You’ve lived through the 2016 U.S. presidential election, so you are undoubtedly familiar with some of the physical and emotional effects that stress can have on the human body. Just reading the word can be enough to trigger a stress response. Thanks, brain.
What exactly is stress, and is it good for anything at all?
The answer to the first part of that question is complicated, but the general idea is that stress is the brain’s reaction to a physical, mental, or emotional demand. Stress might cause things like an elevated heart rate, a surge in adrenaline, and faster breathing—physiological responses aimed at increased odds of survival in a hairy situation. Which leads us to the answer to the second part of the question: yes, stress can be good.
If I’m walking down the street and I see a bear perusing through a neighbor’s trash, I would become more alert, my heart would beat faster, and my muscles would tense, ready for action. When that bear notices me and decides to chase me away from her treasure, my brain’s initial stress response to the possibility of becoming lunch for a hungry animal will have primed my body for swift action—in this case, a hasty retreat. Stress will have saved my life.
All animals experience stress for that very reason: in dire circumstances, a stress response can mean the difference between life and death. The problem for humans is that our brains are not well adapted to our modern lifestyles. Instead of facing down large predators and scavenging for food, we’re stuck in traffic jams, we’re writing essays, delivering speeches, selling business proposals, and worrying over whether or not our favorite teams will make it to the Big Game this year. These kinds of modern stressors are pervasive, and they can cause chronic stress. This is the bad kind of stress you probably thought of when you first read the word at the top of this post.
The very same physiological responses to stress that help us in dangerous situations end up hurting us if they persist for too long. We develop disorders and illnesses when neurotransmitters and hormones intended by evolutionary design for sparing use stay in our systems at consistently high levels. Imagine life and the brain’s response to stimuli as a the world’s longest endurance race: those moments of danger or conflict that stimulate an appropriate stress response are like short, strategic sprints used to gain a bit of competitive advantage before returning to the slower pace required to complete a long-distance race; chronic stress, on the other hand, is like attempting to sprint through the entire race—an impractical approach that will see most people dropping out miles before the finish.
What can you do about stress?
First, it’s important that you realize that a completely stress-free life is probably impossible. Next, remember that chronic stress is the kind that is detrimental to your health; most acute stressors are harmless in the long run, and not something you should be overly concerned about. With those two things in mind, the goal you should have in mind is to develop and practice effective stress management techniques.
What works for a friend may not work for you, so this is something that you will have to experiment with, but here are some good places to start:
- Eat well. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends that you don’t skip any meals, that you adopt a well-balanced diet, and that you keep healthy, energy-boosting snacks handy for stressful situations.
- Sleep. The ADAA also recommends that you make sure to get enough sleep each night. The amount of sleep needed varies from person to person and between age brackets, but as an adult you should be aiming for somewhere around 8 hours of sleep each night.
- Exercise regularly. The ADAA and the National Institute of Mental Health both recommend 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Take your dog for a walk, take a jog, go for a swim, or ride a bike.
- Practice mindfulness. When you’re feeling stressed, take a moment to step outside yourself and look at your situation objectively. Is the thing that is causing stress really that important? Is it life-threatening, or otherwise harmful to you or others? Is it something that is even within your power to control or change? If the answer to those questions is “no,” you might find it easier to let go of your stress.
There are as many strategies for dealing with stress as there are people, but the important thing is to have a strategy, or perhaps several. When you do, and you put that strategy (or strategies) into practice, you will find that much of modern life’s stress is needless, and that wonderful discovery will help you live a happier, healthier life.