Most any self-improvement article or book will advise you of the perils of stress: sleep disruption, increases in the stress hormone cortisol, cardiac stress, depression, irritability, obesity, relationship disruption, and a tendency to isolate. Chronic stress in particular is correlated to some degree with all of these negative effects and more.
While this all sounds really terrible and like stress should be avoided at all costs, we want you to know about two things:
- there are all sorts of important and positive things that stress does for you and
- your outlook on stress is crucially important and outweighs the actual number of stressors you experience
What possibly can be good about stress?!
Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist researcher at Stanford University, has recently been discussing research showing some surprising variables in our physiological response to stress. In addition to increases in the “stress hormone” cortisol, which is part of the sympathetic nervous system getting activated (increasing your heart rate, etc. in the “fight-or-flight” response) – the “love hormone” oxytocin is also released by the body during a stress response. Oxytocin is part of what allows us to feel connection and love for other people. It may at first seem counterintuitive to have oxytocin released in response to stress, but from an evolutionary perspective, it makes some sense. For example, when the enemy is at the gate, after an earthquake, more people will survive if they are motivated to work together. There is value to bonding and feeling empathy for others during times of stress. Additionally, oxytocin acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and helps heart cells regenerate.
Additionally, with the stress response, the body is preparing for a challenge in really important ways: more oxygen to the brain, increased energy levels and cardiac output, etc. The body is preparing as best it can, and with that challenge, comes growth. Think of the example of the stress associated with exercise: a stress is put on the body (doing push-ups, running 5 miles) which signals that more muscle should be built in those areas to get stronger. Repetition of that stress (more exercise) builds more strength.
What grows with exposure to stress? Stamina and resilience. Two qualities that can help you thrive and cope with stressors in the present and in the future. More on resilience in a second.