Stress is (un)healthy

We need to reduce stress or avoid it altogether. Stress management seminars are here to help us – we learn relaxation or breathing techniques to help us calm down and avoid the harmful effects of too much stress. Who would question that stress is bad? 85% of the 2500 participants in a study conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health (2014) believed that stress is harmful for them. No wonder, because we are constantly reminded that stress is bad and warned that an overly active sympathetic nervous system (the performance-boosting part of our system, the part that governs our fight or flight response) puts our bodies into a constant state of alarm. In the end, this weakens our immune system, reduces our libido, and can lead to cardiovascular problems down the line. The thinking goes: In the evolutionary past, our stress response and the activation of our sympathetic nervous system used to save our lives. They gave us that little bit of extra energy to flee from dangerous animals or constricted our arteries, so we didn’t bleed out from inevitable wounds. Today, these anachronistic mechanisms are a useless, even harmful legacy of times long forgotten. We should do everything in our power to avoid stress. But is that possible? And is it actually necessary?

To answer the first question, the health psychologist Kelly McGonigal invites us to take part in a thought experiment: Imagine we could remove every stressful day from last year. A year without stress. What would remain? Would it be a happy year? Or did we cut out exactly those moments that give our lives their sense? The moments that made us move forward and learn and progress as human beings?

In her provocatively titled book: The Upside of Stress – why stress is good for you” (2015), McGonigal refers to the findings of Ng et al. (2011), who had checked the global Gallup survey data to find a positive link between perceived stress and well-being. In that sense, we should probably not actually wish for a life without stress.

Science also has some surprising things to tell us about the point of stress reactions. There are numerous studies that show the exact opposite of common wisdom: Stress actually helps us cope with challenging situations. Stress makes our senses more acute; indeed, stress can make our brains grow – if we use it right. That sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? The key for a positive effect of stress seems to be our attitude about it: Can we teach ourselves to consider stress a vital resource? Or are we – as most people are – convinced that stress harms us?

Researchers from the United States have analysed data from the National Health Interview Survey of 1998, which had asked almost 30,000 people about their perceived level of stress, the state of their health, and their beliefs as to whether stress is harmful for them. This data was compared to the mortality rate of the sample in 2006 (Keller et al., 2011). It became apparent that the people who experienced greater stress were indeed more likely to die. But the most surprising finding was that they were also the ones who were convinced that stress had a harmful effect on their health. In other cases, no link between perceived stress and mortality could be found. This would seem to suggest that it is our attitudes about stress that determines how it affects us.

Several researchers have looked more into this and have confirmed the finding. Jamieson et al. and Crum et al. conducted several studies that split the participants into two groups: The first group was given information to the effect that stress responses are a sign that more energy is released for the body to respond actively to the stressor – e.g. changes caused by a company restructuring, or a crisis period (trial group). The second group was told how harmful stress could be and that it should be avoided whenever possible; or they were not given any information about stress at all (control sample). The results all point in the same direction: If we accept the idea that stress can help us master difficult situations, then we can indeed let stress work for us. The stress responses were actually stronger in the trial group than in the control group (measured in terms of the concentration of stress hormones in their saliva), but the individual experience of the situation was much more pleasant overall. The most fascinating result was that the trial group produced objectively better performance than their peers and that they enjoyed better health even months later (cf. Crum et al., 2013, and Jamieson et al., 2010).

Next time you feel your pulse racing and your hands getting sweaty, just tell yourself: “My body is giving me an extra energy boost so that I can do my best. Thanks, buddy!”