There is a secret weapon to deal with something unexpected.
And you may have come to think of it as something that will undermine you rather than help you shine. Just ask Wendy Berry Mendez, Ph.D. She is the Sarlo/Ekman Professor of Emotion at UC 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 beneficial reaction? Stress. “Not all stress is necessarily bad for you,” Mendes says. She studies how people can reap its benefits, sometimes referred to as “eustress” to distinguish it from the debilitating “distress”.
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
While you’ve almost certainly heard that stress can lead to heart disease, muscle pain, and a host of other ailments, there’s more to it than that. At its simplest level, stress is a very simple process that occurs whenever you sense a change in demand, says Jeremy P. Jamison, Ph.D., principal investigator at the University of Rochester’s Social Stress Laboratory.
“No one says they’re stressed out when they’re excited,” Jamison says, although being in such a rush is also a form of stress. All those hormones your body produces are designed to give you a boost of energy and make you more alert. “If they were taken by athletes, they would have been banned a long time ago,” Jamison says. “These reactions 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 not enough of it when you need it can make you sick.Problems usually only arise when the stress response occurs for no reason, starts too early, lasts longer than intended, or never stops at all. In these cases, stress can disrupt your sleep, digestion, and other bodily functions, and instead of dilating blood vessels, it constricts them, Mendes says. Over time, this can lead to all kinds of health problems. Of course, some things are out of our control and can cause chronic distress. But with many other sources of stress, our reactions can make a difference. And it depends on our thinking and approach to the situation.
“I wasn’t coping productively with life,” says Gray, who delved into alternative options and found research on reframing stress. Gray soon married and took a year off to raise his new child while his wife started her own business. “Who does it if they are not ready to run in a stressful situation? We looked at it like we were on an adventure,” Gray says. “It freed me up a lot.”
- Take, for example, the upcoming exam. According to Mendes, it’s only natural to feel like your body is preparing for the event with a racing heart and sweaty palms. For many people, these signs of stress cause unnecessary anxiety. And it can make it difficult to concentrate and answer questions.
- But if you explain to the subjects in advance that these are just physiological signs of their performance improvement, they will get higher scores.
- “Don’t deny the changes in your body. They help you,” Jamison says. He conducted repeated studies showing the same result. His conclusion: “Don’t be afraid to give in to stress.”
- Fear of stress can cause people to put off critical conversations, potentially rewarding events, and dreams they would like to pursue. “In order to succeed and grow as a person, we need to do the hard things,” Jamison says. “New challenges and new opportunities are stressful.”
- This is the lesson Michael Gray, 60, is teaching himself and his students at Long Beach Polytechnic, just south of Los Angeles. About 8 years ago, an educator and counselor experienced a spike in blood pressure, and his doctor suggested a cure.
Take advantage of good stress
Practicing this approach to stress, along with academic skills, is invaluable for young adults, says Gray, who sees how difficult it is for teens to connect with friends and family. In addition, it helps set them up for 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 accustomed to avoiding stress as much as possible, tapping into its benefits can take time and effort. “I’m barely getting better at it,” Gray admits. He gets daily practice while driving on the freeway in Southern California. Mendez says this is an area to keep paying attention to, especially as you get older. While not much research has been done on the long-term effects of positive stress, what we do know is reassuring.
“There is evidence that good stress is associated with less accelerated brain aging,” Mendes says. Therefore, she recommends continuing to look for positive forms of stress after retirement by staying mentally, socially, and physically engaged. The most important thing, Jamison says, is to stop viewing any stress as distress. “People get nervous about stress and try to avoid it. It won’t work like that,” he says. “When you need to organize those resources, that’s fine.” And it might even be great.