Stress research is a huge and growing field of science. Stress can trigger and exacerbate many types if physical (heart disease, diabetes, asthma, obesity, etc) and mental disorders (anxiety, depression, etc). Stress has also been shown to negatively impact the immune system on a cellular level. It’s no wonder we hear so much about how stress is bad.
But, what most reports fail to highlight is that we only really need to worry about chronic stress. Chronic stress, as mentioned in the pre-requisite entry, is more dangerous because of the long-term health effects posed by an elongated stress response. So, why is stress getting a bad rap (or why do I think so)? Two reasons: 1. Failure to differentiate between chronic stress and acute stress/normal stress. 2. Failure to recognize that some (acute) stress is good for you! That’s right, I said it. Some stress is good for you! Let’s take an example that everyone can relate to: TAXES!
Most people would agree that doing taxes is stressful. I concur. But let’s break down the experience. Tax time comes around, and you start to feel the tension, the worry, the pressure. Why do you feel those things? It could be a number of things, but most likely you have that reaction because doing taxes is unpleasant, and could cost you time and money. The idea of taxes is also unpleasant because it’s something we must do. If we don’t there are potentially major repercussions (i.e. audit, jail time). Taxes also have potential to affects our financial security and even potentially affect our home life and relationships. The actual tasks associated with taxes are also unpleasant; the forms and language are confusing, the mathematical calculations, etc. Essentially everyone finds these experiences unpleasant. The big questions are “How do you deal with the unpleasantness? How do you cope?” Some people suck it up, gather the appropriate forms, envelopes, stamps, software, whatever is needed, put aside some time, and file their taxes, on time. Other people avoid filing their taxes, either through procrastination, or by failing to file entirely.
If you avoid your taxes (or dealing with any stressor), you are setting yourself up to experience stress over a longer period of time, whether you put it off until the last minute, or you don’t do them at all, in either case you are going to worry about your taxes more and for a longer period of time, thus welcoming and contributing to chronic stress in your life. Not good.
If you approach your taxes, engage the process, and take the steps necessary to complete the task, then you will successfully remove the stressor, sooner rather than later. Good for you!
So what’s the real difference in these two reactions? Everyone experiences some initial stress associated with doing taxes, but some people, over the long-term experience less stress associated with taxes (or with their job, relationship, bills, whatever). The major difference is that individuals who engage the process of doing these taxes used the initial feelings of stress to inform and guide their behaviors. Individuals who avoided doing their taxes did not gain anything from the experience of stress.
Stress is part of our physiology (and psychology) for good reasons. Stress can be very informative. It tells us when something is wrong, when we are in danger, or something in our life needs attention. Stress acts like a signal system that tells us to take action (whether it be run from the hungry lion, or deal with our taxes, or whatever the source of stress may be). Acute stress is not something to be avoided, it is meant help us recognize how and when there opportunities to reduce long-term experiences of stress. Problems arise when we ignore and avoid responding to our stress, or do so lackadaisically, or irrationally.
Let’s go back to the question at hand: Is stress getting a bad rap?
Yes, I think so. Current societal trends encourage eliminating all stress from our lives. Instead of eliminating or avoiding all stress, we should engage it. We should be listening to the stress our lives. Use it to inform our decisions, guide our actions, help us prioritize and be a source of motivation. As it stands, based on our current conceptualization of stress, I suggest that we are missing an opportunity to live more productive and efficient lives and live with less chronic stress.
*The ideas from this post stem from various pre-existing theories of stress, namely Social Problem Solving Theory (see D’Zurilla & Goldfreid, 1971; D’Zurilla & Nezu, 1982). Social Problem Solving (SPS) Theory is part of my current asthma research and will be discussed in more detail in its own entry. Stay tuned!