Recently, I received a really interesting question from a participant in my Foundations of Well-being course. This person had heard that stress itself is normal and that it is our negative reactions to stress that are harmful to us. This idea has significant implications, and I’d like to offer these comments about stress and how people think about it.
Thoughts on Stress
We need to keep the distinctions clear among three things: challenges (i.e., stressors), mobilization of body and mind to meet challenges, and stress.
Stress is a particular kind of body-mind reaction to challenges that is distinct from normal mobilization. Stress usually involves negative emotions such as frustration, irritation, hurt, anxiety, loneliness, or hopelessness. Over time, stress does tend to wear down body and mind, and it creates issues in our relationships.
How we approach challenges and how we relate to experiences of mobilization are distinct from how we approach stress itself. This is not a merely semantic issue. If we blur these distinctions, we open a door to obscuring, minimizing, and tolerating the negative effects of stress.
A person can face a challenge yet not feel stressed.
For example, faced with the prospect of giving a speech, someone could still feel at ease and confident inside. Approaching this challenge, a person could remind herself that she has handled similar challenges in the past, and could feel calmer as a result. But to be clear, this is an approach to the challenge, not to stress itself.
In my work on resilience, I focus on building psychological strengths like grit, calm, and self-compassion that help us approach stressors without getting stressed.
A healthy mobilization response to a challenge is not the same as an unhealthy stressful reaction to a challenge.
As the body-mind mobilizes to meet a challenge – perhaps the heart beats faster, the body tenses a bit to prepare for action, thinking speeds up to focus on what to do – mild emotions such as uneasiness or exasperation hover in the edges of awareness, and there is a general sense of growing intensity; this itself is not stress.
It is, indeed, useful to frame this normal response to challenge as healthy and not a bad thing. Then we don’t add negative reactions to our experience . . . that would make us stressed. But to be clear, this is not changing our approach to stress itself.
It is normal and fine to rev up, be passionate, have a fierce commitment to others, and make strong efforts – typically, with activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – as long as these are accompanied by mainly positive emotions. And there are parallel processes with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS):
- SNS arousal + negative emotions = stress
- SNS arousal + positive emotions = enthusiasm
- PNS arousal + negative emotions = stress (with freezing, dissociating, feeling defeated, helplessness, etc.)
- PNS arousal + positive emotions = calm, tranquility, peace
Consider Alex Honnold as an example, who recently free soloed El Capitan in Yosemite without a rope. While climbing, he is certainly challenged and mobilized, but as he has said: if he is stressed, something has gone terribly wrong.
Stress itself is generally bad for the body and mind, especially if it is sustained and/or intense and/or happens when we are young.
There is MUCH research on this point.
Appreciating that how we approach challenges can protect us from stress – and appreciating that how we approach normal mobilization responses can protect us from stress – should not lead us to minimize or obscure the accumulating negative effects of stress itself. Challenges are good, mobilization is good, but stress is not.
Believing that stress is OK and even positive may inadvertently lead a person to believe that mobilization responses are OK. This could then lead the person to accept these mobilization responses and not get stressed about them . . . which may have health benefits over the lifespan that can be identified in a study. But such health benefits would be based on a misunderstanding. And this misunderstanding opens a door to downplaying the negative effects of stress itself.
Growing from challenges is wonderful. But growing from stress is way overrated.
First, most stress is just . . . stress. There is no growth from it. Most pain has no gain. Second, even if we did grow from the stress itself – somehow growing from feeling pressured, tense, upset, driven, contracted, worried, angry, etc. – that growth from stress comes with the costs of stress; any benefits should be netted against the costs. Third, even if stress itself led to some kind of growth, could we have grown in that way without the stress and its costs? For example, could we have developed self-worth without feeling stressful shame as a child?
Fourth, and perhaps most important, the primary way to grow psychological resources – including resilience, happiness, love, and inner peace – is to have experiences of these resources or related factors that are internalized (i.e., turned into lasting changes of neural structure or function). And those experiences are usually enjoyable and not stressful. In other words, the path to growing the good in our minds and relationships and lives is marked mainly by positive emotions. Stress is usually an indicator that you are off this path.
Of course, getting stressed about being stressed will just create more stress.
Fighting negative emotions just feeds them. As negative emotions and stress arise in awareness, what’s most effective is to accept them with spacious mindfulness . . .
- and be curious about their causes;
- and not feed them;
- and gradually shift attention – as it feels authentically possible – to what is productive, useful, informative, healing, encouraging, enjoyable, etc.;
- and internalize these positive experiences to grow more strengths inside;
- which will help you be less stressed in the future.
Mindfulness of negative emotions and stress is a well-known and wonderful practice. When we’re rattled, upset, or stressed, this is where we should start. But not where we should stop.
Last, we should be generally thoughtful about our ideas and how we put them to use, even accidentally, and even with the best of intentions.
For example, if people believe that stress itself is OK and even positive, they could become more willing to tolerate higher levels of stress in themselves and others at work. This tolerance could reduce their willingness to push back against stressful environments, expectations, and bosses, and it could increase their willingness to stress the people they work with or the people they supervise. There could also be implications for how they think about children and childrearing.
The embracing of stress in high pressure, high tech settings is not coincidental. It may be great for profit but not for people.
More broadly, acceptance and even valuing of stress could further fuel an already turbocharged, driven, multitasking, and time-squeezed culture.
In sum, challenges are part of life, and we can grow from accepting them and mobilizing to deal with them.
While being mobilized – and perhaps revved up and determined and passionate, while experiencing mainly positive emotions – we can view the body-mind responses to challenge as normal aspects of coping and not be alarmed by them.
And when we are, in fact, experiencing negative emotions and stress, we can step back from these reactions, be mindful of them, and not add fuel to those fires.
Meanwhile, we can recognize the costs of stress itself, and grow inner resources that help us meet challenges without paying the price of stress.