The Benefits of Stress

Why you should stop sweating everyday aggravations and embrace stress.

| Winter 2014

There you are, stuck in traffic. Minutes tick by as you inch the car forward, gripping the steering wheel with white-knuckled tension. What’s worse, a glance at the clock tells you you’re going to be late for that big meeting and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can feel your blood pressure rise and hear your rapid pulse thrumming in your ears. Then you remember something you read in a health magazine or heard from a daytime TV doctor about the dangers of stress—that it can harden arteries, kill brain cells, trigger tumors. So in an effort to be mellow, a leaf on the wind, you try to recall the breathing technique from that yoga class years ago. But it’s no use: Now you’re stressed about stress itself.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. According to a 2013 national survey by the American Psychological Association, the average stress level among adults is 5.1 on a scale of 10; that’s one and a half points above what the respondents judged to be healthy. Two-thirds of people say managing stress is important, and nearly that proportion had attempted to reduce their stress in the previous five years. Yet only a little over a third say they succeeded at doing so. More discouraging, teens and young adults are experiencing higher levels of stress (5.8 and 5.7/10, respectively), and also are struggling to manage it (41 and 30 percent success). “Stress has a very bad reputation. It’s in pretty bad shape, PR-wise,” acknowledges Firdaus Dhabhar, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University. “And justifiably so,” he adds.

Much of what we know about the physical and mental toll of chronic stress stems from seminal work by Robert Sapolsky beginning in the late 1970s. Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist, was among the first to make the connection that the hormones released during the fight-or-flight response—the ones that helped our ancestors avoid becoming dinner—have deleterious effects when the stress is severe and sustained. Especially insidious, chronic exposure to one of these hormones, cortisol, causes brain changes that make it increasingly difficult to shut the stress response down.

But take heart: Recent research paints a different portrait of stress, one in which it indeed has a positive side. “There’s good stress, there’s tolerable stress, and there’s toxic stress,” says Bruce McEwen of Rockefeller University, an expert on stress and the brain who trained both Sapolsky and Dhabhar.

Situations we typically perceive as stressful—a confrontation with a co-worker, the pressure to perform, a to-do list that’s too long—are not the toxic type of stress that’s been linked to serious health issues such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, severe depression and cognitive impairment. Short bouts of this sort of everyday stress can actually be a good thing: Just think of the exhilaration of the deadline met or the presentation crushed, the triumph of holding it all together. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that beating yourself up about being stressed is counterproductive, as worrying about the negative consequences can in itself exacerbate any ill effects.