Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Stress: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

This is the first post for our Stress Mastery blog. Over the coming posts we'll be exploring the role of stress, what it is, what it isn't, and how to truly master stress in every area of life.

We'll kick off by commenting on an article posted to "Forbes" on May 24, 2013 by Heidi Grant Halvorson. In "How You Can Benefit From All Your Stress", Heidi summarizes research by Yale University's Alia Crume and two others that assert it isn't so much the level of stress that affects us negatively as it is our beliefs about how stress will affect us.

In the "Stress-is-debilitating" mindset, the predominant belief is the effects of stress are bad for us and should be avoided. A more healthy point of view, according to the three researchers, is the "Stress-is-enhancing" mindset. 

Heidi summarizes the main takeaway for this research as, in part:

"Taken together, all this research paints a very clear picture: stress is killing you because you believe that it is."

The Role of Eustress

Certainly our beliefs about how stress will affect us to some extent contribute to how we experience specific stress inducing events and stress in general. The man who brought the modern concept of human stress to science, endocrinologist Hans Selye, coined the term eustress to describe "good stress". 

In his 1975 work, Stress Without Distress, Selye argues that persistent stress not resolved should be known as distress. Distress can lead to mental and emotional conditions to include anxiety and depression. On the other hand if stress enhances functionality, it is eustress.

Yerkes-Dodson Curve

The Yerkes-Dodson Law and curve tell us performance of a given task progressively improves with increases in arousal up to an optimum point. Past that point, performance gets worse as arousal, or "stress" increases.

As an example, suppose you're about to give an important presentation to 300 people that could affect your career for years to come. You've crafted the presentation well and rehearsed it multiple times.

As you're sitting on stage waiting your turn to speak, you feel physical sensations you label as "excitement" surging through your body. Like a racehorse about to run the Kentucky Derby, you're sharp, focused, and ready.

As you stride to and then stand confidently at the podium, you look for your PowerPoint presentation on the conference laptop. Your PowerPoint file is vital to the presentation. Not seeing it, you suddenly recall you never gave it to the audio-visual person when you arrived at the conference that morning. The flash drive is in your brief case. You hear that internal critical voice say, "You idiot".

As you attempt to decide what to do, you notice your throat is tightening and your knees are quivering. You look out into the audience and see your boss in the front row. Your heart beats faster and your legs feel as though they are about to give way. As you open your mouth to speak, nothing comes out. Your stress is now so high you can barely breathe.

Clearly, the optimum arousal point was arrival at the podium. The performance curve slid quickly downward as arousal increased. A full on Stress Response (or "Distress Response) took root in a matter of seconds.

The Effects of All Stress - Good and Bad - on the Body

Stress is the physiological experience of the biochemical interactions that create eustress and distress. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfullness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the body cannot physically discern between distress and eustress1.

The evidence from multiple studies tells us stress is often cumulative. Unless we're engaging in stress reduction practices that release the physical and emotional residue of chronic stress we're likely to have increasing health and emotional balance problems over time. 

Is the "Stress-Is-Enhancing" All We Need?

While having a positive attitude about dealing with stress may be somewhat better that wringing our hands in despair over every problem event in our lives, based on my work with thousands of clients and the weight of stress research over time, believing that "stress-is-enhancing" in and of itself will do little to promote long-term well being.

The optimum strategy is to neutralize the Stress Response whenever we notice the physical and emotional signals alerting us to its presence. Whether eustress or distress, its still stress. Chronic stress, by whatever name, isn't beneficial.

The Road Ahead

There are thousands of ways to handle chronic stress. In future posts we'll explore the ones I believe are easy to use, effective, and will make a difference in your life. We'll also be tracking stress related research and report on evidence based methods that promote emotional and physical well being.

To ensure you keep up to date with our posts, I suggest you subscribe. We'll be sharing information about once every week or two, so the reading load will be light and quality of information high. 

Stephen Carter

Founder and CEO, Stress Solutions, LLC
Columbia, Maryland

1. Full Catastrophe Living - how to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. (1996)

Important Note: This and all other postings to this blog are for informational purposes only. This and all other posts are not intended to diagnose, treat, or otherwise recommend any treatment for any medical or psychological condition. Anyone using any of the information contained in this or any other posting on this website does so at his or her own risk. You are urged to seek competent medical consultations with appropriate licensed medical professionals for any and all medical or physical conditions.

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