Jason Powers

Jason Powers M.D.

Beyond Abstinence

Why Being Stressed During the Holidays Is a Good Thing

How to choose a more embracing attitude about stress.

Posted Dec 02, 2015

Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.
Source: Photo purchased from iStockphoto, used with permission.

It happens every year. Maybe it’s the pressure to buy gifts or the burden of preparing the family dinner. Perhaps it is worry about weight gain or growing debt, or the anxiety that accompanies a cross-country trip.

There is no denying that an annual visitor this time of year is holiday cheer’s perceived evil twin: Stress. But should stress really be an unwanted guest?

Much has been written about how stress, including the varieties that accompany the holiday season, is “bad” and even deadly. But what if you viewed stress in a whole new light? What if you knew that when you’re feeling stressed, it’s typically because you’re doing something important to you, and that your body’s reaction to that stress is actually healthy? It’s come to be known as the stress paradox.

“People who experience a higher level of stress in their lives … those folks are more likely to find meaning in their lives,” Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal says.

I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s MAPP  (Master of Applied Positive Psychology) Summit in Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania’s MAPP alumni convene for a program packed with “TED Talk” quality presentations.  Among this year’s high-caliber speakers was McGonigal, herself a “TED” veteran.  To me, the definition of a good talk is when the experience transcends the limited time of the talk itself. McGonigal’s transcended.

Surprisingly, stress isn’t de facto bad or good. Stress can have both a downside and an upside. Even “bad” stress that many people associate with really bad events (a.k.a. “traumatic events”) is not the enemy.

Stress has an upside — it all depends how you explain the stress. Studies teach us that when you use stress to your advantage, you can experience more “good stuff,” such as enhanced immunity, increased alertness, improved work performance and a greater sense of well-being.

Some of us seem to shine under stress. For example, people who do their best work on a deadline almost need that pressure to function. Meanwhile, other people do their best work without the weight of time limits and other external stressors. In either case, delegate tasks and plan ahead to increase your chances of goal attainment but not to reduce stress. Stress is normal, stress happens.

Stress Has Protective Effects

“Stress can be a catalyst for something good,” McGonigal explained. People who don’t view stress as the enemy, the fatal boogie man that well-wishing health advocates have been claiming we should avoid like the plague, are not susceptible to the ravaging effects it can have on people who do.

Stress is a physiological response, and, like the myriad number of events that happen in life, you choose how to perceive it. You give stress meaning, and the way you explain it to yourself is not a trivial matter.

When your body feels stress, hormones such as epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) are released that can give you a temporary boost of energy, increase alertness and awareness (if you’ve ever had the sense that time seemed to stand still when you were stressed, that’s your brain speeding up to process the circumstances), and improve memory and cognitive functioning. Indeed, stress may be beneficial to our health in many ways, including protecting us against the effects of aging and cognitive decline.

Duke University points out these surprising benefits of stress:

  • Brief stress before a vaccination improves its protective effect. High-intensity exercise causes a “fight-or-flight” physiological stress response almost identical to stressors that would be considered negative, such as a car accident, but works to enhance rather than suppress the immune system. Studies have shown that a short bout of treadmill running done before a vaccination activates a stress response that can increase the body’s resistance to infection. 
  • Experiencing a little bit of stress when you’re young builds resiliency. Research has found that manageable stressors early in life — such as a brief daily separation from Mom — can decrease anxiety and improve cognition in adulthood by changing the levels of stress hormones in the brain.
  • You learn and remember new information more effectively under moderate stress. Hormones produced when we are stressed create changes in the cells of our brains that help memories to be stored more effectively. Specifically, the primary stress hormone cortisol improves learning and memory at moderate concentrations compared to low or high concentrations.

Changing Mindsets About Stress

As it turns out, whether you believe stress is enhancing or debilitating may be the most important predictor of how it affects you. In one study, researchers divided into groups 380 managers at UBS during the midst of the banking crisis to watch three short “stress-is-enhancing” or “stress-is-debilitating” videos, all based on research and real-life examples but differing markedly in their messages. Six weeks later, the individuals who viewed videos depicting ways in which stress enhances the brain and body reported a significant drop in health problems and a significant increase in happiness at work.

Yet another study that’s believed to be the first to look at the connection between an individual’s belief that stress negatively impacts health (the prevailing message in our culture) and subsequent mental health and mortality outcomes found that people reporting a lot of stress and perceiving that stress had a strong negative impact on one’s health increased the risk of premature death by 43%.

Taken together, all of this research makes a solid case for choosing a more embracing attitude about stress.

So if some stress is good, is more of it necessarily better? No. But when you accept the reality of your current stress level, your fight-or-flight response isn’t triggered, you’re more energetic and you have fewer harmful health consequences. Experiencing the enhancing aspects of stress rather than focusing only on ways to reduce it is simply a matter of changing one’s mindset.

The Web is replete with advice for reducing stress, particularly during the holiday season. But as McGonigal reminds us, a stressful life is also a meaningful life. The last thing we want to do is pull back from what fulfills us.

Jason Powers, MD, is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehab center and The Right Step network of substance abuse treatment programs in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives.

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