Do you sometimes get stressed? When you are stuck in traffic? Perhaps before an important presentation or exam or on a first date with a person you really like? Your blood pressure rises. Your heart beats faster and pumps more blood to your muscles, which allows you to react faster and with more force. Adrenaline streams through your body and you are on high alert, ready for action. It's all part of a primeval 'fight or flight' response meant to fight or evade attackers and predators. When the danger is over the nervous system adjusts itself again. Your heartbeat will slow down, your muscles relax and your digestion will resume.
But what if the 'danger' is never over? The pressure is always too much and you've been financially on the tight side a long time. You keep thinking “at some point it will get better by itself.…”, but it really is just getting worse.
Chances are that you regularly feel stressed. In this regard the Dutch are number one in the EU: stress symptoms among employees are 15% higher here than elsewhere. One in four Dutch people from nervous tension and one in nine suffer from burnout. For years this trend is getting increasingly worse.
Healthy and unhealthy stress
Stress is an elusive term to describe. You experience stress when you are under a lot of pressure, but interestingly enough also if you are under-challenged. Monotonous, slow work and little space for personal and vocational development can lead to ‘bore-out’. A classic example of boreout would be the person who passes away only a few years after going with pension. Unable to find a replacement for his work, the person withers away from a lack of challenge.
Somewhere between burnout and boreout you find healthy stress. You are challenged and perhaps taken a little out of your comfort zone. The pressure makes you perform at your optimum and you get a nice kick out of what you are doing. After completing the job you can relax again. You feel in your strength and ready for your next job.
Often we find ourselves on the other end of the stress-spectrum, however, where you feel overwhelmed and victimised. It is known that people with stressful jobs are more vulnerable to heart disease. This is due to the fact that negative stress will cause your blood vessels to contract, thus raising your blood pressure.
In a study at the Harvard University in the USA, the participants were told that the symptoms of stress were necessary and important for a good performance. When exposed to stressful situations, all the classic stress symptoms were present in the test subjects: increased heart rate, rapid breathing and sweating. But striking was the fact that this time nothing changed in the blood vessels, they stayed relaxed and open. The fact that the test participants had a good attitude towards what they went through seemed to make the difference.
In the course of a lifetime full of stressful experiences this biological difference, wether or not your blood vessels constrict, can determine if you get a heart attack by 50 years of age or if you live comfortably until 90.
Attitude to stress
The harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think about stress and how you act under stress will determine the impact on your body. Trying to remove all stress from your life is virtually impossible and in light of the latest science not even desirable, as some stress is good for you. Those who thrive on stress, are the people who see it as inevitable and instead of avoiding it find ways to master it, adapt and learn.
Welcoming challenges and taking them on as opportunities for personal development can help us change in a positive way. Exploiting the growth potential in stress is possible even when we find ourselves in circumstances we did not consciously choose for. That is great news!
Kelly McGonigal: How To Make Stress Your Friend. www.TED.com
Kelly McGonigal: The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You and How To Get Good At It