Whether you're confronting a difficult person or avoiding a confrontation with that person at all costs, you're experiencing the same physiological stress response: the difference is in how you react to it.
It's a balmy spring afternoon and you are on the way to your granddaughter's high school graduation. As an honored alumna of the same high school, you have agreed to speak at the ceremony. Your cab driver is making good time, and all is going well until, without warning, traffic comes to a standstill. In the same instant, heavy rain starts to fall. "I'll just use this time to review my speech," you tell yourself. Rummaging in your bag for the remarks you drafted last night, you discover that the remarks are not there.
Scenario #1 -- You cycle through alternating emotions of panic and despair. It's over, you tell yourself. You'll never get there on time. If you do, you won't have a speech ready. What a disaster!
Scenario #2 -- Fueled by a rush of adrenaline and nervous energy, you take out a pen and attempt to reconstruct your remarks, hoping beyond hope that the traffic will clear up in time for you to make the graduation.
In either scenario, whether you give up or press forward, you are responding to the same internal force: your own stress response.
It's easy to imagine any number of daily situations that cause stress. The process of trying to get a cab during rush hour, wondering for a brief panicked moment if you lost your keys, or simply making it to an appointment on time involve varying amounts of stress. Each time something like this happens, the brain reacts by releasing adrenaline, cortisol and other chemicals. We developed this response to help us through adversity, but all too often stress does the opposite of help -- it produces anxiety and fear. How is it that the same fundamental reaction can produce such different outcomes?
The difference between good and bad stress
Up until 1939, the term "stress" was not as fraught with emotional significance as it is today. Stress was a physics term used to describe external forces acting on a malleable metal. A Hungarian endocrinologist, Hans Selye, was the first to use the word "stress" to describe the way humans respond to adverse situations. Selye's work established him as the premier authority on stress, and many of his books on the subject became best-sellers.
One of Selye's notable tenets is that not all stress is bad: rather, there is "good" stress and there is "bad" stress. He called the good stress "eustress," ("eu" is the Greek prefix meaning "good") and the bad stress "distress."
Whether you're confronting a difficult person or avoiding a confrontation with that person at all costs, you're experiencing the same physiological stress response: the difference is in how you react to it. According to Selye, good stress makes us leap to action with a sense of hope, whereas bad stress -- usually the result of chronic long term stress -- destabilizes and breaks us down. The key to having a "good" stress reaction is bringing hope and engagement to the situation.
April is National Stress Awareness Month, a time to take stock in how we deal with the various stressors we encounter. Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, has devoted much of his career to figuring out how humans can maximize good stress and minimize distress. While diet and exercise are popular choices for many stress experts, Dr. Benson emphasizes spiritual and cognitive approaches. Two powerful approaches include the practice of meditation and an active engagement with our beliefs.
Meditation: In 1968, Dr. Benson discovered that a group of students at Harvard could lower their blood pressure through meditation. His in-depth study showed that meditation produced mental and physiological effects that counteracted the negative effects of stress. These effects included lowered blood pressure, a decreased rate of respiration and lower blood lactate levels. Since Benson's study, many other studies have linked meditation to improved mental and physical health.
The power of belief: Our beliefs have an extraordinary influence on our wellbeing. It's not every day that the medical community prescribes religious belief, but when it comes to stress, Dr. Benson is all for it. He advises, with a somewhat broad stroke: "Believe in what you know to be important to you, and that belief can definitely counteract the harmful effects of stress...Believe in relationships, and if you're of a religious nature, believe in God. That's good for us because it gives us hope, and hope is a very wonderful way to cope with many of the stresses of everyday life."
Stress will arise in life no matter what, but in most cases this is not essentially good or bad. It is the approach we choose that makes all the difference.
ADAM JOHNSON WRITES FOR YOUVILLE ASSISTED LIVING RESIDENCES, MEMBER OF COVENANT HEALTH SYSTEMS, A CATHOLIC, MULTI-INSTITUTIONAL HEALTH AND ELDER CARE ORGANIZATION SERVING NEW ENGLAND.
Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England.