Maybe you’ve heard people say “no stress!” before. It is very understandable that the concept of stress is surrounded by negativity. Many people know that long term stress can cause health issues such as panic attacks, stomach ulcers and heart conditions. However, stress does have an important function and a small amount of stress can definitely be healthy. But what are the advantages of stress?
Fight or flight
From an evolutionary perspective you can look at stress as a reaction to a dangerous situation. When you encounter danger, you have to be alert; this is called the fight or flight response. You have to either fight for your life, or flight from the situation. Originally, this stress response was needed for people to survive. During the times of our ancestors, if you’d come across a lion the physical stress reaction was very useful; you had to get out of there! Even though it was probably already too late, since lions are among the most deadly predators that exist.
Stress releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause a high heart rate, fast and heavy breathing and more energy for the brains and muscles. This makes you feel stress when you e.g. have to do a presentation or when you have a job interview. You’re not in danger, but you do feel the same stress as the one we have developed from evolution.
So what is the difference between healthy and unhealthy stress? If your body can go into a relaxed state after a stressful situation (a steady heart rate and calm breathing), the stress you experienced can be healthy. Long term stress, in which you suffer from a high heart rate and heavy breathing for a longer time, is very unhealthy.
Healthy stress can also be described as “a healthy dose of tension”. It’s the tension or stress that makes you alert for an important event such as a performance, a match or something else.
It is very unlikely that you will be facing a lion in this day and age. But, you can find yourself in other dangerous situations, such as a car crash or a burglary. In these situations, stress can give you the following advantages:
- Stress makes sure you are highly alert and are able to respond quickly.
- It increases your performance. Stress stimulates your immune system and because of stress your body receives more oxygen. This is useful when you e.g. have to do an exam. More oxygen also flows to your muscles and your heart rate increases. This can be very helpful when you have to perform in sports!
- You become more focussed and motivated. When you feel stress because a deadline is approaching, it can help you to focus on your goal.
- By coming in a flow your performance increases. In this Ted Talk, Psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi explains how you can use positive stress to focus and get into a flow.
Too much stress?
When you feel stressed it’s good to realize that stress is a normal emotion, but up until a certain point. Are you experiencing stress? Ask yourself whether it is healthy or unhealthy stress. If you are chronically stressed, your body is chronically tense; this isn’t good! Try to release your stress by doing a relaxation exercise. If you are temporarily stressed, it can help you to perform better and it will definitely give you an advantage.