good reason to.

Her life as a health psychologist was turned upside down when she discovered a study on the effect of stress on life expectancy. After surveying 30,000 Americans on the amount of stress in their lives, and their belief on whether it was harmful to their health, the researchers found that high stress levels brought risk of death to 43%.

But – here’s the clincher – “that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health.” Those who didn’t view stress as harmful were, amazingly, the least likely to prematurely die.

Her mission now is to literally save her audiences’ lives by helping us reframe our understanding of stress. She points out (like Nesse and Young) that our physical responses to stressors actually do us a lot of favours by helping us meet the challenge we’re presented with.

But she also makes the point that stress encourages us to be more social. It’s not common knowledge that oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’, is released as part of the brain’s response to stressors. This neuro-hormone compels us to seek help during difficult moments by reaching out to others.

Tuning into this part of the stress response reminds us that we don’t have to face difficult moments alone – and that can be more helpful than anything else.

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Stress is a part of life, and an uncomfortable part at that. But it can help to remember that none of us are at fault for feeling overwhelmed in overwhelming situations.

Understanding why we feel the way we do can help us to cope during difficult times, and to reach out to others when we need help most. Stress, it turns out, can help us do exactly that.

 

Find out more about stress and how to manage it here.

Our Information Service can also help you find support.

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