Sunday, April 29, 2007

Stress -- Why the Bad Rap?

A few of my friends lately have talked about stress and its effect on their lives -- specifically, reaching their fitness goals. It's been well-documented that constant stress raises cortisol levels, and cortisol is a hormone that gets its kicks from helping the body store fat. So it leads to the conclusion that stress=bad. But that's a shame.

Once again our family has been though what could probably be defined as a stressful time. ER visits, especially with young children, usually tend to qualify for that label. Since we've been through things like this before, though, I'm starting to notice some interesting aspects of how I'm handling stress. And especially how my coping mechanisms have changed in the past few years.

Perhaps etymology, or word study, would be useful here. I see stress as neither good nor bad -- it's simply a thing. Like money, power, or time -- they're not moral in and of themselves. You can spend $20 on a meal, a toy for a homeless child, drugs, or time with a hooker (although for $20, I wouldn't expect much). But the currency is inherently neutral.

My theory is that stress is the same way. In fact, the Greek root word is perfectly neutral, and from that root we get the words "distress" and "eustress". Distress is bad, and eustress is good, but the good one is basically absent from the English language. And when Americans say the word "stress", we usually mean "distress", or bad stuff. Why is that?

When Jack is up all night with fever, and Jamie and I are able to stay awake to watch him, this is a good thing. Our physiological response raised our heart rate and blood pressure, diverted blood flow to our limbs and large muscle groups, increased brain activity, and so on. This kept us alert when Jack needed us. You've heard stories of children stuck in burning cars, where the mother heroically lifted the small car to save her child... what made that happen? Stress. Eustress. Getting our bodies to do what they need to do since our race began.

Without stress, one of my ancestors surely would have been eaten by a lion or would have starved to death because he slept through a wolf attack on his flock of sheep. Stress saves us in a crisis situation, and makes sure we can pass on our eustress-capable genetics on to the next generation.

Back to my original point, and how my own response to stressful times has changed. Basically, in chaotic weeks, I try to look at my life and see when stress is useful, and when it isn't. Staying awake at 2am when Jack has high fever? Useful. Constant jitters and worry when Jack is safely napping? Not useful. In fact, that's worse than useless-- it's dangerous.

That physiological response of stress is very good in short bursts, but devastating over long periods. We just aren't meant to operate like that for very long.

Sorry if this is coming off as preachy; that is not my intent. Just a ramble about something that's been rattling around in my fight-or-flight brain over the past week.

So maybe the next time someone tells me they've been stressed, and I discover they've been going through some kind of mild crisis (final exams, healthy childbirth, etc...), I'll say, "Good for you! Sounds like everything's working just as it should be!"

Thank God for stress response.


MamaRose said...

Dad has been saying Dr. Phil's quote lately--'And, HOW is that WORKING for you?'--which IS a GOOD question & the WAY ya'll are USING your 'eustress' (is it?) sounds VERY GOOD. We DO get better at handling these things & KNOWING which ones are SERIOUS & which ones aren't so serious--THANK GOD!
And, we ALL RECEIVE GOD'S GRACE--THANK GOODNESS!!!! But, I gotta tell you--from one of his GRANDMothers--when Jack is SICK & in the hospital--it "HITS" me in MY STOMACH--literally!!! So, I bet I lost weight last week!!! SURE DID PRAY MORE!!! LOVE YA'LL! RoRo

Roland said...

Here's to "just enough stress."