Stress is a topic we hear about and experience all too often. Too much work, too little time off, not enough time to get that big presentation done, and excessive amounts of time spent away from our friends and families. All of these things can lead to stress. Ask almost anyone and they will agree with you: our lives our full of stress; stress is bad and we need to reduce the amount we have in our lives by whatever means necessary. Ask a biologist though, and they will give you a very different answer. According to recent stress-related research, we need stress in our lives to be able to function.
Why is Stress Beneficial?
Stress is a state of mind not just experienced by humans. Animals can feel stressed as well, but the stress animals feel typically last shorter spans of time than humans. For example, when a mouse is being chased by a cat, the mouse is probably feeling pretty stressed out. In this situation, the adrenaline glands within the mouse’s body are pumping out stress hormones. These hormones help the mouse to react to the danger of the cat appropriately by increasing fuel to the brain to aid in the mouse’s decision making.
If the mouse happens to survive, the stress hormones released in its body find their way to memory centers in its brain and will enable the mouse to remember what led to being chased by a cat and might help it to avoid other similar and potentially dangerous situations in the future.
Just like that mouse and other animals, when people find themselves in stressful situations, their adrenal glands pump out these nifty stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine), which help the person react to their situation. Going back to that previously mentioned stress study, researchers at UC Berkeley discovered that when they exposed rats to brief but significant stressful situations, the stem cells in their brains proliferate into new nerve cells. When these nerve cells had fully matured two weeks later, the rats were found to have an improved mental performance.
Acute Stress Versus Chronic Stress
Just because a little bit of stress can be beneficial, not all stress is good. There is a limit to the amount of stress a person should have in their life, and prolonged exposure to stress can take a toll on a person’s health, and can sometimes quite literally make them sick.
Remember the mouse that was being chased by the cat I mentioned earlier? The stress the mouse was under during the chase was an example of acute stress, stress that only lasts for a short period of time. Other examples of acute stress are jumping out of the way of an oncoming car, the feelings you get before public speaking or going in for a job interview, and getting pumped up for an athletic endeavor. Acute stress is the type of stress we need in our lives; it keeps us stimulated and flexes our mental muscles.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is the type of stress we need to avoid. Chronic stress can take the form of ongoing financial issues, problems at work, marital issues, academic pressures, and other such ongoing stress inducers. Prolonged exposure to stressful situations such as the aformentioned examples has been linked to serious health concerns, such as heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol, type II diabetes, and depression.
Find the Right Balance
As with everything in life, you need a healthy balance. Too much stress, and you are risking both your physical and mental health. Not enough stress, and your life is going to be very bland and boring. For this reason, you need to be able to balance the teeter-totter of stress and maintain a healthy level of acute stress.
When you find the happy medium you will know it—you will be challenged and mentally stimulated in a way that encourages you to do your best and pushes you to a healthy limit without feeling overexerted, sick, depressed, or angry. Find the right balance in your personal and professional life by managing your stress accordingly.
Feeling stressed out about the stress in your life? No worries, OpenSesame offers numerous courses on stress management that can help you get started controlling the stress in your life!