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Stressed out man

This is a guest post by Emily Johnson. Emily is a blogger and a content strategist at omnipapers.com. She is also a contributor to many websites about career advice, productivity, work issues, blogging and writing. You can always find more works of hers on Twitter.

You’re standing on a bus stop at 9 o’clock in the morning. You’re all sweaty because you ran half a way in order to catch the 8:50 bus, but didn’t succeed. It’s already 9:05. Clock is ticking. Your hypothalamus gets activated. The adrenal cortex starts releasing cortisol. “I’ll be late for the meeting!” Your heart rate quickens. You start breathing faster. You can no longer stand in one place, so you walk on the bus stop there and back hoping you’ll calm down. It’s not helping. You sweat even more. Your body is now in “fight or flight” mode. This inborn mechanism, which is supposed to help you survive in case of danger, doesn’t make you feel any better. The bus is still not coming. You get more and more agitated.

Do you know this feeling? The frustration, anxiety and fear of not being able to get to work or an important meeting on time? I bet you do. We all had such situations in our lives when we simply couldn’t make it. Everything would be all right if not for the fact that we have duties, responsibilities and expectations to meet. When we can’t cope and are overwhelmed with work, our bodies turn on the hyperarousal mechanism to help us go through difficulties. You hurt, you sweat, you tremble. What’s the diagnosis? You’re under stress.

There are many connotations of the word stress. Since it’s not a desired feeling, people define it as a monster, a growing plague or the modern sickness. If it was a person it would already be wearing a badge of shame. Do you think that stress is as destructive as they say?

Let’s find out!

Definitions of Stress

Hand writing Stress on chalkboard

Stress is a natural, inborn reaction to life troubles, experiences and dangers. You can’t go through life without feeling stressed out at least a few times. But, what does the term stress actually imply?

Dr Gillian Butler tells us that there are 3 ways of characterizing stress, each of which allows us to better understand the concept.

  • Stimulus-based definition – stress results from pressure. The greater the pressure, the bigger the possibility that a person will break down.
  • Response-based definition – stress is a response to harmful or unpleasant stimuli. In terms of physiological responses, stress progresses through 3 stages: the body is warned and responds with an alarm reaction, then prepares to deal with the stress and if the stress is too great, the system gets damaged and can breakdown.
  • Stress as a dynamic process – stress reflects both internal and external factors: person’s personality and his or her circumstances, as well as the interactions between the two.

Thus, we are under stress if we feel pressed, hurt or humiliated by someone, or if we’re sensitive to criticism and we experience a severe oral reprimand. These are just a few examples, but we all understand the idea.

Now, since we already know what stress is, time to answer another question. Is stress downright evil, good or neither? I know what you want to say. Wait a moment, though, with your judgement.

Toxic Stress vs. Positive Stress

Business man pressed to the wall

It’s a common knowledge that stress can be responsible for a number of physical as well as mental illnesses. Those include: work depression, heart disease, asthma, obesity, insomnia, stroke, headache or loss of sexual desire. Whereas some of those disorders, such as work depression or insomnia, can be overcome, others, like heart disease or some types of asthma, are hard to cure.

When you dig deeper into the effects of stress you can find out that, in fact, stress affects 7 body systems:

  • Nervous system – when stressed, body transfers its energy resources and helps you defend yourself against a recognized threat. It results with faster heart beat and raise of blood pressure.
  • Musculoskeletal system – your muscles tense up, which can cause a headache or a migraine.
  • Respiratory system – you start breathing harder and might experience a panic attack.
  • Cardiovascular system – your heart rate quickens and you experience stronger contractions of your heart muscle, which in extreme cases causes heart attack.
  • Endocrine system – stress hormones are released, which triggers liver to produce more glucose, a blood sugar dangerous for diabetic people.
  • Gastrointestinal system – when feeling anxious you can be triggered to eat more or less than you do, which can result in nausea, diarrhea or constipation.

As we can see, stress causes a number of physical reactions that might lead to various diseases. However, as you have already noticed, I said might not will. I did so, because research has shown that not all types of stress are harmful and damage your health. Let’s take a look at 3 types of stress:

Acute Stress

The first type of stress is the acute stress. It is defined as the most common type of stress, and a reaction to demands as well as pressures of the recent past and expected demands as well as pressures of the near future. Is acute stress good for you? Imagine such a situation:

You’re a runner. You usually run 3 times per week and make 3 miles per time. The experience makes you feel satisfied, self-confident and energized. One day you decide to run both in the morning and in the evening. By the time you go to bed, you’re exhausted. However, you have a goal. You are determined to lose a couple of pounds, so you don’t give up and keep on running more and more. Eventually, you start losing muscle, your joints ache and your knee gets swollen.

The same happens with acute stress. When you experience it in small doses, it gives you a boost of adrenaline and makes you feel happy. On the other hand, when you overdo on acute stress, you get hurt. Repeating episodes of short-term acute stress lead not only to tension headaches or upset stomach, but also psychological distress.

Since acute stress is short-term, it doesn’t have enough time to cause significant damage to your body. It appears in everyone’s life and everyone can cope with it.

Episodic Acute Stress

Being the second type of stress, episodic acute stress appears when you suffer from acute stress too often and for too long. It happens to people who are always in a hurry, running late, take on too much work and can’t get well-organized. They also always seem to be experiencing a crisis. Such people are characterized as being irritable, impatient, choleric or tense. Also, those who tend to be endlessly worried and see a catastrophe in every situation, say that the world is evil and that something horrible is always going to happen, suffer from episodic acute stress.

The symptoms of episodic acute stress appear from continued overarousal. Stress causes migraines, chest pain and heart disease. Dealing with the problem requires professional help.

Chronic Stress

Whereas acute stress is mild and does not cause serious problems, chronic stress is its opposite. Chronic stress is the one that makes people fade away day after day. It damages bodies, minds and people’s lives. It’s defined as the stress of:

  1. Poverty
  2. Broken family
  3. Unhappy marriage, or…
  4. Hated job

Chronic stress happens when you cannot find a solution to a tragic situation. You lose hope and give up seeking a way out. It’s traumatic, painful and often affects personality.

The worst that might happen is when you get used to it and do not reach out for help. Stress becomes so familiar and comfortable that you no longer treat it as evil. It triggers suicide, heart attack and violence. It’s difficult to recover from it without medical help.

Coming back to the question, is stress downright evil, good or neither? Stress has both positive and negative effect on us. Too much of it is harmful. Little of it is harmless.

Since stress has a major impact on your mental and physical health, and since it is often responsible for a number of illnesses, what positive effect can it have? Can it be desirable in certain situations? In what way can it help you?

Let me satisfy your curiosity.

Stress as Productivity Fuel

In small doses, stress positively influences your productivity. Whether you’re well-rested or tired, happy or sad, calm or irritated – stress can help you cope with your tasks more effectively.

Let’s take a look at 10 ways in which stress enhances your productivity:

Greater Brain Power!

Brain Power

Daniela Kaufer, an associate professor at UC Berkeley examines the biology of stress. She studies how the brain responds to traumatic events as well as anxiety on molecular level. According to her findings, moderate and short-lived stress, such as writing an exam or preparing to deliver a public speech, improves cognitive performance and memory.

“Manageable stress increases alertness and performance. And by encouraging the growth of stem cells that become brain cells, stress improves memory,” says Kaufer.

How can stress help your productivity? Well, as Daniela Kaufer claims, occasional stressful events are those that keep the brain more alert, and your performance is better when you are alert.

Stronger Immune System!

According to research, since the beginning of time, organisms have been experiencing evolutionary pressure from the environment. Being able to respond to threats or natural disasters strengthened survival and reproductive system. Because fighting or fleeing could cause injury and then infection, major stress-induced changes occurred in the immune system – it helped prevent infections as well as accelerate wound repair.

Although humans no longer encounter the same stimuli that triggered fight or flight response from their ancestors, our physiological response hasn’t changed. Thus, threats like having an exam result in changes in the immune system, such as increased responsiveness to pain or depressed mood.

Also, the study on stress and immune system conducted by a scientist from Stanford University School of Medicine resulted in amazing future proposition:

They (…) offer the prospect of, someday, being able to manipulate stress-hormone levels to improve patients’ recovery from surgery or wounds or their responses to vaccines.”

Thus, since stress helps to fortify immune system, our productivity receives a boost. Will you not be able to achieve more if you won’t have to worry about your health?

Reinforced Resilience!

Resilience is defined as the ability of an organism to withstand adversity as well as face future stressors with little or no stress response. It can be compared to vaccinations: once you’re a child, you’re afraid of them, but later you became immune to certain diseases.

By the same token, moderate amount of stress strengthens our resilience to future stressors.

A study conducted by Dr David Lyons and Dr Karen Parker (Stanford University in California) on monkeys showed that animals which were exposed to early life stressors, overcame them. As a result their emotional adaptation, self-control and willingness to explore novel situation increased. Also, with the enhancement of resilience, the level of stress dropped.

What do these findings teach us? If you expose yourself to some stress regularly, you’ll build on your resilience. Thus, it will be easier for you to go through stressful situations and you’ll be able to better focus on your duties.

Enhanced Learning!

Elizabeth Kirby, one of the scientists at UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, conducted a research on rats that were exposed to short-term acute stress. Using special cell labeling techniques, together with other scientists, she discovered that “the new nerve cells triggered by the acute stress were the same ones involved in learning new tasks two weeks later.”

Following the findings, short bursts of acute stress will make you more open to learning and help you learn new skills. Will you not become a better worker, student or parent if it’s easier for you to acquire new knowledge?

Increased Focus!

Two business women working together on wall glass

As we know, stress increases the level of cortisol in our blood, but it isn’t the only hormone that is raised. The second hormone, which level goes through the roof is adrenaline.

Most commonly known under the name “fight or flight hormone,” adrenaline is produced by the adrenal glands after your brain receives a message that a stressful situation has occurred. It’s responsible for immediate reactions and it increases heart rate. It also gives you a surge of energy and focuses your attention.

Thus, when stressed, you’re able to focus your attention better on a given task!

Creativity Boost!

In a recent study psychologists examined how stress affects our creativity in a workplace. They approached the issue by splitting creativity at work in two parts:

  1. Creativity as the generation of novel and useful ideas, and…
  2. Creativity as the ability to implement those ideas.

They started with examining “challenge stressors” – those stressors that employees perceive as enhancing their ability to learn, deepening personal growth and helping to achieve goals.

As a result, psychologists found out that challenge stressors contribute positively to your ability of generating new and useful ideas. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about the ability to implement those novel ideas – this is individual.

Although stress doesn’t help you execute new ideas, it helps you to come up with unique views, theories or concepts thus enhancing your ability to work more effectively.

Goals Achieved!

Apart from the fact that stress helps you recover, memorize new information and focus your attention, it’s also a great motivator.

Without stress, achieving goals would be much harder. When we’re pressed, we put all our strength to finishing a deal or task. Imagine yourself preparing for an important exam. You’re stressed out, but it also motivates you for learning, doesn’t it? After all, you want to perform well. Once you write the exam and the day comes when you can check the results, you’re also stressed, but when you see how well you performed – you’re elated!

The same happens with deadlines at work or personal goals. Stress motivates you to meet those deadlines and achieve your goals! When stressed, you’re also less likely to procrastinate!

Better Self-Confidence!

Strong woman

While it’s true that adrenaline rush enhances your ability to focus, it’s also true that it builds up on your self-confidence.

Experiencing something new or pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is terrifying, but might bring benefits. Consider David’s situation:

David is a skillful architect who specializes in designing bridges. He’s already drawn a few and his projects were praised. However, one day he is pushed to design a church. It’s an unknown land for him and he feels stressed. Adrenaline keeps him up at night because he thinks he won’t handle with the task. But, once he puts his mind to it, he succeeds and becomes more confident about his skills. Next time he’ll be more open to new adventures.

Thus, feeling stressed can help you become open to new experiences! It will fuel your self-confidence!

Problem Solving Skill Improved!

Have you ever been to an escape room?

An escape room is a popular attraction in which a group of people is trapped in a room. They have to use logic, creativity as well as provided clues in order to solve puzzles that will help them escape. They have limited time.

While it’s been noticed that such escape rooms have a few benefits for business, they also benefit individuals. Once you’re trapped and don’t know the way out, you receive a surge of adrenaline that helps you solve puzzles.

What do we learn from it? Stress produces adrenaline, which makes you feel more active, alert, energized and increases your problem solving efficiency. Thus, whenever you feel it in your veins, you have higher chances to deal with a problem faster and more productively.

Social Bonding Tightened!

Previously, we’ve been looking at advantages of acute stress. However, since many people have to deal with stronger types of stress, I’d like to point out that there is one vital benefit to our productivity that results from long-term stress. That is social bonding.

In order to be productive we need people to support us, console us and understand us. Without the social component of life, we fall into depression, which is a productivity killer. Thus, once you’re in stress you’re more likely to seek help among your colleagues, friends and family who will then comfort you and motivate you for better performance.

Wrapping it up

Although stress has negative connotations and in extreme cases can cause a number of diseases, we should not forget that stress can also have a positive effect on our minds, bodies, health and skills. Whereas chronic stress can be a mental killer, acute stress can improve our productivity at school, work as well as home.

So, don’t be afraid of mild stress!

Don’t complain about it!

Use it to your advantage!

This is a guest post by Emily Johnson. Emily is a blogger and a content strategist at omnipapers.com. She is also a contributor to many websites about career advice, productivity, work issues, blogging and writing. You can always find more works of hers on Twitter.

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Emily, thank you for the article. I used to think that stress is a wide range of problems such as sleep problems, fatigue, unexplained physical symptoms, temper problems, memory problems, etc. But I didn’t notice that stress have a positive effect on our minds.

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