A Little Stress is a Good Thing

Stress is misunderstood – it is normal and healthy but can cause problems

By Paul Bolger. Chartered Physiotherapist at Nano Physiotherapy, Kilkenn(www.nanophysio.ie).

Stress is a perfectly healthy part of being alive. In fact, without a strong stress response, we wouldn’t be alive today to complain about all the stress in our lives!

Stress & Survival

Stress helped our ancestors to survive. It is first and foremost a survival response. As Professor Robert Sapolsky explains in his magnificent book on stress, ‘Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers’, the ‘fight or flight’ response prepares our body to deal with a threat (like a lion attack!).

Energy stores in the body are mobilised and enter the bloodstream (increased blood sugar means more energy for muscles and the brain). Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all increase (bringing in oxygen and increasing blood flow). Blood is shunted towards the limbs (to supply muscles that are needed to run away or fight) and to the brain (allowing for fast thinking, heightened awareness and quick responses). The immune system also kicks into gear (to prepare for potential injury).

These are all great things – essential to survival. For most of the time humans have been on this Earth (>250,000 years), the stress response only lasted a matter of seconds or minutes (either they escaped, or they died).

Acute Stress Improves Performance

We have probably all experienced those jitters before a big event – butterflies in the stomach, excitement, nerves. Stress can be a performance enhancer. As we see above – it impacts physical and mental performance (in the short-term).

Stress can also improve memory consolidation. We tend to have more vivid memories from stressful events (whether ‘positive’ excitement and stimulation, or ‘negative’ fear and fright). Again, this has survival implications – if you vividly remember previous danger then you are more likely to avoid dangerous situations in the future.

Stress Turns off the Body’s ‘Building Projects’

As now know, stress shifts the body’s focus to short-term survival. In doing so, it shuts down the body’s ‘building projects’. Things like digestion, growth and repair are all slowed or brought to a halt. Why bother wasting energy on digesting food or repairing an injury when you might not be alive 10 seconds from now?

This is an amazing adaptive response. Key for survival. When stress is infrequent and brief there are no real negative consequences. But maybe you can begin to appreciate how excessive, persistent stress may impact health, considering the effects on the maintenance and development of the body.

The Real Problem with Stress

The problem with stress isn’t the stress response itself – it is the frequency of the stress response as well as the duration of it – with more frequent and longer lasting stress being a massive contributor to health problems in our modern, westernised society.

I don’t mean to cause too much concern here – we are resilient and robust; we can tolerate periods of stress. One or two sustained periods of stress won’t have long term consequences. But we need to do something about constant, repetitive stressors in our lives – both on an individual level as well as a societal level.

Guardians from the Effects of Stress

Even if we are exposed to higher than ideal levels of stress – there are many things that protect us from the negative effects and make us much better able to tolerate stress. We will explore some of these in later articles.

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