Is Stress Good or Bad for Your Health?

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH

Some people, when submitted to a stressful situation, end up with depression, while others seem to excel and perform to a higher standard. The question is, therefore, is stress good or bad? The answer depends on who you are and the situation you find yourself in as well as how long the stressful situation lasts.

Is Stress Good or Bad for You?

Is stress good or bad for youEustress and distress are both responses to stress. People who say they are immune to stress usually get dirty looks, but this could simply be an improper choice of words. No one is immune to feeling stress, but some respond to these emotions differently. It is the perception of the emotions felt under pressure that decide whether you are feeling the positive effects of stress or the negative emotions of actual distress. One term that can help explain this difference is eustress.

The term eustress is used to imply a more positive reaction to stress. A positive response is remaining focused, motivated, having vigor, and remaining hopeful. These positive responses to pressure or a stress trigger usually depend on several factors including your feeling in control of a situation, desire to be in the situation, and the timing of the stress trigger.

An example of eustress is a work place meeting in which you will make a presentation. Having control of the subject matter of the presentation, wanting to do the presentation, and not having any other issues like an illness can result in feelings of satisfaction and well being rather than feeling “stressed out”.

Distress is the other type of pressure most of us see in ourselves or others as negative. This is stress caused by feeling out of control to directly affect a situation or feeling responsible for things that are not changeable. Distress can cause one to withdraw, feel anxious or depressed, or at times become angry.

Both eustress and distress can be interchangeable. Too much good stress can turn into bad stress. Depending on how determined you are, you can also change distress into eustress. Stress can be managed. Stress management is a method of understanding the differences and limitations between distress and eustress. It is important to know your limitations and recognize when there has been too much eustress before it escalates to distress. It is also possible in a stress management class or seminar to learn to counteract the physical toil of strong emotional responses to pressure. Counteracting these emotions not only can turn distress into eustress, but it is a beneficial to overall well being. These courses often incorporate meditation and relaxation techniques to lower the physical effects to stressful stimulation.

The Body’s Response to Stress

To answer the question of is stress good or bad for your requires looking into how our bodies deal with stress in general. Stress is the body’s response to any perceived threat. Sudden stress of a severe nature causes an increased heart rate, the release of glucose (for energy), increased breathing, and a decrease in any digestive activities.

What happens is that the hypothalamus in the brain, as part of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, sends signals to the pituitary and adrenal glands. The short term response is the flight or flight response whereby the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland, in its turn, secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which stimulates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenalin and cortisol enable the body to keep up a steady supply of blood sugar needed as the fuel to cope with prolonged stressors and help the body return to a ‘normal’ state. During this period, functions that are perceived as non-essential to survival are repressed.

Is stress good or bad, or does it all come down to how you handle it?During the stressful period, your body and mind are on high alert, allowing for clarity of mind and the focus needed to deal with the specific threat. In a short-term stressful situation, all systems go back to their normal functionality.

Chronic stress, however, is a different matter. The long-term activation of the body’s stress response results in constant, high levels of stress response hormones that ultimately causes a disruption in the body’s normal processes. The result is increased risk of certain health problems, such as:

  • Anxiety and/or depression and/or mood swings
  • Weight gain/problems with digestions
  • Brain fog/memory problems/difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep issues
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Heart problems

How to Manage Stress

  • Identify the source of the stress. Once identified, make efforts to deal with the situation so that it is no longer a stressor. If there is nothing to be done about, learn to accept it and adapt to it.
  • Moderate physical activity helps relieve stress as it releases endorphins which are ‘feel good’ hormones. It is also great to help combat any extra weight gain.
  • Adapt your behavior and habits by identifying and changing the things you do that add to the problem. If you are a procrastinator, for example, and this habit adds to your stress, change the habit.
  • Make lifestyle changes, i.e. stop smoking or drink less alcohol. Take time for yourself by, for example, starting a hobby.
  • Take a look at your diet and make necessary changes. Eat foods that are slow energy releasing instead of, for example, sugary foods.

Is Stress Good or Bad – Summary

So is stress good or bad for your body? Stress, in the short term, has no adverse negative effects. It is a mechanism that allows for quick thinking and reaction in certain situations. Long-term stress, however, has negative consequences that could result in adrenal fatigue and thus a dysregulation in the HPA system. The resulting health problems experienced could have a debilitating effect.

© Copyright 2013 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Is stress good or bad