how much stress is good for you?

Stress is often associated with negative consequences like burnout and poor psychological health, but are there any kinds of stress that are actually good for us?

Stress is an inevitable human experience. Scientists hypothesise that stress is one of the ways mother nature motivates us. As an example, the stress experienced by antelope as they are pursued by lions is vital to the antelope’s survival, just as the stress of a looming deadline is often vital to the completion of a task.

Professor Firdaus Dhabhar of the University of Miami highlights that acute (short term) stress actually boosts and strengthens the immune system, meaning there are significant benefits of exposing yourself to short-term stress ahead of surgery, vaccinations and cancer therapy.

The Yerkes-Dodson law teaches us the relationship between arousal (stress) and performance in certain tasks. In order to achieve peak performance in an intensive task, we need to reach a certain level of stress. As an example, if you’re bored while writing a report, you will not perform as well as if you were experiencing acute stress. Inversely, if your acute stress is too severe, you will slip into anxiety and your performance will drop.

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Our relationship with stress goes a long way in explaining our inclination to procrastinate. The work needs to be done regardless, but we often find ourselves waiting for a point in the future that delivers sufficient stress in being able to deliver it on time.  

But what about the negative consequences of stress?

Professor Dhabar explains the bad type of stress as chronic stress, that is, a stress response that lasts months or years. The underlying cause (stressor) of chronic stress could be exposure to a traumatic experience or the poor management of daily stressors over a period of time (substance abuse, burying of emotions, binge eating, etcetera).

In order to manage stress effectively, Professor Dhabar recommends utilising acute stress strategically, increasing the duration of low-stress periods and reducing chronic stress. It is easier said than done, but some of the tactics he recommends are what he classifies as common-sense advice: quality sleep, nutrition, exercise and calming activities like meditation, yoga or even fishing… whatever floats your boat!

How do you manage stress? Are you able to distinguish between acute and chronic stress?