Stress is bad for you, but do you know why?

Feb 24, 2023

Most people know that stress is bad for you, but is that all true? And if so, what’s so terrible about it?

Did you know that there is good stress? Psychologists call it eustress, and you need some of it in your life. It’s otherwise known as excitement, joy, euphoria – you get the picture. A good example is going on a roller coaster or watching a scary movie. Your body’s biology changes almost instantly when you engage in these activities, and the same kinds of bodily reactions happen when you encounter danger; your pupils dilate, your hair stands on end, your mouth goes dry (and of course your heart beats faster). These responses are all “designed” to help us survive the situation – run away, fight off the attack, freeze in place and hope the bear doesn’t notice you. Fight, Flight, Freeze (and Flock, but that’s for another day).

So far, none of what I’ve described is bad for you. But what I’m describing here is not stress but the body’s biological stress response. We wouldn’t survive for long without our stress response, so why is it getting so much bad press?

The problem comes when the stress response is turned on too much, too often, and for too long. I’ll call it chronic stress. You open your email inbox: stress response. You walk into your daughter’s disaster of a bedroom: stress response. You open your son’s report card, and… you get the picture, right? The body’s biological response no longer fits the context, and fight, flight, and freeze are not appropriate responses to the situation. This means that we run the risk of high levels of cortisol in our bloodstream, the precursor and a risk factor in almost all the chronic diseases of modern times – heart disease, cancer, stroke, even Alzheimer’s.

Too much chronic stress and our biology gets out of whack, or if you want to be technical, your autonomic nervous system is out of balance. To rebalance it, it’s necessary to do things that activate the vagus nerve, which is a major component of our nervous systems that oversees crucial bodily functions like mood control, digestion, and heart rate. Activating the vagus nerve – by doing things like breathing deeply and slowly – brings back equilibrium or homeostasis in our bodies, making us feel better again. Here is where a lot of folks make big mistakes. Feeling stressed out, many of us eat unhealthy foods, drink alcohol, or stay up late on our phones. The bad news here is that these coping strategies, while understandable, throw our biology off further and worsen the situation.

The solution is healthy coping strategies like dancing, singing, drinking water, walking, playing, gardening, laughing with friends, being outside in nature, eating good food, and getting good sleep. These activities stimulate the release of calming hormones like oxytocin which acts as a counterpart to cortisol in the body. Frisbee anyone?

by Russ Turner, Director of the Training Institute, People Incorporated

The Training Institute regularly offers trainings for companies and individuals on topics related to mental health. On March 14th, they are offering a course titled Compassion Fatigue and Burnout. To explore this course and more, visit the Training Institute’s page, located in the header of People Incorporated’s website.