Many doctors tell us to find a way to cut stress out of our lives. New research suggests this isn’t practical advice.
The Stress Paradox
Pursuing happiness takes work. The process of building healthy relationships or attaining any worthwhile goal involves enduring ‘stressful’ situations. Stress serves an important evolutionary purpose: to prepare the mind and body to perform in difficult times. Today our overactive stress responses prevent us from thriving–unless we can learn to look at stress in a different way.
Stress isn’t inherently bad, though Western culture has made the term ‘stress’ synonymous with distress. Eustress (or ‘Good-Stress’) is moderate psychological stress interpreted as being beneficial for the person experiencing it. It is a positive cognitive response to stress which creates feelings of fulfillment, satisfaction, and pride. Eustress can even improve memory, learning and decision-making.
We can seek out and cultivate this stress in our lives, and help our friends and family do the same. Interestingly, distress/eustress is defined not by the stressor type, but rather by how a stressor is perceived (e.g. as a threat or a challenge). This can be most easily seen in ‘play’ behaviors–meant to mimic real-life stressors in a safe, controlled setting. Exposure to stress and eustress in childhood years can help kids develop skills and coping strategies for dealing with distress.
The Therapeutic Powers of Play explains that “The interplay between our thoughts, individualized biological and neurological reactions, and environment results in large variations in our responses to situations perceived as stressful.” On the other hand, ‘toxic stress’ is the result is the result of strong, frequent or prolonged activation of the body’s stress responses systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a positive relationship with a friend, coach, teacher, counselor, or family member.
Individuals in these roles can help to set up small, predictable stressors which dissipate quickly, providing opportunities to “practice coping skills rather than exhaust them, thereby creating a more resilient, flexible stress response capacity.”
Next time your doctor tells you to cut the stress out of your life, show them this article! Stress within the appropriate parameters is healthy, but like anything else in life–this outlook requires practice!