Stress – The Facts
Stress has received a lot of negative commentary over the years, but is it really that bad?
Maybe not -as a growing body of evidence indicates otherwise.
So what are the facts?
I’ve spent the past year trying to find them, and this is what I discovered:
My first port of call was to establish historical facts, and what I discovered surprised me: the word stress is borrowed from the field of physics, and was brought to prominence in a health context, by Hans Selye, a Hungarian endocrinologist (1936).
Selye’s work was ground breaking, but at the same time, contributed to the negativity now surrounding stress.
He described stress as an illness, and did a very good job of selling his concept to the medical and academic world.
But his research focused on the biology of stress and its negative consequences on the body, and didn’t highlight the usefulness of stress (although he did try to rectify this in his later work).
Selye’s work was questioned by others in his field. His research was conducted on lab rats who were subjected to methods bordering on torture to illicit what he termed as the ‘stress response’.
These methods he termed as stressors. Stressors he said were those that triggered a biological stress response. And the more severe the stressors, the more severe the stress response, leading to raised levels of stress hormones (distress), most of which he said were dangerous and would lead to illness and disease.
His critics argued that few people were subjected to the distressing extremes used by Selye’s on the lab rats. And whats more, Selye’s work was a hypothesis that the stress response would be the same in humans. In fact, his work never included the human capacity to think and act – and thus modulate the effects of the stress response.
He tried to rectify this in his later work, in response to the growing body of evidence on the benefits of stress, and the human capacity to modulate the stress response. But Selye had had laid the foundations: stress was bad for you.
However, as time evolved, and stress was adapted and scrutinised by others – such as Sister Calista Roy in the nursing profession (1964) and physiologist John Wayne Mason M.D. (1971), stress moved beyond the initial findings of Selye to include a more holistic understanding of stress and the stress response.
For example; evidence started to emerge that human capacity, social interactions, environmental and experiential factors, could all influence how humans perceived and responded to stress.
Stress continues to be a hugely researched topic, in particular throughout the medical, mental, sports, educational and business fields.
And the tide is turning.
The new science of stress tells us that stress is vital for protection and performance – in other words – stress keeps us safe and helps us succeed. It also tells us that our mind can play a crucial role in how we manage and control stress.
One of the experts in this field, Dr Kelly McGonigal, refers to this as the ‘stress mindest’ In her ground breaking book titled “The Upside of Stress” Dr McGonigal says:
“Stress isn’t bad for us. Instead of trying to eliminate stress, we can change our mindset and use stress to improve our lives and performance”
- Stress is a term used to describe a normal biological process in the human body
- Stress is hardwired into our biology for protection and performance
- Stress is a natural bodily function which helps us achieve and cope.
- Stress can be helpful and unhelpful
- Distress is a term used to describe negative stress
- Eustress is a term used to describe positive stress
- A stressor is a term used to describe that which triggers a stress response in the body
- Stressors can be internal or external
- The stress response is a normal bodily reaction in response to an internal or external event (otherwise known as a stressor)
- The stress response will dictate stress outcomes, (eg, positive/negative or eustress/distress)
- The stress response can be modulated by the human capacity to think and act
- Distress can have negative effects on your physical, mental and emotional health.
- If you feel overwhelmed by distress you should seek assistance or professional help
It would seem stress is only bad for us when it becomes distress at elevated levels and/or for prolonged periods of time. Having said that, some levels of distress are required for coping and achieving, and our mind has the capacity to modulate stress levels via our stress response.
The facts also reveal that stress is a normal bodily function and hardwired into our operating system to help us cope and achieve – in other words, stress is here to stay and is here to help us meet challenges.
With that said, I’m joining Dr Kelly McGonigal in the ‘face and embrace’ camp – and advocating for a flipped approach to understanding, utilising and managing stress.