* Based on “The Upside of Acute Stress” by Kristin Sainani, Ph.D. Stanford Magazine, May/June 2014, pp 50-53
Stress stories almost always begin with “There you are stuck in traffic. You can feel your blood pressure rise and hear your rapid pulse thumping in your ears.” Traffic, Ha! Here in the Northland we are blessed with scenic Lake Superior and an absence of traffic stressors. We think we are much better off without stress. But not so fast! Recent scholarly research portrays stress with a positive aspect when viewed in a model containing good stress, tolerable stress, and toxic stress.
There is an important difference between acute and chronic stress, with poor health more often happening under conditions of chronic stress. That’s not surprising, but in controlled studies using temporary acute stressors there were positive gains in healing rate and heightened immunization antibody response. How come? One plausible explanation is that acute stress is beneficial when interspersed among periods of low- or no-stress.
We’ve all learned that increased exercising helps remove perceived stress, but the actual working mechanism may be at odds with conventional wisdom. Exercise may work by being a short-term stressor wedged between pre- and post-periods of rest. That means physical exertion has the dual benefit of an applied stressor and its removal a zone of calm. Referring back to urban, rush-hour traffic, if you are stuck for just a short time followed by smooth-flowing, comforting traffic, then you have just experienced a good-good stress experience.
Another twist in the good-stress paradigm occurs in positions of leadership where it is assumed that high-demanding leadership roles are high-stress jobs. Not always! If a leader has a very demanding position but also has a high perceived autonomy, then the tide of stress changes. Such leaders manifest lower resting cortisol and self-reported anxiety when compared to a comparable group of non-leaders. These leaders appeared to be more taxed as inferred from their significantly lessened sleep time per night, but it is the quality of sleep that matters more than sleep duration. Also, stress levels for these leaders was directly associated to their greater sense of control.
So maybe stress can be both a wellness opportunity and a health threat. It all depends upon where you are located on the Good Stress/Bad Stress scale. As can be seen in the “smiley-faces stress chart” five factors are associated with the level of health that stress can promote or impede:
– GOOD; Acute (minutes to hours)
– BAD; Chronic (days to years)
– GOOD; High Autonomy;
– BAD; Lack of Control
– GOOD; Increased Immune Mobilization,
– BAD; Suppressed Immune Mobilization.
– GOOD; Sustainable Physical Exertion,
– BAD; Hypertension, Heart Attack, Stroke
– GOOD; Neuroplasticity
– BAD; Decreased Cortical Function
Duration and Psychosocial factors are observable for us. That is, we get the opportunity to sense, perceive and possibly comprehend the message, should we choose to do so. But we don’t choose to say “I know how to solve this situation.” Instead we observe the stressful event and utter the wishful question “Will this ever end?” The habit of wishful thinking produces stress!
Wishes become habitual responses to big parts of life. Response habituation brings with it resistance and defensiveness that stops wishes from turning into dreams then plans then goals. Logically, wishful thinking makes little sense. Emotionally, wishful thinking offers “escape” and stress is all it costs you.
Of course, staying with your same old habits is comfortable. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Die Too Soon” can be your life’s jingle. And the three factors outside the realm of your personal consciousness won’t disturb you until it’s too late to change. The moral of this stress story: It’s your stress and your decision. As Dr. Kelley McGonigal, health psychologist and Stanford lecturer, observes: “In a way (a little good) stress is a kind of engagement with life.”
NOTE: Dr. Al is a graduate of Stanford (Class of ’64) and proud of it.