Most of us know it’s not good to be stressed out. You have heard that this is bad for your health and can make you unhappy. But why exactly is this? What specifically is happening in the body and the brain when you are stressed out?
Did you know that sometimes stress can actually be a very good thing?
The Fight or Flight Response
At its most visceral, stress is characterized by the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is how the body reacts to danger and extreme stress by releasing a combination of different hormones and neurotransmitters. Each of which will bring about different physiological changes in the body and in the brain.
Those neurotransmitters and hormones include dopamine, adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, serotonin, testosterone, and glutamate. These are all ‘excitatory’ neurotransmitters that increase your brain activity and make you more alert, focused, and better able to remember the details of whatever is happening around you.
Our body also goes through several changes at this point. Your heart-rate increases, your breathing gets faster, your muscles contract, your pupils dilate, and generally you become better able to perform physically. This means that you can either run from danger or fight an opponent and stand a better chance of winning. Blood is directed away from your immune system and digestion and towards your muscles and brain and your blood even thickens so that it will be more likely to clot if you get injured.
So stress isn’t a purely bad thing! If you were in physical danger, then this response could genuinely save your life. The only problem that emerges is when the ‘fight or flight’ response doesn’t turn off. This is what happens when you are stressed out about debt, relationships, family, or work. You remain in a constantly excited state and this means you can go a long time with suppressed immune function and digestion. Ultimately, this begins to make it more likely that you will become ill or malnourished!
This is why you generally think of stress as being bad and it’s why using something like mindfulness meditation can be so useful.
When Stress is Good
But stress can be a good thing too! That’s the case when, for example, you need a little bit of motivation to get something done. Low levels of chronic stress is the same stress that makes you study for an exam, save money for the future, and generally take action to try and avoid negative outcomes. In this context, this form of stress is called ‘eustress’ and is highly desirable.
Looking at stress as a good thing is an interesting idea and the best way to do so is by harnessing it for good. Instead of seeing your situation as something dangerous, but rather as a fun challenge, then you can enter something known as a ‘flow state’. Here you enjoy heightened focus, stronger muscles, and improved reactions, but none of the negative side affects like negative thoughts.
Stress isn’t one response, but rather it is a whole spectrum of different states that are moderated by different levels of specific neurotransmitters and hormones. If you can utilize the power of stress and use it as a performance enhancement…just imagine what you can do!