How Are You Making Your Stress Work For Or Against Your Health?

by
Dr. Ariel Thorpe

When was the last time you were thankful for the stress in your life? We tend to think of stress as having solely negative effects on our lives: work stress, relationship stress, financial stress are all deemed “bad.” But as with most things in life, stress is not inherently bad. We need a certain amount of stress to survive and even thrive. The stress of competition at work can inspire us to think of new creative solutions. Relationship stress can be an indicator that a person may not actually have a healthy place in your life, which can help you eliminate those not worthy of your time and energy. Financial stress may tell you that you’re not living a lifestyle congruent with your income and give you the opportunity to downsize.

At a biological and physical level, stress is vital to our growth and health. Gravity is a stress on our bodies, particularly our bones, as it pulls us closer to Earth. This force is necessary for us to build a strong framework for our body. Without gravity, our musculoskeletal system would never develop properly, leaving us like mushy bags of soft bones and muscles. Of course if Earth had the same gravitational pull as a larger planet like Jupiter, it would be crushing to our bodies. Earth is the sweet spot for humans.

UV is also an example of a physical stress that can be helpful or harmful depending on the amount of exposure. Think back to your last beach holiday when you got a little too much sun and ended up with a sunburn. Too many days like that over time can lead to dangerous changes in skin cell DNA and eventually cancer. But our bodies still need UV exposure in small amounts. Sunshine directly on our uncovered skin jumpstarts our body to create a usable form of vitamin D3, which provides for strong immune systems and bones.

Some research suggests that emotional stress is only harmful when we perceive it as bad. A large study of Americans showed that risk of premature death increased only in people who believed that their stress was bad for their health. Those who did not subscribe to that belief were unaffected. So, our beliefs about stress are more powerful than the stress itself. If you think the stress in your life is going to kill you early, it very well may.

Another study looking at the physical effects of stress on the cardiovascular system (your heart and blood vessels) showed that our perception does not change the physiological effects of emotional stress on the heart. Meaning, our heart rate still increases whether we think the stress is good or bad. However, our perception of the stress as positive or negative does have an impact on longer term health outcomes. The trick is to believe that the stress is helping us learn to adapt to stressful situations better. So, next time you’re facing a stressor like - everyone’s favorite - public speaking, look at it as an opportunity to more easily deal with that stress.

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