Is a Stress Free Life Good or Bad?

It seems that the word “stress” is becoming more common in the venue of everyday discussions. We hear about stress on the radio, tension induced by the economy, the anxiety of losing a job and the stress that comes with very challenging work. It is easy to conclude that all stress is bad if the news and magazines were your only resources for information. But is all stress bad for you? Does stress have any positive qualities?

You may be surprised to learn that some stress is actually “good” for you in many ways. The trick to benefiting from stress is to moderate the level of stress in your life. Just as a healthy body requires water, a healthy body requires an amount of stress to maintain its health. Likewise, if a healthy body is exposed to too much water (or stress) there can be negative consequences like drowning (or heart attacks).

So you are probably curious about how stress could possibly be good for you. Let me begin by pointing out that there are different forms of stress. Physical and emotional stresses are among the many forms to which we are exposed on a daily basis. Emotional stress can include being worried about paying the bills or about that lump you recently found on your back. The good part of such anxiety is that it will often drive you to action to avoid the discomfort of the worry. In this case it would motivate you to sit down and figure out a budget or to finally pick up the phone to make an appointment with your physician. (Since we are already very familiar with the negative aspects of too much stress I am refraining from addressing them here.)

Physical stress can be similarly beneficial. Think about it a moment… If you lift weights or engage in a cardiovascular exercise you are stressing your body. You are exposing your body to the physical stress of a greater number of muscle contractions which leads to greater use of oxygen and production of waste products that require removal. This places pressure on your circulatory system by increasing the requirements for oxygenated blood. This causes the heart to pump faster and the lungs to process a greater volume of air. Simply put, you breathe hard when you run.

This physical exertion forces the body to adapt to the stressor by improving its cardiovascular health. This leads to a lower pulse rate and blood pressure which eases the burden on the continuously contracting muscle called the “heart.” This exercise induced stress also improves the functional capacity of your lungs which makes them more efficient. Just as with the heart, this improved efficiency lowers the lungs’ stress load as well. It seems to be counter-intuitive to realize that more stress leads to less stress!

These examples of exercise induced physical stress are also restricted by the “too much” boundary. If you run too far or for too long then your body can respond with an injury (e.g. shin splints) or with an excessive level pain. Both of these examples are quite effective methods for your body to tell you “don’t do that again.” The physical stress of weight lifting leads to a stronger musculoskeletal system by forcing the body to adapt as well. As with running, this level of exertion must be balanced with a period of rest and recuperation or else the athlete will suffer from overtraining. This is another very effective way for your body to tell you to “slow down” or “stop that”- depending on how far you have gone beyond the boundaries.

Soon you will hear another story on the radio or read another article in a magazine addressing the harmful effects of stress and how it is such a terrible threat to your well being. I hope that you will remember that these stories are addressing the presence of “too much” stress and not “all” stress. Coincidentally, adopting a “some is good” attitude towards stress may actually reduce the amount of emotional anxiety you may experience because you are able to understand the positive sides of it. Remember, if kept in balance, some stress can actually provide a healthy and positive impact on your life.