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When Stress Doesn't Suck

What you think is killing you should actually make you stronger.
Christopher Griffith

"You seem tense," my iPhone texts me, and suggests I take a brief meditation break. Is it reading my mind? 

No, it’s just a message from the two-inch-long gray orb attached to the waistband of my jeans, called Spire, which monitors my respiratory rhythms and alerts me whenever it senses a period of rapid, shallow breaths. Spire was invented by Neema Moraveji, Ph.D., a computer scientist who directs Stanford University’s Calming Technology Lab, where his team has studied prototypes like Mail0, touted as “the world’s first calming e-mail client,” as well as Morphine Drip, an app for injured athletes stressed out because they can’t play. “We’re also trying to bring natural elements into sterile work environments,” says Moraveji. “This includes outfitting desks with real grass.”

These are just some of the latest products to join a global marketplace filled with antistress teas, body lotions, shampoos, colognes, dermal patches, even socks. On my desk is a vial of Bach Rescue Remedy Natural Stress Relief. Four drops of this homeopathic concoction on my tongue should alleviate “everyday stress,” the label claims. Like gazillions of other supplements purported to reduce stress, Rescue Remedy doesn’t work. (Or at least, not in my case, according to my new monitor.) But that doesn’t stop people from buying it. In fact, Americans are starved for stress salves. As of 2009, Americans spent an estimated $14 billion on stress-relief products. And according to a 2012 report by the World Health Organization, job- and workplace-related stress annually costs American industries upwards of $300 billion. 

But unlike the marketers of herbal potions, the makers of Spire—a truly promising stress-relief aid—make no bold claims that their product will magically wash away your stress. In fact, Moraveji tells me, “our company is not about stress reduction. Stress is a part of life.” That’s because Moraveji, along with a growing number of scientists, doesn’t think stress is actually bad for you. To echo stress researcher Shawn Achor: The problem isn’t that stress is killing you—it’s that you believe stress is killing you.

Achor should know. In 2007, while studying ethics at Harvard, he founded GoodThink, a research and consulting firm. In 2010, he wrote the book The Happiness Advantage, on the power of positive psychology. And in 2013, he co-authored a study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which demonstrated that “it’s how people perceive stress” that determines how it impacts our health.

Stress scientists call this phenomenon the “stress paradox.” When your boss yells at you, your endocrine system dumps stress hormones—adrenaline, cortisol, norepinephrine—into your bloodstream that set off the classic fight-or-flight response. Your heart rate and blood pressure elevate, your breathing ramps up, and your metabolism rapidly converts fat into fuel to power your muscles. An evolutionary adaption, the stress response saved us from life-threatening situations in the wild. Too much stress, however, produces an overabundance of these hormones that begin dissolving vital organs, like Drano in the bloodstream. (For instance, cortisol causes oxidative stress, a process that plunders electrons from atoms within healthy cells, the way rust rips apart steel.) 

The paradox, says Stanford University neuroimmunology professor Firdaus Dhabhar, Ph.D., is that those same toxic, harmful molecules we associate with stress—though in lesser amounts and for shorter periods of time—are what make you healthier and stronger. 

How to Beat Office Stress >>>

When you engage in high-intensity exercise like CrossFit, your body reacts to the external challenge and activates similar mechanisms responsible for the fight-or-flight stress response—sometimes for several hours at a time. When released for a short period of time, defined as “minutes to hours,” the adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine can function in harmony to build up your body, then dissipate over time. “Exercise can induce a beneficial stress response,” says Dhabhar. 

The spike in heart rate, respiration, and energy lets you train harder, which builds muscle. The fight-or-flight response also activates your brain’s endocrine, immune, and metabolic machinery. Together, these systems dispense insulin, testosterone, and growth hormones (among other hormones) and also communicate with various genes and proteins that alter the brain, as well as muscle tissue—both skeletal and heart—to boost strength and stamina. 

“Exercise creates a positive balance of chemicals that can have positive effects on the heart and the brain,” says Bruce McEwen, M.D., a professor of neuroscience at the Rockefeller University. 

Of course, striking that effective balance of fight-or-flight molecules comes easier for some people than for others. And, say McEwen and Dhabhar, both pioneers in the stress-is-good-for-you research field, our ability to cope with stress derives from several factors, including both nature (McEwen has identified specific genes that are part of the body’s response to stress) and nurture (science confirms that prolonged stress during childhood, from things like abuse, malnutrition, or abandonment, will breed adults who instinctively loathe stress and, consequently, will suffer physically from it).

But how does the stress paradox work for everyone? Dhabhar and McEwen, along with a cadre of other researchers, are trying to solve that mystery. And after studying both animals’ and humans’ brains, genes, and responses to exercise, they believe not only that our mindset is the single biggest determining factor in whether stress is ultimately toxic or beneficial to health, but also that the simple act of having a positive attitude about stress can yield discernible physiological changes—genes firing, neurons rewiring—that measurably improve mental and physical performance. 

It’s for this reason that Achor collaborated with Moraveji to develop Spire—because it’s much easier to embrace stress once you’ve been alerted to the fact you’re stressed in the first place, so you can identify its source. (Spoiler alert: This isn’t as easy as you might think.)

“Basically, we’ve discovered that if you think of stress as something that will impede your performance, it will do exactly that,” says Achor. But if you treat stress as a challenge, you’ll emerge stronger than ever.

You’ve just got to learn how to do it.

Next: Why everything you know about stress is wrong



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