Who Says Stress Is Bad For You?
It can be, but it can be good for you, too—a fact scientists tend to ignore and regular folks don't appreciate.
By Mary Carmichael | NEWSWEEK
Published Feb 14, 2009 | Updated: 2:12 p.m. ET Feb 14, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Feb 23, 2009
If you aren't already paralyzed with stress from reading the financial news, here's a sure way to achieve that grim state: read a medical-journal article that examines what stress can do to your brain. Stress, you'll learn, is crippling your neurons so that, a few years or decades from now, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease will have an easy time destroying what's left. That's assuming you haven't already died by then of some other stress-related ailment such as heart disease. As we enter what is sure to be a long period of uncertainty—a gantlet of lost jobs, dwindling assets, home foreclosures and two continuing wars—the downside of stress is certainly worth exploring. But what about the upside? It's not something we hear much about.
In the past several years, a lot of us have convinced ourselves that stress is unequivocally negative for everyone, all the time. We've blamed stress for a wide variety of problems, from slight memory lapses to full-on dementia—and that's just in the brain. We've even come up with a derisive nickname for people who voluntarily plunge into stressful situations: they're "adrenaline junkies."
Sure, stress can be bad for you, especially if you react to it with anger or depression or by downing five glasses of Scotch. But what's often overlooked is a common-sense counterpoint: in some circumstances, it can be good for you, too. It's right there in basic-psychology textbooks. As Spencer Rathus puts it in "Psychology: Concepts and Connections," "some stress is healthy and necessary to keep us alert and occupied." Yet that's not the theme that's been coming out of science for the past few years. "The public has gotten such a uniform message that stress is always harmful," says Janet DiPietro, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University. "And that's too bad, because most people do their best under mild to moderate stress."
The stress response—the body's hormonal reaction to danger, uncertainty or change—evolved to help us survive, and if we learn how to keep it from overrunning our lives, it still can. In the short term, it can energize us, "revving up our systems to handle what we have to handle," says Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist at UCLA. In the long term, stress can motivate us to do better at jobs we care about. A little of it can prepare us for a lot later on, making us more resilient. Even when it's extreme, stress may have some positive effects—which is why, in addition to posttraumatic stress disorder, some psychologists are starting to define a phenomenon called posttraumatic growth. "There's really a biochemical and scientific bias that stress is bad, but anecdotally and clinically, it's quite evident that it can work for some people," says Orloff. "We need a new wave of research with a more balanced approach to how stress can serve us." Otherwise, we're all going to spend far more time than we should stressing ourselves out about the fact that we're stressed out.
When I started asking researchers about "good stress," many of them said it essentially didn't exist. "We never tell people stress is good for them," one said. Another allowed that it might be, but only in small ways, in the short term, in rats. What about people who thrive on stress, I asked—people who become policemen or ER docs or air-traffic controllers because they like seeking out chaos and putting things back in order? Aren't they using stress to their advantage? No, the researchers said, those people are unhealthy. "This business of people saying they 'thrive on stress'? It's nuts," Bruce Rabin, a distinguished psychoneuroimmunologist, pathologist and psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told me. Some adults who seek out stress and believe they flourish under it may have been abused as children or permanently affected in the womb after exposure to high levels of adrenaline and cortisol, he said. Even if they weren't, he added, they're "trying to satisfy" some psychological need. Was he calling this a pathological state, I asked—saying that people who feel they perform best under pressure actually have a disease? He thought for a minute, and then: "You can absolutely say that. Yes, you can say that."
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