Stress - Friend or Foe?

Stress gets almost universal bad press. It is responsible for heart disease and its close relations of high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. It worsens asthma, causes headaches and depression along with a whole host of gastrointestinal nasties such as IBS and heartburn. It is associated with worsening or increasing the risks of diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease.

Oh, and it makes us all feel rubbish with its side order of insomnia and the emotional symptoms. In short, its credentials as a “foe” are pretty well established, so why would I even suggest it could be our friend?

A colleague sent me an email during the last week of term headlining, “Surprising new science shows benefits of stress”. Amused by the headline, but I confess a little too busy, and dare I say it, “stressed”, to read the rest of the article, I carefully filed it (i.e. left it in my inbox) until now.

Apparently, it is not stress itself that is the Big Bad Wolf of the modern age, but it is our attitude to it. To quote the article “stressing about stress” is what makes it dangerous, with research suggesting that it is the USA’s 12th biggest killer. This by the way makes it more deadly than its homicide rates.

Thanks to a greater interest in neuroscience and physiological explanations for emotions, we know a lot about the role of stress on adrenalin production (our “fight or flight” hormone), but one of our “happy hormones” can also be released as part of a stress response.

Oxytocin can induce anti-stress effects, such as reducing blood pressure, acting as an anxiolytic and thereby reducing our anxiety about the stressor. It can even drive us towards positive social interactions. Sounds good huh?

It seems that the key to accessing the benefits of stress is in our own hands – or rather in our own attitudes to stress, or its source. Stress can act as an energiser or as a response to threat, giving us a boost to run from that lion… or the boss!

When stress is experienced as a challenge, the body reacts with higher performance, increased cardiac efficiency, increased blood flow and more favourable emotions. “Challenge” happens when we feel that we have the resources to cope with a situation.

Threat however, happens when we feel that the situation goes beyond our resources. This is experienced with reduced cardiac efficiency, less favourable emotions and, oh the irony, a decline in our cognitive performance and decision making capacity adding to our woes.

One of the principles used in CBT is that if someone can change their thinking about a situation, they can change their feelings. It follows that if we can change the way we think about stress we can change the impact it has from being a hindrance to being a help. If we can tap into the oxytocin that will help us engage in more social activities we can rally our support networks and perhaps even get others on board to help us out. More importantly, we can use that to negate the ill-effects of stress.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo looked at stressed people who were suffering from “major life disruptors” – in other words the sorts of financial problems, relationship issues and health or career problems that life throws at us all from time to time. This stress increased the likelihood of death by 30%. However, stressed people who helped others and were socially connected to others that had an increased risk of death of… wait for it... 0% (nothing!). That’s right, zilch. Their research showed that helping others reduces stress related deaths.

Personally, I am a little sceptical about research in general – I’m not comfortable with assertions that make great headlines but are a little sketchy on the direction of effect of variables. For example, how is the stress quantified? Is there a tipping point at which stress becomes a barrier to interaction and is that the same for everyone? What were the social networks like before the stressful life events? Does that make it easier or harder?

Regardless of the questions that I can throw at research such as this (and I’m certain that there are hundreds more) there is, if not a causal link, but a distinct correlation with improved social interaction and better mental health, and that correlation extends to good mental health being associated with better physical health. On that basis, next time I’m a tad snowed under, I’m going to see if I can turn it into a challenge and wait for the benefits of new friend stress…

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