Stress. Anxiety. Ugh!
We’ve been conditioned as human beings to believe that stress and anxiety are bad things, dangerous to mental, emotional and even physical health.
But what if stress and anxiety had a brighter, more positive side? What if, at some level, both of these demons of modern life were actually good for us?
Sure, stress and anxiety can reach “critical mass,” unhealthy levels that place undue strain on the body, the mind and even the spirit. Stress has even been shown to dramatically increase the Allostatic load on the body. Allostatic load is defined as “the cost of chronic exposure to elevated or fluctuating endocrine or neural responses resulting from chronic or repeated challenges that the individual experiences as stressful.” (1)
Frequent or chronic stress and anxiety maintains the body in a state of allostasis, or response to stressors. Without the ability to recover from these episodes, the brain and body are under constant attack and constant wear and tear at a cellular level. This is a topic I will address in future articles.
Psychologists have long recognized, however, that both stress and anxiety are realities of life. They’ve also known that they have positive, helpful roles to play in our daily lives and our development as human beings. That concept was the subject of a presentation at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.
“Many Americans now feel stressed about being stressed and anxious about being anxious. Unfortunately, by the time someone reaches out to a professional for help, stress and anxiety have already built to unhealthy levels,” said Lisa Damour, PhD, a private-practice psychologist who presented at the meeting. Damour also writes a regular column for The New York Times and is author of the book “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”
Stress in humans happens when we operate at the edge of our abilities. When we push ourselves or are pushed by events in our lives to stretch past our familiar limits, stress is happening, according to Damour. Stress can be positive or negative. It can come from both good and bad events. Failing a test in college or being fired from a job can lead to negative stress. Bringing home a baby for the first time or getting a big promotion at work can produce positive stress.
“It’s important for psychologists to share our knowledge about stress with broad audiences: that stress is a given in daily life, that working at the edge of our abilities often builds those capacities and that moderate levels of stress can have an inoculating function, which leads to higher than average resilience when we are faced with new difficulties,” she said.
Anxiety, too, has been maligned a bit too much, according to Damour.
“As all psychologists know, anxiety is an internal alarm system, likely handed down by evolution, that alerts us to threats both external — such as a driver swerving in a nearby lane — and internal — such as when we’ve procrastinated too long and it’s time to get started on our work,” said Damour.
If we see anxiety as having a “good side” or as being protective and helpful, we may actually be able to use it to our advantage. Damour says she often advises the teens she works with in her private practice to notice if they start to feel anxious at a party. It may very well be their nerves alerting them to a problem.
“Similarly, if a client shares that she’s worried about an upcoming test for which she has yet to study, I am quick to reassure her that she is having the right reaction and that she’ll feel better as soon as she hits the books, ” she said.
Before we get too cozy and comfortable with having stress and anxiety, let’s remember that it can still be harmful. Stress becomes unhealthy when it’s chronic, meaning there is no allowance for the possibility of recovery, or traumatic, i.e., psychologically catastrophic.
“In other words, stress causes harm when it exceeds any level that a person can reasonably absorb or use to build psychological strength,” she said. “Likewise, anxiety becomes unhealthy when its alarm makes no sense. Sometimes, people feel routinely anxious for no reason at all. At other times, the alarm is totally out of proportion to the threat, such as when a student has a panic attack over a minor quiz.”
Left unaddressed or untreated, stress and anxiety can make you miserable in a lasting way. They can also spur a myriad of other psychological and medical symptoms, including depression, high blood pressure, reduced cognition, disrupted sleep, weight gain/loss and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
“Anyone feeling overwhelmed by stress should, if possible, take measures to reduce his or her stress and/or seek help from a trained professional to learn stress management strategies. For the management of anxiety, some people find relief through workbooks that help them to evaluate and challenge their own irrational thoughts. If that approach isn’t successful, or preferred, a trained professional should be consulted,” said Damour. “In recent years, mindfulness techniques have also emerged as an effective approach to addressing both stress and anxiety.”
Damour also encouraged psychologists to help people understand that it’s not reasonable to never feel stress, anxiety or even unhappiness. She calls for counter-messaging to what she calls “the happiness industry,” those wellness companies or gurus selling the idea that you should exist all the time in a zen, calm, relaxed little cocoon while the world spins around you.
“Psychologists are good at taking a more measured approach to thinking about the human experience. We want to support well-being, but don’t set the bar at being happy nearly all of the time. That is a dangerous idea because it is unnecessary and unachievable,” she said. “If you are under the impression that you should always be joyful, your day-to-day experience may ultimately turn out to be pretty miserable.”
- International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2001