Turn up the stress

From The Optimist Magazine
Summer 2014

Even as we anxiously try to avoid and suppress it, more and more research shows that stress is actually beneficial. It results in better performance, keeps us alert and is even good for our health.


One morning in 2007, Arianna Huffington awoke in a pool of blood on the floor of her office. She had fallen asleep from exhaustion while sitting in her chair and struck her head against the desk, breaking her cheekbone and splitting her eye socket. It was a wake-up call for the founder of the successful news website The Huffington Post and one of the world’s most influential women, according to Time magazine.

“I was working eighteen hours per day and seven days per week to build my business and attract investors. Was this the life I really wanted to lead? It had to change course,” she wrote in her book Thrive. Huffington began to meditate, practice -mindfulness, and sleep and exercise more. She paid more attention to her health and that of her staff. But above all, she declared war on stress.

Wherever she went, Huffington speaks about the stress epidemic sweeping the world. “One of the things that worries me the most is the growing incidence of stress in our society,” she wrote last year in a blog. “It’s a much bigger problem than most people realize, but thankfully there does seem to be a growing awareness of the destructive power and cost of stress—in terms of both dollars and lives.” She described the affliction as a major factor in diverse causes of death (cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure), psychological problems (burnout, depression), and decreased production at the office.

In Thrive, Huffington describes how she regards stress. “What exactly causes stress in our body is extremely personal. But it is as if stress is always looking for a way in.” Those reading carefully will see that Huffington regards the S-word as a kind of mysterious power that tries to force its way into our bodies like a hostile virus. And perhaps you share her vision. Most of us don’t go around saying: “Today I’m going to enjoy some stress.” The common wisdom says “Stress is bad.” We become worried when we feel stress in our bodies and try all kinds of remedies: meditation, breathing techniques, sunny holidays, massage and a whole raft of plans to reorganize our lives.

But with all these attempts to reduce stress, we can easily forget why stress exists in the first place. It is no useless remnant from our hunter-gatherer period, when saber-toothed tigers lay in ambush. “No one has ever achieved anything substantial in life without stress,” says Theo Compernolle, a neuropsychiatrist and stress consultant for the business world. “All important creations in our lives, both personal and professional, are accompanied by stress.”

Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, recently gained a new perspective on stress. “For years I’ve been telling people: stress makes you sick. It increases the risk of everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease,” she said in a TED Talk last year. “But,” she continues, “I’ve changed my mind about stress.” Her message: Research shows that if you stop becoming anxious about your stress, the body can naturally cope with it in a healthy way. More than 5,6 million people watched her talk on TED’s website, and it lead to a lot of discussion. Could McGonical be right?

Yes, we need stress in our lives. And that is not the only startling conclusion. A large-scale study done at the University of Wisconsin indicates that there is a connection between the belief that stress is bad for your health and the actual effect of stress on your health. In other words, it’s not just excessive stress that’s bad for you—the belief that stress is bad for you also has negative consequences for your health. The opposite also applies: if you see stress as useful, you can use it to perform better and even to live a healthier life.

It is clear that Arianna Huffington’s life, like so many of our lives, was out of balance. But could it be that we’re battling the wrong enemy? Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Our current thinking about stress turns the hostile outside world into a place where stimuli lurk at every turn to take over our susceptible minds and defenseless bodies and turn us into stressed-out victims. It is time to reverse our thinking about stress once and for all: in fact, stress is actually good for you.

When there are too few demands made on us, we don’t perform so well. We also don’t feel so well and we are less motivated.” Theo Compernolle always emphasizes the positive side of stress in his talks. The Belgian neuropsychiatrist wrote the book Stress: Friend and Foe (available in Dutch only) and is often consulted by the business world and governmental agencies about stress in the workplace.

Compernolle often uses the metaphor of the bow. The tension in the bow provides the energy necessary for the arrow to reach its target. The arrow goes nowhere without stress in the bow. If we pull the bow too taut and “overstrain” it, its resilience is lost and the bow finally breaks. After use, we also need to “un-stress” the bow. “The goal,” he concludes, “is to find an optimal stress level that motivates us and is a stimulus for growth and development, and to keep our resilience at an optimal level.”

There is even the risk of a “boreout,” the opposite of burnout, a sort of boredom sickness. According to Swiss organization consultants Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin (authors of Boreout! Overcoming Workplace Demotivation), about 15 percent of workers suffer from boreout symptoms: fatigue and depression.

To Compernolle, some people are more stress-resistant than others but the stress level for everyone can safely rise “until we are stretched to the limit.” The healthiest form of stress is what Compernolle calls “interval stress”: short moments of stress spread over the day, alternating with -periods of relaxation. Athletes know this only too well. Compernolle: “The best method to improve endurance and muscle strength is interval training.” And this goes for not only our hearts and muscles, but also for our brains. Stress moments can make us more resilient in the same way; they can train us to better cope with the next stress situation.

So you can breathe a sigh of relief: stress is a healthy phenomenon. You also don’t have to keep telling yourself that you must be calm when experiencing a stress peak. That wouldn’t help, as research by the Harvard Business School has shown. Alison Wood Brooks, assistant professor of business management, put students to work at various stressful tasks: singing karaoke to an audience, taking a math test and giving a lecture. Before carrying out these tasks, the students had to say to themselves either “I am calm” or “I am excited.” The students saying the latter performed better at all tests than the students who tried to calm themselves. They made better math calculations, could better maintain the rhythm and tone of the karaoke songs, and scored the highest grades from experts for their lectures.

This research indicates that we perform better when we accept our stress instead of suppressing it. New York psychologist -Jeremy Jamieson, who researched the stress phenomenon at the University of -Rochester, has an explanation for this. (When asked why the subject interested him, he laughed. “I’m not easily stressed, if that’s what you might think.”)

Jamieson, who comes across as a levelheaded guy, wears a baseball cap and speaks rapidly. He told about his student days when he played football, and when he first began thinking about stress. Some of his -teammates were very tense before a match: a high arousal response. “They had sweaty palms, a racing heart. Everything showed that they were highly tensed up, but they loved it just before they would go out onto the field. They were full of energy and ready for a challenge.”

However, when Jamieson would come across them in the corridor just before an important exam, they had the same physical reaction: sweating, faster breathing and higher heart rate. Jamieson noticed that the situation was totally different in their minds. This stress was seen as problematic, and hence the stress reaction only became worse and worse. “They somehow labeled it in a different way,” he says. “They didn’t experience a challenge, but a threat.” Thus, the psychologist realized that there must be a way in which you can assess stress in your mind.

Jamieson gives a short biology lesson to explain what happens when we experience stress as a threat. “Imagine that a bear has loomed up before you. The so-called stress response comes about through two different nerve bundles. First the body enters into an alarm phase. The autonomous nervous system sparks off the well-known ‘fight-or-flight reaction.’ Within a few seconds the hormone adrenaline is released by the adrenal glands.”

Adrenaline causes the muscles to tense and blood pressure and heartbeat to rise, and some people feel their heart is racing. Your blood vessels contract and the body tries to concentrate the blood in the core of the body. (Jamieson: “The bear would probably injure your limbs first, so you’d have less chance of bleeding to death.”) Digestion stops, because the energy used is needed for something else. We begin to sweat so that the body can cool down after any explosive action. You are very alert in this phase and are focused only on the threat.

A little later, a second system starts up. The pituitary, a tiny pea-size gland in our brain, gives our adrenal glands the signal to produce cortisone. This hormone is an anti-inflammatory, which increases the blood-sugar level and quickens the metabolism. As a result, more energy is released to cope with the stressful situation. “So what your body is trying to say is: avoid this thing, and I’m going to try to help to give you enough energy to cope with it,” Jamieson explains.

His conclusion is that the brain leads the stress response. The significance of a situation is given, and the necessity of a stress response determined. “Every time the demands outweigh the perception of resources, your body is saying, ‘Okay; we can’t deal with this.” Instant stress! When we do have the resources—a gun to shoot the bear, for example—then our body sees no threat in the situation, but rather a challenge. This does not mean that if you think the stress response is unnecessary, it just won’t occur. If the stress system were activated only after our interpretation of “danger,” then the bear would already be munching on us. Our thinking brain is slower that the stress reflex, which, in a potentially dangerous situation, is unconsciously summoned up in a fraction of a second. And in our modern world, the stress system is all too regularly switched on, including when it is unnecessary.

But here is the crux of the matter: if you expect a positive outcome from a situation, your body reacts differently. Research shows that your blood vessels remain more relaxed. They do not contract so strongly as in a threatening situation. Jamieson: “When you see a challenge instead of a threat, the vascular system dilates and the heart starts pumping more blood through the body to enable more oxygen to go to our brains. This makes it possible to process more information.” So when you believe that stress helps your body to get ready for a certain challenge, your body believes you, and this stress can then be used to perform better.

Jamieson applied this information in a scientific experiment, which he published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Fifty students were divided into two groups. One group was informed about how stress worked, how it can be useful and help the body prepare for performing a new task. The other group received no such information. Then all the students were required to give a five-minute presentation about their negative characteristics that was filmed. To increase the pressure, two lecturers sat there and gave disapproving signals, such as shaking their heads. You can feel the stress already.

We are normally very sensitive to negative feedback in a stressful situation, and that is why the uninformed group became more and more stressed. Their blood vessels contracted, showing that they were feeling threatened. The group that had learned to interpret the stress response as useful was more self-confident. Even more surprisingly, their reactions during the test seemed to be less intense. Their heart rates were brought under control sooner. Their blood vessels remained relaxed. The test evaluation showed that this group was also more positive about the presentation.

In short, if you judge stress as something functional that can help you to perform better, then it will help you. To Jamieson, the obstacle is that only a few actually know how a stress response can help them. “The problem is that people automatically interpret the stress cues as negative. So it’s not easy to break that habit, but it’s worth it.”

Perhaps you are now thinking, Okay, this acute stress is no doubt useful, but what about chronic stress? That was the question posed by the scientist Whitney Witt. An assistant professor in public health at the University of Wisconsin, she saw the chance to carry out a unique study. Although that research was completed two years ago, she is still full of enthusiasm as she talks about it.

Her study followed 30,000 people in America over eight years. All were regularly asked two questions: “How much stress did you experience over the previous year?” and “Do you think that stress is good for your health?” After eight years, the researchers examined national databanks to see how many of this group had died. Adults experiencing high amounts of stress had a 43 percent greater chance of dying early. But that applied only to those believing stress was really bad for their health.

Those who had experienced stress, but did not believe that stress was bad for their health, had the lowest chance of death, even when compared with those experiencing no stress at all.

Witt was stunned when the research -results sank in. Never before had such a strong connection been shown between increased stress and the perception of the effect of that stress on health. “This study has important consequences for our understanding of the synergistic relationship between the amount of stress and an individual’s perception that stress affects health,” the researchers wrote in their report, in the journal Health Psychology.

Witt and her research team still don’t completely understand why the idea of stress being bad for you has so much influence. However, they have a few possible explanations. One concerns having an optimistic versus a pessimistic view of life. Various studies have shown that patterns of negative expectations about the course of an illness or other important events are associated with poor health. “This is how it could work with stress,” Witt says. “And this means a negative expectation about health outcomes will act like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Another, equally interesting explanation from the research team is that there is a significant connection between stress and resilience. It has been shown that people who have experienced a moderate amount of adversity in the past can better cope with recent adversity. This suggests that previous experiences with stress help people to cope with stress later in their lives. Witt: “Resilient individuals, therefore, may not perceive that stress affects their health, or experience negative health outcomes even when faced with a lot of stress.”

Theo Compernolle makes clear that stress can’t always be willed away. “You can still land in a burnout even while you were thinking up to the last minute that stress is useful.” Stress is still a physically -measurable phenomenon. He refers to research on the health of people living around Schiphol Airport, outside Amsterdam. The noise and air pollution caused stress in residents in the neighborhood, and they seemed to be sick more often than others. However, residents who -reported finding the sounds and smells “very annoying” all proved to be sick more often than people who interpreted the situation as positive. But, this positive attitude did not ensure that their complaints disappeared, which is -hardly surprising. No one would recommend prolonged exposure to stressful situations for anyone.

Meanwhile, Witt is carrying out follow-up research. On the question of whether more action against stress is necessary: “I also think there’s a lot to be done in the normalization of stress. We all experience this. When our bodies respond to the stress, we shouldn’t be saying, ‘This is affecting my health!’ That means getting into a self–perpetuating cycle.” Stress is normal!

The Greek doctor Marios Kyriazis was very much in the news a few years ago after suggesting that stress could even keep you young. Kyriazis claimed that a stressful, erratic life is good for you. He reasoned that the aging of cells is accompanied by loss of function, but if cells continue to be stimulated by experiencing a sizable stress peak every now and again, then they stay active and young. He even thought that this could repair the damage caused by aging.

Kyriazis applied the concept “hormesis” to stress. By this he meant that mild -stimulation to the body, such as through stress, puts all kinds of processes to work, which directly repair age damage at the same time. “I don’t think that people who try to avoid stress altogether are doing themselves any favors,” he stated in an interview with the British online newspaper The Telegraph. “Research shows that cells subjected to stress repair themselves, allowing us to live longer.”

Kyriazis even recommends occasionally bringing stress on when necessary. For instance, by packing your luggage a half hour before you ought to leave for the airport, or by trying to complete a task within a self-imposed time limit. He emphasized that such stress certainly must be regularly alternated with relaxation. “Prolonged stressful experiences are bad for health.”

Doctors hastened to heap criticism on the research and Kyriazis’ conclusions. The most prevalent argument held that the research was incomplete. But it is an interesting hypothesis simply because there are various situations in which stress is good for your health. (See the sidebar “Even more evidence that stress is good for you.”)

A booster of the hormone cortisone helps to temporarily improve the immune system. Hence, a deadline can help keep a cold at bay. Acute stress also helps to improve memory, problem solving and information processing. This is made possible by the hormones that keep the brain alert during the stress response. (Note, however, that the adrenal glands can become exhausted when they have to make too much cortisone, or must keep on releasing cortisone over a number of hours. An excess of cortisone is harmful.)

Furthermore, research has shown that light stress just before a surgical operation is associated with better recovery. Stress could be an indicator of a fighter mentality, a sign that the patient has the will to recover.

And amongst all these benefits, stress can also make our body and mind resilient, according to research by psychologist Mark Seery at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He questioned 2,400 people about the history of adversity in their lives (divorce, bankruptcy, natural disasters, etc.), and how they dealt with it. The question was regularly posed over three years. The results show that those occasionally undergoing adversity and stressful times could better cope with that stress than those having had experienced no adversity. This is what Whitney Witt had already suggested based on her research into stress and health.

That stress is good for you also doesn’t mean that you should gladly take on a workload of eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, as Arianna Huffington had done. But it does help to know that stress is good for us in many situations. It means that you don’t have to frenetically fight stress, and you can even learn to value and stimulate stress.

The fear that stress is bad for your health is fatal, while the rational attitude that recognizes it as normal and natural should help you to accept stress for what it is. This attitude goes with the rule of setting up interval stress periods.

It comes down to this: Seek meaning and challenge in your life. Stress is part of that. Ensure that this is the good stress you can learn to cope with. That is so much better for your health than trying to banish and avoid stress all throughout your life. 

“When our bodies respond to the stress, we shouldn’t be saying, ‘this is affecting my health!’ That means getting into a self-perpetuating cycle.”

Whitney Witt, associate professor in Public Health


Stop multitasking

Interval stress is good for you. However, according to Belgian neuropsychiatrist Theo Compernolle, being constantly connected to telephones, computers and other devices causes many people to experience chronic background stress. On top of that, because we misuse those communication devices, we are continuously multitasking, which greatly undermines our intellectual productivity and creativity. “The greater the number of tasks you try to carry out at the same time, the less these tasks are interrelated and the higher the risk of making mistakes. A mere beep of an incoming mail will cause two minutes’ decline in concentration.”

According to Compernolle, constant e-mailing impairs productivity and needlessly increases our stress levels. All day long we feel hounded, often subconsciously. His advice is to try and check your mail only a few times a day. “Open-plan offices are dreadful, too,” says Compernolle with disgust. “You’re constantly distracted. It has been measured: in an open-plan office, people experience unnecessary and chronic stress, even if they are not aware of it.”

Compernolle explains that our conscious brains can do only one thing at a time. If you are performing a task and an e-mail comes in that you instantly start to read, your brain will first have to save the earlier task in its temporary memory. If you then proceed to perform a number of minor tasks, you will have to recover the original task from the temporary memory, but by that time it could well have been superseded by the other tasks. Very inefficient.

Why should we multitask? It is very tempting, Compernolle points out, because every incoming message contains news. That makes you curious, and by opening the message you immediately get the answer. This will give you a boost of the hormone dopamine, which might just be addictive. When you perform a task such as writing a report, it will take a very long time before that dopamine is released.

The repeated interruption of your tasks will cause prolonged stress. You will not get your work done, there will always be lots of things left to do, and what you do you will do less well. So how you deal with this is really up to you. | E.B.


Even more evidence that stress is good for you

1. You need it to think creatively

Stress often precedes a creative breakthrough. Enormous frustration about a certain problem can put you in a pressure-cooker situation that ultimately leads to a whole new way of thinking.

2. It improves your immune system

When you experience a peak in stress, you will receive a cortisol boost. This hormone temporarily strengthens your immune system. An overdose of cortisol in your body is not good, though, so be sure to schedule some relaxation and other ways to counterbalance the stress peaks.

3. It ensures that you stay fit

Stress that you feel during exercise is good: it ensures that for the rest of the day you can perform your tasks better. By moving a lot, you ensure that your body makes endorphins, which work in perfect cooperation with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones play against each other: when you have too much cortisol and adrenaline, the endorphins bring them back into balance.

4. It helps you to solve problems

Stress can help you follow your intuition. When you’re worried and feel stressed about a problem in your life, it means you care a lot about that issue. Listen to what your stress is trying to tell you: Why are you feeling stressed? Where does it come from? What will you need to do to let it go? In other words, use the stress to find the best possible solution.

5. It keeps us safe

Stress keeps you alert. For instance, it gives parents a better sense of where danger might lurk for their kids. If you’re too relaxed, it could mean you’re not going to be alert enough at a crucial moment when there might be danger.  | E.B. | Source: www.womansday.com

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