Is Stress Good?
You may be familiar with the quote attributed to Mark Twain that, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Although the observation is true, the attribution isn’t. According to the Yale Book of Quotations, it was actually C.H. Spurgeon who said it in 1859. Unless of course the Yale book got it wrong. Mark Twain did say that there are three kinds of untruths: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Of course it’s possible that that quote isn’t his either. Maybe the only thing we can be absolutely sure of is that it’s hard to be absolutely sure of anything.
Take something as generally accepted as the notion that stress is harmful and balance is necessary. We all know that stress is harmful to our health and that a lack of balance leads inevitably to burnout, right? But what if that’s as wrong as the quote about the speed of lies being Mark Twain’s? What if everything we’ve been led to believe about stress and life balance is wrong?
I’ve spent years talking and writing about the need for balance and lowering stress, so the idea that stress may not be so bad is kind of unsettling. I’d have to call clients going back 22 years to say, “Hey, remember what I told you? Well, never mind.” Maybe it won’t quite come to that, but some new schools of thought have recently rocked my world when it comes to the issues of stress and balance.
In a 2013 Ted Talk, psychologist, Kelly McGonigal presented some fascinating research that challenges conventional wisdom regarding stress and the need for balance.
Citing recent research from several studies, some of the surprising findings included:
A University of Wisconsin study suggesting that stress may correlate with increased longevity
University of California at Berkeley experiment with rats showing positive cell growth in learning centers of the brains of rats with higher levels of stress
A study that found evidence that stress may help summon helper hormones to increase immunity
An experiment with workers showing how the negative effects of stress could be mitigated by altruism and a positive mindset about stress
These studies are far from conclusive proof that stress is a good thing and we need not worry about achieving balance, but it does suggest that what we thought we knew about stress is a little like that quote we were just sure was Mark Twain’s.
One conclusion to take from these studies (besides a healthy skepticism for conventional wisdom), is this: Our attitudes about stress may have more impact than the stress itself. In two of the studies cited in McGonigal’s talk, the harmful effects of stress were virtually erased when the subject didn’t see stress as a negative thing. In other words, your perception of your stress is your reality.
Although it’s too early to say for sure, it’s possible that we’ve been working on the wrong end of the stress and balance problem all along, i.e. trying to reduce stress to the lowest possible levels and to balance every stressor with a compensatory emotional counterweight. The truth may be that we are simply well designed for stress and occasional imbalance. What could provide the greatest benefit isn’t working to avoid or reduce our stress but to cultivate a positive attitude about it and respond to it by turning outward and serving others.
Frankly, we might just be tougher than we think.