Eustress – the ‘Good Stress’April 11 , 2013

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I am developing a cool new stress-related product called ReThink Stress that is based on powerful research from Yale which is being published this month in a top psychology journal.  I’ve received permission from the authors of this study to preview some of the most interesting parts of the training with you, dear readers.

It’s odd for many of us to realize that our stress response evolved to help us.  When a saber toothed tiger attacked in prehistoric times, neurochemicals dropped into our body to prepare us to either fight off the tiger or to run away.  This increased our chances for survival and our ability to pass on our genes to the next generation.

And this positive aspect of stress is still valuable to us today, even if you don’t happen to work with saber tooth tigers.  Moderate levels of stress get you moving toward your goals and help you marshal the resources to get something done.  As stress increases, your performance continues to increase, at least up to a point.  We see this in top athletes preparing for competition, neurosurgeons going into the operating room and performers going on stage.  Their stress primes them to be their best.   We call this eustress.

Interestingly, this response is non-specific.  Your body and most parts of your brain can’t tell the difference between lethal threats such as a saber-toothed tiger that may attack and non-lethal threats such as a long list of urgent tasks, an upset boss or a red down-arrow on a stock ticker.

So what is the stress response actually designed to do?  Is it an outdated system that no longer has much use to us?  The research tells us no, that in fact  the same benefits that helped us in prehistoric times can be crucial to thriving in the midst of the chaos of your modern life.

The Research into the Benefits of Stress

We hear a lot about how stress can decrease your cognitive performance.  But there is equally valid scientific research that the opposite is true as well.  For example, in a particularly “X-Games” study, scientists found that subjects in the midst of a bungee jump can process information much faster than a non-free falling control group.

Another cruel-sounding study found that subjects’ memory and performance on standard cognitive tests actually increase when they put their hands into ice water – a rather stressful activity.

Other studies show benefits to your immune system when under stress.  When a group of patients was purposely stressed before going into knee surgery, they recovered at twice the rate of a control group not primed with stress.

This makes sense from an historical perspective.  If you get attacked by a saber toothed tiger, that’s the time you want your immune system working at its optimal level. If you get hit by the tiger, you want your immune system to respond very quickly. This is how vaccines work too.  They stress your body with an overload of antigens to create an active immune response.

It’s also how we get stronger.  Weight lifting stresses our muscles to the point where we break some muscle fibers.  As they heal, they rebuild stronger than they were before.

And some of our most stressful life events, such as battling cancer, being in an accident or going to war, can cause huge leaps in personal growth.  While post-traumatic stress is a real phenomenon, there is huge body of research showing many people come through these challenges having grown not despite of the trauma but because of it.  They feel much more connected with family, friends and society at large.  They find increased levels of resilience and a greater appreciation for life.  Scientists call this phenomenon post-traumatic growth.

The research is clear.  Stress CAN help us be healthier, more productive and grow from traumatic events IF we have the right mindset .  Next post, I’ll talk more about when stress goes haywire and why traditional ‘stress management’ programs aren’t as effective as we’d hope they would be.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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