Let’s Talk About Stress
By Michele Loewy, MS, LMFTA
My true love. The snooze button in the morning. That is where my stress response for the day begins. If you picked up a Psychology Today magazine in 1996, you may have come across an article about stress claiming the “the biochemical onslaught” in response to stress “chips away at the immune system, opening the way to cancer, infection, and disease (Carpi, 1996). Jean King, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical School is quoted saying, “Chronic stress is like slow poison” (as cited in Carpi, 1996). The message was clear—stress kills!
Yet, in stark contrast, if you Google information about stress today, you will find a myriad of articles about how there are beneficial levels of stress (e.g., McGonigal, 2015). “Stress in appropriate amounts is the very stimulation that keeps us engaged with the world moment to moment” (Singer, 2012). After all, the stress response includes hormone releases like epinephrine which allows oxygenated blood to flow more freely; norepinephrine which restricts blood flow to the skin in case of injury; cortisol which keeps us energized; oxytocin which stimulates social connection (McGonigal, 2013; Singer, 2012). Clearly, our body’s response to stress can be quite adaptive, helping us, supporting us through life’s trials and tribulations. Just on a practical level, I am very grateful for my cortisol boost in the morning. I want this vague “appropriate amount” of motivating, energizing stress, but I do not want the killer stress Dr. King spoke of in 1996. So, now, I am feeling anxious.
My quest for resolution came in the form of a Ted Talk. My current favorite, highly recommended Ted Talk is by health psychologist, Dr. Kelly McGonigal (2013). It is a must see. One of the studies she references is from Keller and colleagues (2012) who conducted a study of 28,753 adults in the U.S. from 1998 to 2006. In 1998, 33.7% of U.S. adults reported holding the belief that stress negatively impacted their health (Keller, 2012). “Those who reported a lot of stress and [believed] that stress impacted their health a lot, had a 43% increased risk of premature death” within the next 8 years (Keller, 2012). Those who reported a lot of stress and believed that stress did not impact their health a lot, had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study (even after accounting for the people who reported experiencing only a little stress in the past year; Keller, 2012, as cited in McGonigal, 2013). Thus, the belief that stress is bad for one’s health is killing more people than some cancers, AIDS, and homicide (McGonigal, 2013). This study shows people are not dying from experiencing high amounts of stress, but from believing that stress negatively impacts their health!
So, back to my original predicament: Do I have to stress about whether or not my stress is at an adaptive or maladaptive level? From Keller and colleagues’ study (2012), I realized I can throw that question out the window. One may conclude we can stop evaluating whether the stress we are experiencing moment to moment is “good” versus “bad” for our health.
While information about stress is shifting, there still remains a sense of urgency to get rid of or reduce “bad” stress, like the nightmare described in the 1996 article (Carpi, 1996). Clients come to clinicians all the time asking for ways to “eliminate” stress and seeking “stress free” lives. By allowing clients to have goals to eliminate stress, we are setting them up for failure. That in itself is stressful, not to mention, unhelpful! Maybe we teach our clients what we learn from Keller and colleagues (2012) – stress in itself is not harmful to their health (we’ll start by saving their lives from premature death!). Moreover, stress can be treated just like any other emotion, feeling, or sensation. It is an experience on a continuum that is a unique mixture of hormonal responses moment to moment. We do not have to evaluate and categorize whether or not the stress is within a productive or maladaptive threshold. Instead, we are liberated to focus on whether or not our choices in the moment are helping us live a meaningful life. We can tolerate the discomfort that may parallel our quests for aligning life with our core values. As I press the off button on my alarm clock, I will remember to nonjudgmentally thank my hormonal stress response, as getting up in the morning is simply an act initiating my quest for a meaningful day.
Carpi, A. (1996, Jan 1). Stress: It’s worse than you think. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199601/stress-its-worse-you-think
Keller, A., et al. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677-684. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22201278
McGonigal, K. (2013, June). Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend?language=en
McGonigal, K. (2015, May 15). Use stress to your advantage: To perform under pressure, research finds that welcoming anxiety is more helpful than calming down. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/use-stress-to-your-advantage-1431700708
Singer, T. (2012, May 13). The perfect amount of stress: Stress is a killer and a life force. How can you tell the good from the bad, and too little from too much? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201203/the-perfect-amount-stress
Michele Loewy, MS, LMFTA has a private practice in Bellevue and Lynnwood, WA. She works with children, teens, and adults. She also provides crisis response outreach for school districts and works in an emergency department. You may contact her via her website at www.eastsidemodernfamily.com.
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