It is safe to assume that everyone has experienced stress at least once. Stress is an adaptation for human survival, but many of us feel that it is more burdening than helpful. We have all felt the strains of essays and projects and summaries and reports and exams. We sweat and breathe faster and get all uptight. Even now as I write this, with a deadline looming, the pressure and emotions coursing through me reinforce my point. But it may be that stress is not all bad. According to experts, stress can exist in two forms: acute and chronic. The chemicals released in either case are similar, but the period over which they influence the body is different— short-term and long-term. I want to investigate how stress is understood, and misunderstood, in the body.
Stress can be considered a chain reaction of events that occur on a molecular level within the body. Fundamentally, the stress reaction of the human body occurs when a stimulus perceived as a threat is encountered and is relayed to the brain via the sympathetic nervous system. The brain then starts a chemical chain reaction that results in epinephrine (otherwise known as adrenaline) and cortisol being released into the bloodstream among other chemicals.1 These chemicals increase cardiac output, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. Each of these physiological effects allows your body to respond quickly and effectively in the face of existential danger. These effects are of great benefit to the organism in many situations.
However, in many contexts stress can have negative implications. Stress, in the form of adverse events, chronic strain, and trauma has a substantial impact on physical and mental health. Additionally, stress even influences our subjective age, which is how old we feel, look, and would like to be. Bellingtier et al compared participants who were stressed multiple times daily to those who weren’t. The participants’ perceived stress level was used to distinguish between stressed and unstressed participants. In evaluating participants opinions as a function of their perceived stress level, the study found that people tend to feel younger than their actual age when they are not stressed. The unstressed also tended to believe they appear younger to others than their actual age. On the other hand, those who were stressed reported feeling their actual age and believed that they appeared their age to others.3 The findings thus show that people who are otherwise optimists about their age are made pessimists by their stress. Yet in addition to the psychological effects, stress also has well known physical consequences. Chronic stress is understood to impair the immune system, damage the cardiovascular system and kill brain cells.
The effects of stress on both physiology and mental health are sufficiently high to warrant immediate stress management. However, 83% of Americans are not actively managing their stress.4 This negligence is both dangerous and disheartening. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist from Stanford University, has been studying the scientific literature on stress and is coming to some unexpected conclusions. One such study followed 30,000 participants in the United States over eight years.
Participants were asked to rate their stress level and to predict whether their stress level negatively impacted their health. They then did nothing more than follow the health records and public death records of those involved. Predictably, those who reported feeling a lot of stress in the previous year were 43% more likely to die, suggesting a link between stress and mortality. Remarkably, though, the impact of stress on life expectancy was contingent upon how harmful the participant believed stress to be. The people who reported high stress levels but did not think stress was bad for them were no more likely to die than those who were unstressed. Moreover, those who were stressed but did not believe it bad for their health had the lowest death rate of any group in the study.5 The researchers projected that over the eight years they investigated, around 183,000 people died in the U.S. not just from stress, but from stress along with the idea that stress is dangerous.5
Another study cited by McGonigal included a social stress test. The participants were forced to make impromptu presentations of their personal weaknesses in front of a panel of experts who were told to provide only negative body language feedback. The participants were taught to consider their stress responses as helpful, and to consider their increased heart rate, sweating and anxious feelings as energizing. They were trained to think of an increased respiration rate as helpful for getting more oxygen to the brain. These participants experienced an altered physiological responses to stress.5 Whereas stress typically causes an increased heart rate and vasoconstriction of the blood vessels, those who were trained to consider stress helpful experienced no narrowing of the blood vessels, although their heart rate increased.5 Overall this is an improved state from a viewpoint of cardiovascular health. In fact, this physiological state mimics the physiological state during moments of joy.5 Therefore, embracing stress in our minds as as beneficial repurposes stress to be exceedingly beneficial physiologically. This change is incredible, because the physiological alteration over the course of a human lifetime might mean the difference between having a stress-induced heart attack early in life or living well into old age.
With new discoveries appearing constantly, the understanding surrounding stress is changing. While research has generally displayed a link between chronic stress and health difficulties, the new research on stress is looking at how mentality affects the body’s physiological response to stress. If you look at stress as helpful in surmounting a challenge, as a natural response designed to allow us to survive a difficult scenario, then science tells us that the body will respond positively to that end, the negative side effects of stress melting away into constructive physiological advantages. So next time you find yourself stressed out‒heart pounding, panting, sweating‒ think of the science that says these are good things; think of how your body is reacting to help you, and science might just save your life and your grade on that report. Thank you science, you are the best.
1. Borel, B. (2015, March). What happens to your body when you’re stressed: When your car dies or a deadline looms, it triggers a chain reaction. Popular Science
2.Thoits, P. A. (2010). Stress and health: Major findings and policy implications. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51, 1/19/2016. doi:10.1177/0022146510383499
3. Bellingtier, J. A., Neupert, S. D., & Kotter-Gühn, D. (2015). The combined effects of daily stressors and major life events on daily subjective ages. The Journals of Gerontology, 71(1), 1/19/2016. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbv101
4. Goewey, D. J. (2014). Stress, the brain, and the neuroscience of success: Building the mindset to beat the stress. Benefits and Wellness Excellence, 2(3), 16.
5. Sasha, C. (Producer), & McGonigal, K. (Director). (2013, September). How to make stress your friend. [Video/DVD] Edinburgh: TED Talks.