Don’t Have a Cow Man: Stress Could Be Your New Best Friend

Wednesday, October 9, 2019
Catherine Morin

With surging levels of stress in North America and an increasing number of people experiencing difficulty handling daily life stressors, stress has undoubtedly become one of society’s biggest issues. But is stress really downright unhealthy? Could reshaping our perception of stress help us manage it better?

Since 2007, the  American Psychological Association (APA) has conducted an annual nationwide survey of stress to understand better its impact. The latest Stress in America report, released in January, shows an increase in the average stress level of American citizens over the past year.

The study also reveals that stress is a significant health concern for teenagers between 9th and 12th grade. Many psychologists claim that the incapacity to manage stress at a young age can have severe long-term health consequences.

With over 60% of Americans citing uncertainty about the state of the nation as their primary source of stress, analysts attribute this year’s rise in stress levels to the increasingly polarized political climate. Historically leading stressors such as money and work also contribute to these high levels.

 A report published by the American Institute of Stress shows that 80% of workers feel stressed on the job and nearly 50% say they need help in learning how to manage their stress.

All this to say, stress is currently a severe health concern in America. But what exactly is stress?

Defining stress

Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or worried that can lead to psychological or physical issues. The Oxford dictionary defines it  as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”

Based on extensive research conducted by psychologist Andrew Baum in the 90s, the APA complements that definition by describing stress as “any uncomfortable emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes.”

It can be a response to a temporary situation, like being late for an appointment, or a more severe long-term situation like a toxic relationship or financial problems.

 The APA states that stress can become dangerous when “it interferes with your ability to live a normal life over an extended period.”

Besides hindering relationships and daily activities, extreme amounts of stress can adversely affect the cardiovascular, immune, endocrine, and central nervous systems.

Considering these severe emotional and physical implications, it’s a no-brainer that everybody could benefit from developing better stress management skills. 

How stress-relieving is stress-relieving technology?

With the growing demand for products that address health concerns and promote well-being, there are many opportunities within the market of stress management. In the world of wellness-monitoring tools like FitBit or calorie-tracking apps, stress management applications that claim to bring relief within easy reach are becoming increasingly popular.

Pacifica, a psychologist-designed mobile application, provides tools to help people address stress, anxiety, and depression at a gradual pace. Often cited as one of the most effective stress-relieving apps, it offers digital implementations of existing practices in psychology such as meditation and relaxation exercises, as well as daily anti-anxiety experiments.

It also features a mood tracker to help users notice patterns in their thoughts and make adjustments to manage their emotions more effectively. There is even a “hope board” where users can put inspirational quotes, photos that reassure them, or notes about their successes.

According to the reviews, rated 4.4 out of five on Google Play Store and 4.6 out of five on the App Store, the app has helped many satisfied users go through difficult times and reduce stress-inducing negative thoughts.

GPS for the Soul is a mobile application created by Arianna Huffington, the founder of Thrive Global and The Huffington Post, designed to help people relax and better balance their lives.

In the early days of the media company, Huffington was a self-proclaimed workaholic, often listed as one of those highly successful people surviving on very little sleep. Working 18-hours days, she was always on her mobile and computer, having a constant sense of urgency to reply to emails and to check on how things were going at work. In 2007, she collapsed at her desk from exhaustion.

She is now an outspoken advocate for reducing stress, creating a  healthy work-life balance and disconnecting from our devices.

Huffington’s app tracks users’ heart rate and heart rate variability, which can indicate raising stress levels when measured together. From those readings, the tool connects users to personalized stress relievers like breathing exercises, calming music, meditation instructions, poetry, or pictures of loved ones.

Huffington believes that we all have a centered place of wisdom and harmony within us but human nature causes us to turn away from that place repeatedly. We, therefore, need mechanisms to help us get back on track and live healthier, less stressed lives. She thinks GPS for the Soul can effectively connect users to what they need for bringing about a better sense of balance.

Many satisfied users describe the app as an effective stress reliever and a good reminder to pay attention to their genuine needs. Some even claim that it helps lower their blood pressure quickly.

Asking for help can sometimes seem like an insurmountable task for people struggling with extreme stress levels and anxiety. Thus the growing list of self-help apps makes therapy exercises more accessible to a broader range of people.

However, considering that high levels of stress often result from overwork, it may seem paradoxical to add yet another task, yet another app to manage, to an already bloated list of things to do.

Stress and hyper-connectivity

Internet and social media have given us limitless opportunities to connect, resulting in chronic overconnectedness (a term that really should not even exist) and increased stress for many people.

Researchers from the University of St.Gallen in Switzerland studied the effects of the “always connected” culture on stress and anxiety, focusing on the stress potential of social media in the workplace.

They found that there was considerable pressure associated with managing a substantial volume of electronic stimulus. Social media usage has resulted in the leakage of content across the boundary that once separated our professional and personal lives, and ceaseless intrusion of work into private life inevitably increases stress.

A constant uncertainty associated with the unpredictable change in social media requirements and applications contributes to increased stress as well.

The network-building possibilities of social media can also contribute to high levels of stress. Seeing pictures of our friends’ amazing vacations, or finding out about their latest professional successes increases envy-driven stress.

We can even feel pressure to carefully represent our own lives on social media, highlighting our children’s school achievements but hiding our impending divorce, for example.

Our natural human tendency to be empathetic makes us sensitive to stressful events in the lives of other people. A 2015 Pew Research Center analysis concluded that having many social media connections expands our exposure to others’ misfortunes and increases the risk of “stress contagion.”

Can using an application help us disconnect?

When launching her application in 2012, Arianna Huffington explained that even though she realized the irony in the idea of creating a digital tool to help us disconnect from our busy lives, the solution to issues created by technology “is not anti-technology, but rather better technology.”

Huffington sees stress-management apps as a way to use technology to find peace within rather than tools that contribute to hyper-connectivity.

What doesn’t kill ya makes you stronger

The question still stands; by always trying to control levels of stress, are we actually doing ourselves a favor?

While extremely stressful situations can take a severe toll on physical and emotional health, a growing number of specialists believe that experiencing a certain amount of stress can not only be stimulating but even healthy.

While an overwhelming workload can indeed cause stress, boredom can sometimes be just as challenging.

According to Dr. Spector, having too little to do can cause many physical discomforts typically associated with being overwhelmed, like headaches, stomachache, heartburn, and muscle tension.

A 2014 study conducted by psychologists at the University of Waterloo even found that measurements of people’s heart rates and hormonal levels while watching a boring movie showed more significant signs of stress than those viewing a sad movie.

Through several different studies, a question emerges: is it a common misconception that experiencing stress is always harmful?

A lack of stress may actually be harmful

Dr. Spector thinks that we should not consider stress as inherently harmful. He believes our most significant health problems result from a lack of stress. In an article published in the Huffington Post, he explains that the human body is designed to endure stress and react to it.

For the majority of human existence, human’s lived in a world that bore almost no resemblance to our contemporary lives.  

 As hunter-gatherers, our ancestors regularly experienced temperature swings, food shortages, and the need for daily physical activity. With evolution, our biology adapted to face these conditions.

Our contemporary environment, however, ensures controlled temperatures, easy access to food, and little need for physical activity.

The progress we have made in taming the world seems to contribute directly to our most severe health problems, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.

Factors like temperature fluctuation, seasonal food storage, and regular exercise trigger an adaptive stress response that optimizes health in the long term. The concept is called hormesis.

A significant demonstration of hormesis is seen in physical activity. While exercising causes inflammation and oxidation in the short term, it has potent anti-inflammatory effects in the long term.

Spector also illustrates the concept by explaining how caloric restriction can help expand an animal’s lifespan. “By significantly decreasing food intake, lifespan lengthens,” he writes. “This stressor triggers a cellular stress response that renders the animal more resistant to chronic diseases and slows aging. One of the ways this works is through a dramatic decrease in inflammation.”

Although we are far from the hunter-gatherer era, our natural response to stress helps us face the challenges of our modern world. It’s just about how we interpret the signals.

Signals of stress that happen in the body ─ such as heart racing, blood pumping, and stress hormone secretion ─ can contribute to our performance in a modern-type work environment.

The APA states that “Some stress can be beneficial at times, producing a boost that provides the drive and energy to help people get through situations like exams or work deadlines.”

Daniela Kaufer, an associate professor at the University of California in Berkeley, specializes in the biology of stress. She studies how the brain responds to anxiety and traumatic events at the molecular level. Her findings suggest that short-lived stress, such as preparing to deliver a public speech or doing an exam, improves memory and cognitive performance.

“I think intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert,” she explains.

Research has demonstrated that chronic stress increases levels of stress hormones, leading to reduced production of new neurons in the hippocampus and ultimately impairing memory. Occasional stressful events, however, can push us to a level of optimal alertness, cognitive, and behavioral performance.

To clear up the confusion surrounding the effects of chronic and intermittent stress, Dr. Kaufer and her team subjected rats to acute but temporary stress ─being locked in their cages for a few hours.

The experiment led to stress hormone levels as high as those from chronic stress, but only for a few hours.

Researchers also observed that the stressful situation had doubled the proliferation of new brain cells in the hippocampus.

Thanks to special cell labeling techniques, the team established that the new nerve cells triggered by the stressful event were the same ones involved in learning new tasks two weeks later.

A matter of perception

Research has shown that an individual’s perception of stress directly influences his or her ability to manage its effects. 

Alia J. Crum, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, believes that people can better handle stress if they learn to consider it as helpful, rather than disabling, in certain circumstances.

Dr. Crum experimented with 350 employees of a company which about to lay off 10% of its workforce.

One-third of the employees watched videos that focused on the positive aspects of stress. The videos explained how hormones released under stress help sharpen cognitive functions, and how even the most traumatic stress can help develop mental toughness and new perspectives.

Another third of the employees watched videos that demonstrated the downside of stress by explaining how it can lead to depression, anxiety, and severe physical health problems.

The last third of the employees watched no video on stress.

While all the effects of stress mentioned in the videos are possible, most people only know about the negative ones. In Dr. Crum’s experiment, workers who had watched the first set of videos demonstrated better performance under pressure.

In 2012, psychologists at the University of Wisconsin in Madison asked nearly 29 000 people to rate their level of stress over the past year, as well as how much they believed their stress influenced their health. For the next eight years, researchers used public death records to track the passing of any participants.

Subjects who believed that stress had a significant impact on their health had a 43% increased risk of death. Those who experienced high levels of stress without perceiving its effects as negative were among the least likely to die compared to all other participants in the study.

While these findings don’t necessarily mean we need to seek out more stress or accept the adversities we face, the research reminds us that the effects of stress are not always harmful.

Benefiting from stressful situations

While stress is not entirely harmless, we should avoid considering it as downright toxic. Our efforts to eliminate stress at all costs might be creating a mindset that makes it more damaging.

Whether you use an app or not, learning to identify different types of stress and to view certain adverse situations as beneficial are significant steps toward better stress management and a healthier lifestyle.