It’s pretty common knowledge these days that stress is bad for you, but really that’s not the whole story. What we commonly refer to as stress is actually distress. There’s another type of stress and that’s called eustress. It’s the opposite of distress. Eustress helps our minds and bodies adapt to our environment.The stress response is a natural response designed to help us deal with crappy situations. Crappy situations like before civilization. Things like lions trying to eat us and starving to death. This doesn’t happen too often any more, at least in the USA. What’s more common is to worry about losing your job or delivering that report on time. These are distress examples.
The lion trying to eat you thing is pretty short lived. Either you get away from the lion and things go back to normal, or you don’t and it really doesn’t matter any more. This is an acute stress response. It gets you ready to run really fast or fight really hard. It shuts down non-essential systems to increase available energy. These are things like digestion, which is why you get that funny feeling when you get nervous.
There is also a chronic stress response. These have a much longer and more dramatic effect on the body. The after effects of a long term stressor may not even manifest for several weeks or months. This would be like getting really sick a couple weeks after you delivered that term paper you’d been fretting about for months. This kind of stress can also alter your genome. This field of study is very recent and is called epigenetics.
The crazy thing about stress is whether or not something is distress or eustress, which is a positive form of stress and creates beneficial adaptations, is how you react to it. Remember that lion we were running from? Well I happen to think he’s just playing tag and he’s my buddy. I’m having fun while he chases me. I would experience a completely different body response when compared to the person who swears the king of pride rock there is going to eat him.
What does this mean? It really means that how life affects your health is really what you make of it. We create the chemical cocktail that is our body every time we react to a stimulus. I absolutely hate sitting in traffic so every time it happens, I put a lot of extra work on my system. If I could just chill out and enjoy the experience it would go a long way to improving my health. Especially because I spend so much time doing it…
Another “benefit” about the distress model is that it helps to cement the mental picture of that “bad” situation in our heads so that we can avoid it in the future. This is great if you remember that something jumped out from that bush over there and tried to eat you. Not so good if the situation that stressed you out is your job that you go to 5 days a week.
Last fun point about stress is that your mind doesn’t actually differentiate between real and imagined stressors. So when I’m sitting there all morning dreading going to work, I may as well be sitting at work as far as my body is concerned. In fact, if I sit down, close my eyes, and imagine that a lion is chasing me, physiologically I will experience the same body response as though a lion were actually chasing me. Crazy right! So think happy thoughts and don’t dream about lions and tigers and bears!