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Why Stress Is Surprisingly Good for You

Shannon Harvey

My heart was pounding and the butterflies in my stomach were more like tap dancing elephants. I was at the Sydney premiere of The Connection about to stand up in front of seven hundred people and introduce a film that had taken me three years to make - a film I had given my heart and soul to. The cinema was sold out. It was a big moment and my stress response was in overdrive.  

Given that The Connection is all about the latest research demonstrating the link between our mind, body and health, and given all the evidence that stress is bad for us, as well as my own autoimmune disease which is exacerbated by long periods of stress, you might think that I look back on this stress-charged moment last year as a negative one, and you might think that I’m the sort of person who works to avoid such moments…  

But that’s not how I view stress.  

In fact, while there is abundant evidence showing that chronic stress is harmful to our health and is linked to increased risk of illnesses ranging from depression to heart disease and even death, there is also emerging research showing that short bouts of stress can actually be good for us. For instance mild stress can sharpen your memory, help you recover faster from surgery, or enhance your immune system’s response to a vaccine.  

There are even theories that people with high anxiety have important advantages in threatening situations – advantages that might save the life of other people around them. In this fascinating study researchers put people in a room that slowly filled with smoke. They found those with higher levels of anxiety were able to detect the smoke faster than those who were less anxious. They were therefore able to warn others of the danger faster. Below is a video of some of their reactions. If you’re anything like me, watching the smoke fill the room will make you want to shout a warning to these poor test subjects, even though you know the whole thing is a set up.  

So what’s the difference between good stress and bad stress and how can we use stress in a way that might benefit our health?  

To answer this, it’s helpful to look at the work of leading stress researcher Firdaus Dhabhar, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford. In this TED talk Dhabhar summarises fifteen years of his ground breaking research in just over seven minutes, explaining that in a nutshell, good stress is short term and lasts for minutes or hours rather than days or months. For instance, he runs around with his kids in a park to trigger a mild stress response before they get a vaccination in order to boost their immune response to the shot.  

Dhabhar says we should think of stress as being on a spectrum. At one end is short-term stress where your body mounts the helpful positive response to a threat. This is the body’s fight or flight response giving you extra energy and mobilizing your immune system to prepare for wound healing or infection. When that response is no longer needed, it gets shut down. At the other end of the spectrum is long-term stress lasting for months to years. This is the chronic stress that can lead to wear and tear in the body that researchers call allostatic load. Dhabhar says that in between these two states of stress is a ‘green zone’ of low stress. The idea, he says, is to minimise the bad, chronic stress while encouraging both the good short term and the low stress periods. In essence - a hassle a day may keep the pathogens away.  

If you’re anything like me, then this is going to take a lot of work to get right. I know when I first got sick I was definitely erring too much towards the chronic long-term stress end of the spectrum. (I was the kind of person who thought working through an Easter long weekend was a good opportunity to catch up on things while other people took a break.) But what I’ve learned in the ten years since my diagnosis is that when it comes to stress, perception is the key. I viewed all the stressors in my life (work, relationships, time, money) as monumental. In my head these things were the equivalent of a hungry sabre tooth tiger coming towards me. It was by learning techniques like mindfulness and meditation that I’ve come to understand that these things are certainly not worth losing any sleep over.  

I also do other things to reduce my stress overload including getting plenty of exercise, confiding in understanding people and spending time in nature and the health benefits are dramatic, but when I’m faced with a short term stressor like having to deliver a talk to a crowded room or having a fiery conversation with someone, I see it as a positive challenge. If it’s something I can do something about, I use the energy boost to galvanise my motivation and get the job done. Sometimes these worries are just a red flag telling me something needs to change but if it’s something I can’t do anything about, I practice mental exercises and work on letting it go. That’s where I find meditation really useful.  

I’ll finish with one final thought, which was the inspiration for Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s thought provoking book called The Upside of Stress.   In 1998 researchers studied thirty thousand people in the US and asked them how much stress they’d experienced in the past year. They also asked them to what degree they believed stress was harmful for their health. Eight years later the researchers found that people who believed stress was bad for them and also reported high levels of stress in their lives had a whopping 43 per cent increased risk of dying prematurely. Those who reported high levels of stress in their lives but didn’t believe that stress was harmful had a low risk of early death.  

To put this into perspective the researchers say that if these findings turn out to be true, 20,231 deaths each year in the US would be attributable to having a lot of stress and perceiving that stress affect health. Working out the mechanisms that might explain these stunning findings is for another blog post at another time, but if you’re interested in reading more about belief and health you may like to check out this post.  The point here is that stress has a bad reputation. Many people think that all stress is bad and this belief may actually be doing more harm than good.  

On my part, when I find myself worrying over problems or sensing my heart race and palms getting sweaty, I find enormous benefit in taking a moment to pause and ask - is this the good kind or the bad kind of stress?  

Further information…  

Firdaus Dhabhar‘s TED talk – the positive effects of stress Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk – how to make stress your friend Cute video on stress from the BBC

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