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Staying on stress’s good side
Is stress just simply bad for you? Or are there ways you can actually maximize “good stress” to improve your well-being?
To find out more, BeWell spoke with Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford, who specializes in studying the effects of stress on immunity and health.
What is the difference between “good stress” and “bad stress”?
We have defined stress as a constellation of events that begins with a stimulus (stressor) that precipitates a reaction in the brain (stress perception and evaluation), that then results in the activation of fight or flight systems in the body (stress response).
- Short-term stress results when the stress response is activated for minutes to hours.
- Repeated short-term stress is experienced during most day-to-day living situations when we encounter a series of stressors or challenges (often during the same day) as we go through our lives. Although we need to conduct more studies to better understand this phenomenon, it appears that most reasonably healthy people can deal with repeated short-term stressors (in fact, most of us need to) as long as there are sufficiently long periods between stressors where stress-related biological factors are at very low levels — i.e., when a person is in a resting state, or “green zone.”
- Chronic or long-term stress results when the stress response is activated for months to years. This could be due to one long-term stressor (e.g., caring for someone who is chronically ill, dealing with a difficult divorce and its aftermath) or numerous short-term stressors with insufficient time for a return to resting state between stressors.
Can short-term stress be good for you?
Yes. It appears that the physiological/biological changes that occur during short-term stress can induce protective, beneficial effects. Elucidating and harnessing the mechanisms of “good” stress are major goals of our laboratory. For example, we have shown that when short-term stress is coupled with immune activation during surgery or vaccination, the ensuing immune response is enhanced.
How can you stay on the good side of stress?
I have proposed the concept of the Stress Spectrum, which involves the following factors to help you stay on the good side of stress:
- getting sufficient sleep
- moderate exercise
- balanced nutrition
- training yourself not to sweat the small stuff
- having strong social support (even if just one or two people that you can count on)
- living authentically and compassionately, and being grateful for what you have
Stress management activities
- other activities that help reduce your stress
How do you apply lessons learned from your research to your life?
I try hard to work on the factors within the Stress Spectrum that would enable me to stay on the good side of stress. I have to admit that doing this can be difficult, but I try to do the best I can.
For example: Although the psychological and time pressures at work have been tremendous, I have been trying hard to increase the quantity and quality of sleep I get. It is easy for most of us to borrow time from our “sleep account,” but that is not good for stress or health, and certainly not if your lifestyle choices consistently compromise sleep.
With regard to stress perception, I try to keep things in perspective and not stress about little things. With regard to social support, I have been very fortunate to have great friends and colleagues who have supported me through stressful and difficult times.
With regard to stress-management activities, I work on several angles, but among the most effective for me are bike rides, photography, and teaching. Interestingly, quarters when I am teaching are much more hectic because of the extra time pressure, but they are also ones when I am the happiest because I look forward to every class and to interactions with my students — who have been awesome! Thus, sometimes your stress-busting activity can be something unusual. If it works for you, recognize it and engage in it.
What is one thing you would recommend to our readers to reduce exposure to chronic stress?
Different strategies are likely to work for different people. Building upon what I’ve mentioned above, a few suggestions I have for reducing exposure to chronic stress are: doing your best to keep things in perspective and being truly grateful for what you have. Take a 10,000-foot view (on a clear day!) of life where you can see things, but where each thing does not appear huge or hugely important. For things that are indeed stressful, reach out to someone you can count on for guidance and support; not only is that helpful in and of itself, but knowing that someone cares also seems to go a long way toward buffering against the deleterious effects of chronic stress. Importantly, when someone needs your support, give it fully without regard for what you might get in return.
… any final thoughts?
What I wish more than anything else is for our research to help people: to help those who are sick get well soon, and to help those who are well stay healthy. I enjoy sharing our work with students and audiences of all ages and am happy and grateful when it is appreciated by them.
Watch Firdaus Dhabhar’s TED Talk: The positive effects of stress