Stress has become a defining feature of the 21st century, contributing to the mental-health crisis, fuelling a boom in mindfulness apps and even, science has suggested, affecting unborn children.
But it is not always the villain it is made out to be.
Psychologists are keen to arm us with the knowledge that some stress can be good, healthy and productive. This type is known as “eustress” and without it, they say, our lives would be dull and meaningless.
"Stress has got such a bad rap," says Daniela Kaufer, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley. "There's this perception that stress is always bad for the brain, but that's not true. Your stress response is crucial to your survival. It elevates your performance, is super-important for alertness and prepares you to adapt to the next thing that comes along."
The notion of eustress (the “eu” prefix is from the ancient Greek for “well” or “good”) makes intuitive sense. “People can tell when they feel a little bit stressed,” says Kaufer, “the feelings associated with adrenaline, it gets them going”. This could even be accompanied by a frisson, exams being a good example. Stressful situations, she says, “actually tend to push our performance”.
Kaufer has found physiological evidence of the power of eustress. Her team compared activity in the hippocampuses – “an area that is involved in learning and memory” – of rats exposed to prolonged stress versus a moderate stressor comparable to eustress in humans. The latter triggered the growth of new neurons. “Those neurons, we were able to show, are then activated selectively and help in learning for the next situation that is stressful. So you’re performing better in that moment, and then you are better equipped for future stressors.”
Embracing more situations that are scary but don't pose any serious threat – riding rollercoasters, public speaking, job interviews – is strongly encouraged
This doesn’t mean we should overdo things. If the balance tips from eustress to distress, the positive effects are inhibited. Returning to Kaufer’s exam analogy, you then “don’t remember things that you really know”.
So embracing more situations that are scary but don't pose any serious threat – riding rollercoasters, public speaking, job interviews – is strongly encouraged. But another key reason why we all need to know about eustress, says Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University, is that it is possible to convert distress into eustress by reframing stressful situations as positive challenges – and reaping the benefits.
When it comes to the effects of stress, perspective is king. Kaufer references a 2004 study in which researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that women who reported the highest levels of stress had markers in their DNA showing the equivalent of ageing by at least an extra decade.
This result was consistent across their cohort of women caring for chronically ill children, and a control group of mothers of healthy children. And yet it wasn’t the duration of caring for a sick child that predicted the cellular aging. “It wasn’t the level of stress hormone in their blood,” says Kaufer. “It was their subjective report of how stressed they were. So how stressed you feel dictates the physiology of the stress response.”
Anything else that helps elevate mood is helpful here, too – exercise, a healthy diet, getting enough rest
Her own study with rats has shown that a situation of eustress rather than distress led to boosts in levels of the hormone oxytocin and its receptors – a response that saw the rats seek more social support. “The animals start snuggling together and they share resources,” says Kaufer. Whereas when a more threatening stress is perceived, “you see a decrease in the oxytocin receptor for weeks after. In those types of situation, you need the social support, but you withdraw. So it’s really important to perceive your stress the right way.”
This is where we end up talking about “emotion regulation, which is the idea that, rather than being at the beck and call of our emotions, we apply different strategies to experience favourable outcomes,” says Stephens. “Things like mindfulness, or reframing or just avoiding certain situations.”
Anything else that helps elevate mood is helpful here, too – exercise, a healthy diet, getting enough rest. As well as reframing the situation itself, he says, you can look at your response and use what he calls “emotional acceptance: don’t try to modify emotions; leave them alone, they’re there for a reason. And that’s getting on to mindfulness: be in the moment, have those experiences. That’s the way to become more resilient. Get used to your emotions and learn to live with them and be more accepting of them rather than trying to over-manage them,” he says. Of course, you get used to challenging situations, too.
As a lecturer, he says, “I can certainly vouch that what initially is terrifying, getting up in front of numerous people, becomes second nature. We habituate to frequently experienced stimuli. And then, when you’re used to it, you don’t have that same physiological response.”
Some people’s stress thresholds are higher than others, depending on, says Kaufer, “genes, life history, what happened when you were in the womb, the circuitry in your brain”. Many of these things are beyond our control. “So it’s important not to make anybody feel responsible for having certain responses to stress,” she says. We have to know and respect what is right for us.
Memes about all successful people having failed at some point are two-a-penny, but Stephens says they still have value. “If you can view something as, ‘well, if I do this I might fail, but I realise that this is a necessary step to getting up to where I want to be,’ that’s a way of reframing what could be perceived as quite a negative thing into something more positive.”
"To experience eustress when you have a stressful job," says Jennifer Ragsdale, associate professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, "look at deadlines and workload as a challenge to be met or a growth opportunity rather than something that is impossible to cope with. Reflect on the positive sides of your work. What brings meaning or a sense of purpose to your work? What is worth investing your energy in and what isn't?"
Her research has found that the energy and arousal associated with eustress can combat fatigue. She says people with “indicators of eustress – feeling happy or experiencing more meaningfulness during the workday – generally experienced lower levels of fatigue overall.”
If you are struggling to see the positives in a situation that is giving you knots in your stomach, remember “some stress is desirable and even necessary, because that’s how we demonstrate agency, that we are active in the world”, says Stephens. “Without challenge comes boredom. A life with zero stress is not a life worth living.” – Guardian