The Two-Edged Sword of Stress

Stress has gotten some bad press lately. And not without good reason, I suppose. Nonetheless, while stress can cripple and debilitate, it is also necessary for life and for living. Stress is truly a two-edge sword.

The Joy of Stress

Stress is woven into the fabric of life.  It is part and parcel of the act of living. And here’s s secret you may not know: Stress and happiness are not necessarily mutually exclusive experiences; they can, in fact, exist in the same person at the same time!

Here’s what I mean: I can feel the stress of a deadline and still feel joy in my work. I can feel the stress of becoming a new parent, and still feel an amazing connectedness to the little life I hold in my arms, filled with an intense kind of love and joy and wonder. I can feel the stress of anticipation at the start of a ballgame or a recital and still passionately love the game or music I’m playing … even while I’m feeling the stress.

The amount of stress, of course, is decisive here. Somewhere in the range of “enough” stress and our senses are on alert. Too much and we feel scattered, disconnected and overwhelmed.

The Definition of Stress

According to Dr. Hans Selye, the late endocrinologist who was known as Dr. Stress for his seminal work on the subject, referred to stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.” With that definition, there is really only one way to completely remove stress from our lives … remove life from our lives – not a happiness-producing prospect!

Marriage and parenthood, the effort and desire to be a good employee or parent, buying your first home, hiking, working out, even sex can all produce nonspecific responses of the body to demands made upon it. And yet all such activities and experiences can be related to our happiness.

Stress can keep us at peak performance, ready for exigencies, alert, prepared in the moment to dodge the bullet, shift gears, cut left, think on the run, and be passionate about the thing we are doing that caused the stress to begin with.

The Biology of Stress

Here’s what is happening below the surface:

An external stressor in the form of a real or perceived threat (to body or psyche) is experienced. The brain tells the adrenal gland to dump hormones into the bloodstream. This has the effect of increasing the heart rate and blood pressure, raising the respiratory rate as well. Glucose is released from the liver increasing blood-sugar levels as pupils dilate and blood vessels constrict, readying the body for fight or flight. All this happens without thought or plan. It is instantaneous and is an adaptation of the human body to keep it living in case a tiger should jump from the underbrush.

Peak performances are thereby often accompanied by such releases of hormones and sugars into the body. The only problem is the relocation of the human family away from the jungles and underbrush into the cities where more perceived dangers are experienced than real ones.

So stress sits inside, weighing down and building up, with no apparent or immediate release available.

The Misery of Stress

There is, therefore, a much better known downside to what Hans Selye called distress. And while stress (or distress) can compromise our health and happiness, happiness is still not the result of a stress-free life. Remove too much of life’s stress and you’re left with boredom, a lack of challenge or growth … all ingredients to unhappiness.

Still, while the long-believed link between stress and cancer seems to be non-existent, there is nonetheless a very diverse array of illnesses very closely associated with the silent killer. Hypertension is positively, though indirectly, linked to stress. Stress is also positively linked to anxiety and asthma. Insomnia, headaches, neck aches and other body aches and pains are also related to frequent and high stress levels.

The effect of stress can also lead to high-risk behaviors such as smoking or heavy drinking that, or course, carry with them their own problems.

The Solutions to Stress

Ten Random Ideas for Your Stress-Reducing Consideration

  1. Get enough sleep. Your body (and often stress level) will tell you when you are getting enough.
  2. Take vacations. Have fun. Play.
  3. Work out. Run. Briskly walk. Lift weights. Play a sport.
  4. Plan in advance to avoid hectic scheduling or bottlenecking activities.
  5. Do a little at a time (work, home, whatever your responsibilities are). Break down and chunk steps to make tasks more manageable.
  6. Get started early (dressing, driving to work, dropping off the kids, whatever)
  7. Meditate. Take a yoga class. Stretch. Perform relaxation exercises.
  8. Visit nature. There is a uniquely and contagiously calming and renewing quality to the great outdoors.
  9. Write in a journal or diary. Organizing your thoughts into written expressions, venting anger or disappointment or hurt can be very cathartic, releasing pent up hostilities and resentments.
  10. Change your thinking! (more on this to come)

Bottom Line

Some stress is not only unavoidable, it may even be important to living life well. But there are also levels of stress and frequency of feeling stressed that is decidedly unhealthy. In such cases, happiness is compromised.

There are ways, however, of reducing stress in the short run. The methods are generally relatively easy to master. Long term stress, however, is more difficult to reduce because it requires lifestyle changes or tweaks in the way we habitually think about problems and challenges and potential conflicts. Still, such changes can occur. They are accomplished by taking small but decisive steps toward the goal.

But in the end, it really is about finding balance. So go to work developing new habits of thought and behavior that will help you manage the stress you experience to acceptable levels. In the meantime, a little stress seems to be inevitable and even good for us. So don’t stress over feeling a little stress in your daily pursuit of a happy life.

What do you think? I would love to hear from you!

  • What role has stress played in your life?
  • How has stress helped you?
  • How has stress hurt you?
  • How have you harnessed stress for good?
  • How have you reduced harmful stress in your life?
  • Are you currently struggling with stress?

Please share in the comments below.