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Helena Önneby, Helena Önneby

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Is Stress Harmful?

Hey, what’s up? 
– I’m busy. 

Hi, long time no see, how have you been? 
– Okay, but it’s a lot right now. 

We live in a society where the norm is to be busy, to fill up every minute with activity and where a lot of us constantly fight to catch up, lay the life puzzle and be perfect… It’s an impossible equation. 

Meanwhile, we’re bombarded with messages around the negative effects of stress on our health. We know that stress leads to inflammation which leads to disease. That if we’re constantly in fight-flight-or-freeze (the sympathetic nervous system) and never get to rest-and-restore (the parasympathetic nervous system) we won’t access our bodies amazing self-healing powers and we will, with time, get sick. (Read more about the body’s self-healing powers here.)

But I often notice some common misunderstandings around stress, when I’m doing talks and workshops on the subject, that I think are important to clarify. 

Misunderstanding #1: Stress is about having too much to do. 

Nae. Sometimes that’s the case but stress is mostly born in our minds when our thoughts are racing and we’re chasing control. Stress is primarily about a feeling of lack of control. We can deal with high pressure under periods of time and do a lot of things without feelings stress as long as we feel we have control. But when we feel a lack of control it might as well be too little to do, a conflict in an otherwise calm day or worrying about the future that stresses us out. 

Misunderstanding #2: The stress response is harmful.  

No. Our bodies stress response is an amazing thing that has helped us survive this far and is here to save us from danger. Different stress hormones are released and sent out to the blood to increase blood pressure and pulse so that there’s enough sugar and energy in our muscles and brain for you to be able to fight for your life. And that’s a good thing, when you need to run from a bear, but not necessarily when you receive an email. The problem is that your brain doesn’t know the difference and so the reaction in the body is the same. And the tendency in today’s day and age is that you meet these kinds of “mini-stressors” all day long and never get the recuperation that you need. (Listen to episode 121 of the Food Pharmacy podcast with Dr Chatterjee.) 

Short sequences of activated stress response are not harmful, we’re made for it, but when the stress becomes chronic and you never come down from it, that’s when it gets problematic. Stress is therefore not the problem; lack of recuperation is.

An interesting study from The University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011 also proved the importance of our perception of the stress response. The asked 30 000 people and found that the people experiencing high levels of stress but who believed that stress was good for them had among the lowest mortality rates. Whereas highly stressed people who believed that stress was bad for their health had the highest chance of dying. Another study even found that the blood vessels constricted (as is seen in those with heart disease) in people who believed that stress was bad for them but stayed open and healthy in those who believed that stress was good for them.

The answer to the question “Is stress harmful?” is therefore: It depends on your perception of it. 

The more interesting question is rather, what can we do to live healthily together with stress? I don’t have a universal answer to this one, but I do have some ideas to explore:

  1. Learn to observe your thoughts and notice when they race off unnecessarily. Stop feeding yourself with fear all day long by watching the news, dwelling on old conflicts or worrying about the future. Meditation helps with this. 
  2. Cultivate your faith and let go of the need to control. Sure, we can control some things and when we can we write about it, reflect and plan for the future. But most of the time, practice having faith that you will be able to deal with whatever problems in the future, if and when they occur. But you can’t deal with them when they haven’t happened. Meditation helps with this. 
  3. Build recuperation into your day, often. Your breath is a super trick to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and slow down. Do things that you enjoy and that takes you out of the chatter in your mind. Move and feel what that feels like in your body. Meditation helps with this. 
  4. Be curious towards your stress response. Feel gratitude for your ability to being extra alert when needed. Be attentive to when it’s no longer needed and take some long, deep, present breaths to calm down the system again. Meditation helps with this. 

What are your best tips for dealing with stress in a healthy way? 

Please comment below what you want to read more about from me. 

This is a guest post. Any opinions expressed are the writer’s own.

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