The Many Sides of Stress

How good and bad stress impacts everyday life

Initial Thoughts

An introduction to the “Many Sides of Stress” blog

It is safe to say that we have all experienced stress. We typically use the word “stress” to refer to a situation in which we feel pressured, judged, or over-worked. There is a clear negative connotation associated with stress. But what if I told you that not all stress is bad? Would you believe me? Given the strong negative connotation, you might not. However, stress is not always bad, it’s just misunderstood. The goal of this blog is to highlight the many effects of stress – both negative and positive – on behavior, relationships, and decision making by presenting cutting-edge research. This first entry will provide you with some background information and “food for thought.” Subsequent entries will focus on specific topics and research findings. 

Back in 1936, Dr. Hans Selye coined the word “stress” to refer to a “non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” So, any situation that disrupts homeostasis may be considered stressful. The disruption, however, need not be negative. In fact, whether the stress is good or bad often depends on our perceptions. To illustrate, consider the following hypothetical situation:

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Imagine you are a skier staring down a steep, narrow slope lined with imposing trees. There is no other way off the mountain than plunging down this trail. Regardless of your affinity for skiing, this situation is physiologically arousing and disrupts the homeostasis you felt back in the lodge. When faced with this situation and accompanying arousal, avid skiers experience excitement as they believe they can handle the difficult trail. Alternatively, novices are more likely to experience anxiety if the trail difficulty is perceived to exceed their skill level. The stress arousal the skiers experience when standing at the top of the slope is semantically and psychologically fuzzy. Responses (excitement vs. fear) depend on how the situation and internal bodily states are perceived. 

As demonstrated above a “disruption in homeostasis” can be good. The excitement experienced by the expert skiers is a positive-valance emotion. Before going out and believing that all stress can be adaptive, however, it is important to consider the duration of the stress response. Our skiing example is an instance of acute stress. This means that there is a specific demand (the steep slope) that can be addressed (skiing down it). Once demands have been addressed, the homeostasis (or equilibrium) returns. Chronic stress, on the other hand, refers to repeated exposures to equilibrium disrupting events, stimuli, or cognitions. The duration of stress is much longer. For instance, facing the demands of paying rent without a source of income is chronically stressful. These repeated exposures to stress often do not permit full recovery (return to homeostasis) and lead to wear and tear on the body.

To summarize, this blog aims to discuss the many ways stress affects our lives. I wanted to use this first entry to highlight a couple of important considerations before we start the discussion. First, the brain and body are connected. Perceptions play an important role in determining stress responses. This helps account for why different people might experience different stress responses in the same situation. Second, it is important to distinguish between acute and chronic stress. The major difference boils down to duration. Acute stress is more short-term, while chronic stress is more long-term. Now that we’ve covered some initial concepts, we can dive on into new research on stress next time.

Jeremy Jamieson, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Rochester.

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