Is Stress Really Harmful To Your Health?

by | Nov 30, 2022 | Physical Dimension

If you are willing to rethink your stress response, it may help you recognize your strength and access your courage.”

-Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress

Check out Kelly’s TedTalk:  “The Upside of Stress”

Everyone knows how bad stress is for your health and happiness. It can cause all sorts of problems like insomnia, muscle tension, and stomach pain, and if left untreated can lead to health issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity. But what if everything you thought you knew about stress is wrong? 

What is Stress?

Seriously Hans! You are telling me Stress is Spice? ?

According to Dr. Hans Selye, one of the foremost authorities on stress, defines it as “nonspecific response of the human organism to any demand that is placed on it.”Let’s take a closer look at the word “nonspecific” because this is a key to the perception you may have about stress being always “bad”.

“Nonspecific”, according to Dr. Selye, indicates that the body reacts in a similar fashion when encountering a stress-causing even, also called a stressor.  And he goes on to say that a stressor can be ANY event that disrupts the body’s normal internal state, regardless of the nature of the event.  Stressors can come from both psychological and physiological — and our bodies, minds and hearts have a built in “stress response” to any situation that is new, uncomfortable, feels threatening or frightening and even exciting. 

I want to introduce to you two terms, EUSTRESS & DISTRESS, maybe you have heard of them before.  Dr. Selye uses them to describe how people might respond or react to stress.

  • Eustress is positive and your health and performance continue to improve even as stress increases
  • Distress is negative or harmful, unpleasant and your health and performance deteriorates.

Here’s a  link to a super simplistic summary view of the two terms : Eustress vs Distress and as a leader of yourself and if you are a leader of others this simple drawing and explanation of a secret to staying more and more on the side of Eustress is in this video and refers to Kelly McGonigal PhD and her book, “Upside of Stress”

What Are Your Beliefs About Stress?

Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?

Take a moment to really think about the question and write down your answer.
If you wrote that stress is harmful, you’re not alone – research shows the majority of people believe that stress can have a negative impact on our health.
But let’s consider a scenario for a moment. Gabrielle and Lillian are both 50-year-old women who have experienced a great deal of stress in the past year. Gabrielle was diagnosed with cancer and has undergone multiple surgeries and chemotherapy treatments. She also lost her teenage daughter, who died in a car accident, and was laid off from her job at a prestigious law firm. 
Six months ago, Lillian’s husband passed away from complications of diabetes, leaving her struggling to support their three teenage daughters on a teacher’s salary. On top of that, she has to care for her elderly mother, who recently moved in with her.
Even though they both are dealing with a lot of stress, there’s one major difference between these two women. Lillian believes that all the stress is taking a major toll on her health, but Gabrielle doesn’t consider the stress to be harmful. In fact, she finds it even seems to drive her to confront the challenges in her life.

Which of these women do you think fared better in the long run? Two years later, Gabrielle’s cancer is in remission, she has a new job as a corporate lawyer, and she is an active donor and volunteer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a cause that her daughter felt passionately about. She and her husband have also started a support group for other parents who lost a child, which has been a great source of comfort to them.

As for Lillian, she continues raising her three kids, caring for her mother, and working as a teacher. She still finds it hard to make ends meet, and she often feels alone and discouraged at her situation. She also suffers from insomnia, frequent headaches, and stomach problems, and she worries that all the stress is ruining her health.

Why has Gabrielle fared so much better than Lillian? Can her beliefs about stress really be the reason why?

Turns out, they can. A 2012 paper by researchers Abiola Keller and Kristin Litzelman details a 1998 study in which participants were asked about how much stress they were experiencing, and their beliefs on whether stress was harmful to their health. Eight years later, the researchers looked at which participants had died. They found that elevated stress levels increased the risk of dying by 43 percent –
but only in people who believed a high amount of stress was harmful to their health.
The people who reported high stress but didn’t consider it detrimental had the lowest risk of death.
This led the researchers to conclude that stress alone isn’t damaging to our health. Rather, high stress levels combined with the belief that stress is dangerous is what’s harmful.

Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash
Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

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