Whaddaya Mean, Stress Isn’t Always Bad?

I was more than a little shocked, years ago, when my graduate school professor informed my class that stress is a good thing, up to a point. You might, as I did at the time, find this hard to believe.

But hang on! Here’s the definition of stress: The activation of our physical and emotional resources to cope with the challenges of  life. Now when that challenge is a traffic jam or a deadline at work, that’s no fun. But if we didn’t like getting activated now and again, why would we do this?

roller coasterOr this?

two men fencing

photo credit: Frog and Onion (from Wikimedia Commons)

Or play any sport, or read a mystery novel for that matter. If feels good to get the heart thumping a bit and the juices flowing.

But even when we’re not doing something quite as drastic as fencing or hanging upside down from a roller coaster, stress is a good thing, up to a point, in everyday life.

Let me go back and explain a few things first, so this will make more sense.

Why Stress Has a Bad Reputation

Our bodies were designed to handle far more primitive challenges than we face today. Most of the challenges our cave-person ancestors encountered were physical, such as hunting for food or fending off wild animals and hostile tribes.

So our bodies have this thing called the stress response, that prepares us for physical action to deal with those physical challenges. Heart rate and blood pressure go up, adrenaline’s released, muscles tense, you start sweating, and your digestive system temporarily shuts down (because it’s more important to deal with the sabertooth tiger trying to eat you than it is to digest what you just ate).

pacing tiger

Today, however, 90% of our challenges are psychological/emotional–coping with changes in our lives, relationships, deadlines, etc. So you’re sitting at your computer all stressed out about the report/paper you’re trying to finish for your boss/teacher, while your body is preparing you to fight off sabertooth tigers. All those physical changes take a toll on your body, especially when you don’t actually do anything physical in response to the stressor.

There’s a part of our nervous systems, called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), that  deals with all this. The ANS has two branches, the sympathetic branch (SNS) that causes all those changes listed above (plus several more) and the parasympathetic branch (PNS), that brings our bodies back to a calm state once the challenge or threat is over.

So after our ancestors fought the sabertooth tiger, their bodies would go “ah, time to relax.” (Assuming they won, that is.) Their PNS would kick in. Heart rate and BP came back down, muscles relaxed, digestion came back online, and life was good again. 🙂

In modern society, we tend to be stressed for longer periods of time, with no physical outlet. This is what does such a number on our bodies! You’ve probably heard the old expression, “All dressed up and no place to go.” Well, this is all revved up and no place to go!

 Why Do We Feel Stressed?

We tend to assume that our stress level is dictated by how much we have on our to-do lists. But stressors are not the only factor involved.

That grad school prof I mentioned above (Dr. George Everly, Loyola University, Maryland) taught us a three-factor model to understand stress. His explanations regarding how stress works and what to do about it made so much sense, they have stuck with me for 30 years! And I’ve passed them on to hundreds of my students.

I’ll go into more detail regarding these factors in future posts. For now, a brief summary.

The first factor is the stressors. Some events–getting married, losing a job, etc.–are biggies in the stressor category, but a lot of little stuff can add up as well. And even good events contribute to our stress load, because they still require resources to deal with them. Take vacations, for example. We go on them to relieve stress, right? But they also cause stress! We’ve gotta plan them, pack for them, make sure stuff at work is organized to get along without us, deal with traveling hassles, worry about lost luggage… you get the picture.

lugage on airport carousel

photo credit: Lynn Kelley Author (from WANA Commons)

In my pre-Christmas post on managing stress overload, I talked about how to reduce stressors by dumping, delegating and postponing some of them. I’ll deal with stressors some more in a later post as well.

The second factor in how stressed we feel is our body’s response to stress. There are several issues here. One is whether our bodies have any predisposed vulnerabilities to stress-induced illnesses. Another is our innate tolerance for stress (called our stress threshold). More on this in a moment. And last but not least is how often we relax our bodies, something that makes a huge difference in our stress level.

Third is our cognitive and emotional interpretation of the stressors. There are exceptions, but most stressors are not stressors until we interpret them as such. Quick example: I love to drive. I find it relaxing. For my husband, it is one of the most stressful aspects of life. How we perceive stressors is going to be affected by our personalities and our past experiences.

In later posts I’ll dissect these factors a bit more. Today, I want to focus on the stress threshold aspect of the body’s response.

So Get to the Point; Why Is Stress Good, Up to a Point?

Okay, okay. Here it is.

We all have a stress threshold, the point at which our coping ability is exhausted. Below that threshold, stress is a good thing. It motivates and energizes us. Have you ever had a day (hopefully you’ve had many like this) when you’re feeling good, chugging along at a nice pace, getting a whole bunch of stuff accomplished? I love days like that! The challenges are manageable and I’m being activated to meet them. That activation makes me feel alive and gives me a sense of achievement.

The problem arises when the stress level hits our threshold, and sometimes–no, make that often–we don’t see this coming. We may feel our best, the most energized and alive, when we’re hovering dangerously close to this threshold. And then one more little stressor comes along, and whammo, we’re over the edge.

This threshold is an on-off switch. When our coping ability is gone, it’s gone. One minute we’re handling everything, the next, we’re not handling anything.

When I was thirty, I was in graduate school, working full-time, starting my own business on the side and raising a preschooler. ~ Okay, that sentence stressed me out just typing it. ~ But at the time, I thought I had a handle on it all. I was revved! Life was exciting and satisfying.

That fall (ironically, while I was taking Dr. Everly’s class), mortgage interest rates dropped and my husband and I naively decided it would be good to refinance our house. Before we realized what all was involved in this, we were committed. One evening I came home from work, and sitting on the table was yet another letter from the bank informing us of yet another thing we needed to do, and pay for.

I lost it! I started slamming doors and yelling things that brought into question the pedigree of the bank employees. I had gone totally over the stress-overload cliff. When I finally simmered down, my husband (bless him) calmly said, “Maybe I should handle the refinance. You’re a little stressed out right now, dear.”

It was a tough lesson learned. Stop and think before you pile yet another stressor on an already full plate.

Here’s another sneaky problem with this dang threshold thing. There are actually two of them. The one I just described is our psychological one. The other is our health threshold. We’ve reached that one when our tissues and organs are suffering more wear and tear per day from stress than can be repaired that night while we sleep. When we’re past that threshold, we’re putting ourselves at risk for a whole slew of stress-related ailments, including heart disease and cancer.

And here’s the total kicker. The health threshold is lower than the psychological one. So we may still be coping well, may even feel great about all we’re getting done, when we are already doing our bodies damage from that level of stress.

Optimizing the Good Stress, Minimizing the Bad

So the moral of the story, folks: If we want to live long and prosper, we need to stay in the good stress level zone, comfortably below our threshold. That way, we’re not putting excessive wear and tear on our bodies, and we’re leaving some leeway for unforeseen stressors.

To accomplish this, one has to do two things. First, pay attention to your stress level for awhile and get a sense of just how much stuff you can handle (i.e., where your threshold is). And while you’re doing that, pay attention to your early warning signs that you are getting too close to your threshold.

For me, it’s getting grumpy and short-tempered (my husband would say, getting grumpier and more short-tempered). The big flag is if I start losing it on the road when other drivers cut me off or are dragging their feet. Normally, I just mumble something sarcastic like, “Uh, ya see that pedal, the long skinny one on the right?” And then I let it go. But if I find myself yelling at them (inside my car; I’m not crazy enough to actually get in their face) and I’m still fuming about it when I get to my destination…

As Jeff Foxworthy would say, “Here’s your sign.”

I am way too close to the edge of that cliff. It is time to dump, delegate or postpone a few stressors in order to get comfortably back in the good stress level range again. Because I’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay to stand too close to that edge; the ground might just crumble away beneath me.

Beware of Cliff Edge sign

What about you, what are your early warning signs that you’re getting too close to the stress-overload cliff?

(More on stress management in future weeks. Next week I’ll be guest blogging over at Rhonda Hopkins’ place as part of her Authors Give Back series. I’ll be talking about my experience as the grandmother of an autistic child, and the organization, Autism Speaks, that helps these children get the help they need to live fuller lives. Come join me there next Tuesday, February 12.)

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

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  • Reply
    shannon esposito
    February 4, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    I definitely feel like my threshold for stress has been lowered as I get older. I have to fight more to keep my sanity, like make sure I get my alone time, meditate, watch my negative self-talk. Of course, I also have alot more on my plate, so that could account for it. I don’t know, still feel a lot more fragile.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 4, 2013 at 8:47 pm

      I don’t think that’s your imagination, Shannon. We do have to make adjustments as we age. Energy levels naturally go down a bit, and as you point out, this is often when we have more responsibilities in our lives, rather than less.

      It sounds like you’ve learned through the years what is needed to keep things in balance. The challenge is to remember to do those things. I’m certainly not perfect in this regard either (as I recently admitted in a post).

  • Reply
    Charity Kountz
    February 4, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Love this article. I bet there’s a definite link between sleep (or lack thereof) and stress levels too! I do find that my capacity for stress seems to get lower now that I’m in my 30’s. It seemed like when I was in my 20’s I never stopped. Now I find myself hitting a wall and just being like, “Okay, enough already with the stress!” That could also be because I’m still “technically” a newlywed (9 months as of 1/28!) and inherited a step-daughter with the marriage. Being a new wife, and having a career is a challenge. Throw kids, dogs and a household into the mix and I feel like there’s always something!

    Love your insights Kass!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 12, 2013 at 4:09 pm

      Hi, Charity. Sorry I’m so long in replying. I just found your comment in spam jail and released it.

      You do have a lot on your plate, for sure. I don’t know that our stress threshold goes down but our energy level definitely does with age. And the two interact. As you say, there’s always something, so we just have to stop when we know we’re getting too close to the edge, and take a break.

  • Reply
    Eden Mabee
    February 5, 2013 at 1:01 am

    I never had a high tolerance for stress (my husband, bless the man, would vouch for that), so I’m always on the lookout for ways to give myself a little “time out”. I’ll be watching for your next post on this topic, Kassandra.

    Thank you!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 5, 2013 at 1:58 am

      Unfortunately our individual stress threshold is not something we can change, Eden. I wish it were. All we can do is figured out where it is and then develop a healthy respect for those limits.

      I’m also wondering if you may be handling a lot more stress than you give yourself credit for. Next time I’ll be talking about how to identify daily stressors that perhaps we can eliminate or modify. And also about how we so need those ‘time outs’ throughout the day. So please do stay tuned!

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    February 5, 2013 at 1:45 am

    Stress. I think it’s here to stay Kassandra. I don’t see it going away anytime soon. What’s really hard is if you’ve been under stress for an extended period of time. And sometimes there is not much you can do to change your circumstances. What do I do for stress? I walk, read. write. Whatever I can do to turn the switch off. But it can wear you out if you let it.

    Now about your post over at Rhonda’s next week. I look forward to it! 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 5, 2013 at 2:06 am

      No two ways about it, Karen, stress is gonna happen. All we can do is try to keep it down to a manageable level. You’ve certainly had more than your share this past year. I hope 2013 is much kinder to you!

      I like that phrase. We’ve got to ‘turn the switch off’ now and again. I may quote you in my next stress management post, because that’s partly what that one will be about.

      I’m really excited to be Rhonda’s guest next week. I do hope you stop by! (Btw, I’ll be over at Catie Rhode’s place this Wednesday, sharing my protag’s celebrity playlist and giving away books!)

  • Reply
    Pat O'Dea Rosen
    February 5, 2013 at 2:23 am

    I didn’t know the health threshold is lower than the psychological one. Kassandra, thank you for that piece of information!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 5, 2013 at 2:40 am

      You’re welcome, Pat! That’s the really scary part about stress, that we’re doing in our bodies even when our psyches are handling things just fine.

  • Reply
    Rhonda Hopkins
    February 5, 2013 at 3:59 am

    These are great tips, Kassandra! I know when I’m getting over-stressed – I get grumpier and even little things I normally wouldn’t notice bother me. When my internal voice won’t shut off, I know it’s time to let go of a few things. Thanks for this post!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 12, 2013 at 4:12 pm

      Hey, Rhonda, just found your comment in spam jail. I need to have a talk with the warden over there!

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Yup, when the little stuff starts getting to us, that’s definitely ‘the sign.’

  • Reply
    Jennette Marie Powell
    February 5, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    I know I’m stressed when I know I have soooo much to do but all I did was play computer games all evening! One time, I deleted my to-do list by mistake, but it turned out to be a blessing – it reminded me of the difference between important and urgent. Looking forward to your next post!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      February 5, 2013 at 11:02 pm

      You know what Freud would say about deleting your to-do list “by mistake” don’t you? LOL Thanks for stopping by, Jennette!

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