I’ve often written about stress, here, here, and here. Most of my writing about it has focused on the detrimental effects upon our body, leadership, and brain. However, I’m now reading an eye opening book by health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonical, The Upside of Stress, Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. I highly recommend it. She also presented a TED talk on the subject that millions have watched. You can watch it here. In this post I summarize three ways stress is actually good for you.
First, a caveat. Prolonged stress is NOT good for us. When our body remains on high alert for long periods of time research has discovered many bad effects result including dampened immunity, digestive problems, heart disease, anxiety, weight gain, impaired brain functioning (especially memory), and sleep impairment.
On the other hand, God wired our bodies to produce a stress response to keep us from being eaten by wild tigers in the Serengeti. Fortunately, he also gave us brains so that we could grow and make our lives safer and more comfortable. So, such a response that He created in us to keep us safe isn’t needed in that same way today, at least for most of us in the west.
At the core of rethinking stress lies a concept McGonical calls mindsets. The term is self explanatory. It simply means the beliefs that shape how we view things. The key to making stress work on our behalf lies in changing our mindsets. If we view periodic stress as beneficial, it actually transforms how the body responds to it. She gives several interesting studies that show how changing our mindsets toward it benefits us. Changing this mindset increases the production of a neurotransmitter called DHEA which helps mitigate the negative effects of the stress hormone, cortisol (among other positive benefits). In fact, studies show that having a positive mindset on aging can add an average of nearly eight years to your life.
Here are the three benefits.
- It gives us more energy to rise to the challenges we face in life. As a pastor I speak every Sunday when I give a 30-40 minute sermon. My stress response system revs up right before I speak. This process actually dumps fat and sugar in to my bloodstream that gives me fuel. The processes in my brain speed up resulting in better focus and concentration. My motivation increases as chemicals get released in my brain and bloodstream. My body uses energy more efficiently. I’m more prepared for the challenge at hand, to bring what I hope is a God inspired talk to encourage others in their relationship with Christ. McGonical calls this the ‘excite and delight’ side of stress.
- It motivates us toward greater social connection. When I read about this benefit, my first thought was, “When we get stressed we tend to pull back to protect ourselves.” That is the case for some. But again, changing our mindset is key. When the stress response activates, it actually releases oxytocin, also called the trust hormone. Oxytocin helps us build bonds with others. A hug can release it. A mom breastfeeding her baby causes the baby’s brain to release it. Oxytocin gives us a greater sense of empathy toward others. This part of the stress response is called the ‘tend and befriend’ response. We might even call this what Scripture describes as community. We need each other, especially in times of difficulty.
- It can actually help us grow and learn. McGonical writes that this benefit occurs when we are in the recovery phase, when we return to a non-stress baseline. The various stress hormones and neurotransmitters actually help us recover from it as much as they help us rise to challenges. For several hours after a stress induced experience our body slowly returns to what is called homeostasis, when our body’s chemicals come back into normal balance. In doing do, the brain learns from the experience. After such an experience we often replay it in our minds or even talk to a friend about it. That process helps cement learnings in our minds so that we know how to better handle similar stressful experiences in the future.
So, stress definitely carries an upside, but the key is mindset. I believe Paul had mindset in mind when he wrote these words.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. (Phil 4.8)
What are your initial thoughts about the benefits of stress?