Good Stress Versus Distress

Most everything I learned about stress is wrong.

I was once asked to teach a course called “Stress and the Family.” Besides being a redundancy, what did that course title mean? Stress was such a loose concept that we could go in many directions, and my students did, writing papers about everything from anorexia to xenophobia. I taught them how endocrinologist Hans Selye developed his concept of stress in the 1930s while studying lab rats. He injected various substances into his subjects and noticed that the health of all the rats deteriorated, regardless of what was injected. He finally determined that the trauma of the injections themselves led to ulcers, illness, and early death. He called the rats’ experiences “stress” and applied the concept to humans.

Selye made a distinction between distress (bad stress) and what he called eustress (good stress), but that distinction was largely lost over the years. Instead, psychologists developed questionnaires that assigned stress points to major life events, such as moving to a new home or losing a loved one. Since many of those events are unavoidable, lots of us started to worry about our accumulation of all those “points.” Were we destined to get ulcers and high blood pressure? How would we manage?

In 1936, Hans Selye identified stress in rats.
In 1936, Hans Selye identified stress in rats.

Kelly McGonigal’s 2015 book, The Upside of Stress, is changing how we think about our life challenges. (For a quick overview, the book’s main points are beautifully summarized in her TED Talk.) As a Stanford University health psychologist, McGonigal had been telling people that stress makes you sick, as I had been telling my students as well. She changed her tune when she read a study that tracked 30,000 adults in the United States after asking them about their stress levels and whether they believed stress was bad for you. Among those who reported high levels of stress in their lives, risk of dying was increased by 43%, but ONLY in those who believed stress was harmful to their health.

What about those with lots of stress who did not view their stress as harmful? McGonigal says, “they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.” These results and others that McGonigal dug up for her book call for new approaches to dealing with difficulties. By interpreting our stress and anxiety differently, our bodies and minds react differently as well.

The clear and compassionate message of the book changed the way I’m dealing with stress in my life. For instance, several studies have shown how tending-and-befriending can be a healthy alternative to the fight-or-flight response that Selye described. In fact, one of the ways to transform stress (page 149) is to “turn self-focus into bigger-than-self goals.” We cope better with huge challenges when we recall our values and remember WHY we are doing what we’re doing, such as caring for others and contributing to the world.

Maybe we need a new stress inventory that for every big life event says, “Congratulations! You have another chance to challenge yourself, excite and delight, and tend and befriend, along with the rest of humanity.”

Like your early family life, and your birth for that matter, stress is the beginning, not the end of the story. The plot is up to you.

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