History of Stress
The term stress was borrowed from physics by the first stress researcher Hans Selye. In physics, stress describes the force that produces strain on a physical body (i.e.: bending a piece of metal until it snaps occurs because of the force, or stress, exerted on it).
Hans Selye noticed that all his patients, regardless of disease, all looked under duress. He decided to name “stress”.
Later, another scientist John Mason observed groups of monkeys and discovered they also experienced psychological stress, like humans. This could affect their physical health and impact how they behave within their community.
More recently, scientists have linked stress to cortisol. This hormone is produced in the cortex of the adrenal glands. In hunter-gatherer societies, cortisol allows the hunter to be alert around prey or fight against attackers. In industrial societies, environmental pollution, high pace of life and invasive technologies are the sources of stress.
The importance of Stress
At its core, stress interrupts us from a somnolent or easy state by introducing a danger or a discomfort.
This can be a lion, a flash of light, a needle, or the sound of a horn.
The cortisol hormone is then pumped in the blood, increasing blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate. The digestive system is shut down.
This compels us into action and allows us to fight or run away from the danger.
As you can guess, this feedback mechanism is crucial for survival. It’s the same mechanism when you get a direct order from the big boss. Without stress, we might doze off or simply be defeated faced to danger.
Bad stress is stress that we can’t do anything about. This is environmental pollution, noise pollution, chemicals. It’s the angry boss who is always mad at you for no reason. It’s inflation, increasing cost of life every day. As a matter of fact, this is what most people refer to when they mention stress.
Unlike the lion, you cannot do anything against this, at least immediately. You might run away, or try to ignore it, but they are still there every day, increasing your cortisol and slowly affecting your physical and mental health. Hello adrenal fatigue!
Bad stress plagues modern industrialized society and we must take active steps on reducing them in the long-term. Fortunately, there are lots of known techniques in nutrition, physical exercise, meditation or therapies to reduce stress. I have mentioned plants to fight chemical pollution, walking in the forest or black tea to reduce cortisol, amongst others.
I’m not talking here about the stress that lets us run away from a lion. Fortunately, we are past the stage of fighting against predatory animals.
Rather, it’s a stimuli that forces us into doing something and adapting. After the reaction, this good stress comes with reward.
Good stress can be forced into you. This is the case in a class where the teacher imposes homework within a system of rules and exams. The student is stressed, within reasonable levels. He might hate the class, wish he’d play video games instead, but ultimately becomes better in a field.
This is also the case when you register in a public competition. There is social pressure to perform, and we are compelled to train, prepare and study various techniques how to excel at the competition. This can be highly stressful but the end result is often worth it. We become better and reach a higher level.
Good stress can also be self imposed. When undertaking a task, we can choose to put a cut-off hour and promise ourselves to finish before that time. This creates good stress, cuts off distraction, and we might find ourselves with better skills.
In short, good stress lets us become a better version of ourselves. Knowing this, we should embrace good stress and not shy away from it.
Good stress is not limited to work. It has its application in exercise or biology.
In physical exercise, good stress occurs when we load our musculoskeletal system with a higher mount of exercise. This is painful, but the body recovers, adapts and then motor-performance abilities increase.
In biology, vaccines work with the same principle. Made from a weakened strain of a disease, the vaccine will stress the body. The immune system reacts, and learns to produce adapted antibodies to the stressor. A few scientists also suggest that antioxydants and many other superfood are beneficial because they are in fact mild stressors to the body, like vaccines, encouraging vitality in body cells.
How to Use Good Stress to Our Advantage
Boredom, apathy, and to a certain extend worry and anxiety, are signs that we are not using well good stress.
We can choose to introduce a stressor, be it self-imposed or forced, to change the state of apathy and force a physical or mental reaction.
The stressor or challenge should be mild and can be eventually overcomed with your existing skillset, in a reasonable amount of time. In an ideal situation, we should also choose a stressor that will come with a reward, if overcomed.
For example, if you are bored in your exercise routine, you can choose to register to a competition, and promise to get good results. The reaction is more training, and the reward is the participation medal, and having a better level of fitness. If you are apathetic in your job, you can choose to follow evening continuous education that will increase your skills. The reward here can be new responsibilities at the job or a better job.
Some people choose to introduce big stressors in the life, without being prepared. This is the case of the new finance graduate who moves to New York City and is consequently crushed by Wall Street. They do not have a plan, and are bounced from stressor to stressor like a ball in a pinball machine, before even having the time to adapt to anything, until they are finally discarded from the system.
Let’s also not forget the necessity of rest and recovery days. You cannot be continuously under mental or physical stress. Like the muscle that needs rest after strenuous activity, we must allow ourselves periods of silence without stressors.
I believe the key to a healthy and balance life is knowing how to interact with good stressors. Too little, and we are bored and apathetic. Life is 9-5 monotonous shifts. This is the dreaded routine. Too much, and we have a heart attack. The balance is continuously having interesting challenges, as well mastering skills in the process. This is the state when Usain Bold sprints, when the Blue Zone Sardinian farmer caters to his sheep , or when the master kung fu teacher does a sublime demonstration. There is flow, creativity, satisfaction and happiness.
So… happy good stress?