Monday, October 12, 2015

Stress and Health

Stress isn't bad for you, but worrying about stress is:
In an experiment led by the Stanford psychologist Alia Crum, when people had only 10 minutes to prepare a charismatic speech, simply reframing the stress response as healthy was enough to relax them and reduce their physiological responses, if they tended to be highly reactive.

In a nationally representative eight-year study, adults who reported a lot of stress in their lives were more likely to die, but only if they thought stress was harmful. Over a hundred thousand Americans may have died prematurely, “not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you.”
Thinking about this seriously, I suspect the second finding points to something deeper than a “reframing.” People differ a great deal in how they respond to stress, and from hating it to loving it. Maybe the ones who think it is bad for them do so because it is bad for them, whereas the sort of people who become bush pilots or emergency surgeons think stress is good because they really do thrive on it. Also, studies of work situations have found that stress is much better for people who think they have control over their lives than for people who don't. So if you are the CEO and face lots of decisions, that is stressful but in an empowering way; whereas if you are a factory worker worried about being laid off, that is stressful in a harmful way. And maybe CEOs think stress is good, and nervous workers think it is bad.

So I would not dismiss the harm of stress as a failure of positive thinking. But this is yet another piece of evidence that on the whole taking a positive attitude toward life is good for your health, and wallowing in misery or anguishing about things beyond your control is bad.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

You said a lot of what I was planning to between reading the excerpted quite and reading your commentary.

The thing I'd like to emphasize, which fits in exactly with your own points, is that stress isn't the same thing as anxiety. As you point out, stress can induce other outcomes than anxiety - it just depends on the situation.

I think we can all agree that anxiety is bad for us. And yet, some people have much easier times avoiding anxiety than others, for a very wide variety of reasons.

I absolutely think you're on the right track with the comparison between the stress a CEO faces and the stress a factory worker in fear of layoffs faces.

Stress that you can control, and that you can escape from if at any time it becomes too much for you, can indeed be healthy. It's why there are adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers - they enjoy subjecting themselves to stresses in controlled doses where they know they'll always be more or less safe.

But when you're trapped with stress, without the means to alleviate it or otherwise control your exposure to it, it slowly drives you neurotic and insane. It happens when you trap a rat in a cage and subject it to random punishment, and it happens just the same when you trap a person in a dead end life and subject them to instability, uncertainty, unfairness, and suffering.

Or to use a simple comparison, people will pay lots of money to jump out of airplanes or compete in sports, but no one would ever pay any amount of money to be locked in a sweatshop working 16 hour days for six months.