One of the bitter ironies of being stressed is the fact that being stressed often makes you more stressed. In other words, if you’re very stressed then you will be worried about the fact that you’re stressed and this in turn adds to your existing stress.
For this reason then it’s important to put stress in perspective and to realize that it’s not all bad. In fact stress itself isn’t bad at all – it actually puts you into a heightened state of awareness and physical performance.
The acute stress reaction you see is actually also what we know as the ‘fight or flight’ response and it’s one of the best ways to improve your physical and mental abilities and thus to deal with whatever it is that life throws at you. Read on and we’ll look at how the acute stress reaction effectively turns you into a superhuman and why you shouldn’t be stressed about being stressed any more…
What Is ‘Fight or Flight’?
When you find yourself confronted by danger, your brain responds by producing numerous hormones and neurotransmitters. Specifically you get a trifecta of substances which are cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenaline. Together these substances have a number of effects which we know as the acute stress reaction.
Those effects include:
- Increased muscle tension and muscle tone
- Heightened awareness
- Better decision making
- More acute senses
- Thicker blood for clotting
- More rapid heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Suppressed immune system and digestive system (so that you have more energy for other functions)
If you were to take many of these items out of context and list them on their own, would that seem like a bad thing? More likely it would look like you were listing the attributes of Batman.
The Acute Stress Response and Evolution
From an evolutionary perspective this response makes perfect sense. Basically what’s happening is that your body is flooding you with hormones and brain chemicals designed to help you survive in dangerous situations.
That’s because acute stress in the wild would have largely been caused by immediate physical threats like predators or even forest fires. At this point an increased heart rate and alertness would be incredibly useful.
Likewise, today your acute stress response could help you to win a fight with a mugger, to dodge incoming traffic… even to catch that glass as it falls out of your cupboard.
In the workplace a little stress can also turn you into Superman or -woman. You don’t want to be flooded with stress hormones when you’re giving a presentation because you’ll come across as a nervous wreck, but the rest of the time though, stress can be incredibly effective as a motivator and it’s one of the very best ways we can prevent ourselves from procrastinating. If you often struggle to motivate yourself, then it might just be that you don’t have enough stress in your life.
This small amount of motivating stress is what you call ‘eustress’. Think of it as your brain’s way of telling you what’s important and what requires your full attention.
The Flow State
What’s also very relevant to point out at this juncture is that the acute stress response is neurochemically very similar to the flow state. A flow state is basically a state of mind characterized by fast reactions, increased awareness and heightened decision making but with none of the perceived drawbacks associated with stress.
Flow states are what happen when you’re snowboarding down a mountain at high speeds and you suddenly seem to experience time slowing down so that you can perform with perfect precision. It’s what happens when two tennis players get into the zone and return every single ball for ridiculously long rallies. And it’s what happens when you’re writing a book and you get so focused on what you’re doing that you forget everything else.
Researchers believe that these flow states are essentially the acute stress response plus ‘happiness’ or minus ‘fear’. This is what happens when you embrace the stress and let it give you the super powers it’s meant to. It’s why when you’re doing something fun but scary it kicks in and it’s why it occurs when you’re working on something you think is very fascinating and important – but not necessarily scary.
Next time you notice yourself starting to experience the acute stress response then, instead of fighting it and getting more worked up, try embracing it and ‘leaning into it’ so that you can enjoy the benefits of heightened awareness.
Cortisol for Waking Up
Cortisol the stress hormone is also not on its own the enemy and once again there is another very clear benefit of stress. Cortisol is what gets produced when we expose ourselves to natural sunlight in the morning.
You know that natural sunlight that we think of as being so healthy? And that seems to rejuvenate us when we bask in it? If that causes cortisol then surely cortisol can’t be all that bad?
And indeed it isn’t – cortisol is one of the things that makes our body get rid of melatonin in the morning – melatonin being the sleep hormone that makes us feel tired and lethargic. In other words then, we also need a little stress to wake us up in the mornings.
Without that little bit of stress we wouldn’t even have the energy or impetus to get out of bed. So stress in itself really isn’t a bad thing – the acute stress response can even potentially turn you into a kind of superhuman.
Next time you feel yourself getting stressed remember this – this is you in beast mode!