We are citizens of stress. Think about it, more deadlines, increased workloads and higher expectations have become the norm. And the cures slapped across magazine covers and shared on Facebook feeds over the years have been meditation, yoga and slow breathing. While merit does exist for those, researchers have started to ask another question. What if stress could actually be a good thing?
"The stress response is such a healthy part of our lives that we should stop calling it stress at all and call it, say, the challenge response," neuroscientist John Coates argued in his 2014 article, “The Biology of Risk,” to The New York Times.
For millions of years, that feeling of stress literally saved our ancestors’ lives. According to Harvard Health, a stressful incident is like a fire alarm that triggers a well-orchestrated physiological change. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flood our bodies. The muscles tense, the heart pounds and we begin to sweat and breathe fast and shallow. We know this instantaneous sequence of physiological reactions to stress as the "fight-or-flight" response because is was a way to give us and other animals the speed and strength to run when we can or fight if we must.
Unfortunately, our 2-million-year-old brains have not adapted to modern-America’s dangers, and the “fight-or-flight” response that worked so well against natural catastrophe has actually been killing us at our desks. This is called chronic stress, brought on by prolonged stressors such as constant deadlines or caring for a sick loved one, which often leads to high blood pressure, the formation of artery-clogging deposits and increased anxiety, depression and addiction. These are just a few of the major health problems the National Institute of Health attributes to chronic stress.
We can stop the compounding effects of chronic stress by unleashing those same hormones with a different type of stress. Acute or short-term stress, from activities like rafting down a river or standing at the starting line of a race, rebuilds muscle and neurons. In fact, “stressing” your cardiovascular system and muscles is what actually helps make you stronger. What’s good for the body can be good for the mind, too. Elevating your heart rate – say during a run or hike – can help grow new nerve cells that produce a similar effect to antidepressant drugs. Finally, getting an adrenaline high – again, same physiological “fight-or-flight” response – from exerting risks like ziplining or climbing, can rewire our thinking of what stress actually is, which according to psychologists is ultimately just your body’s way of saying, literally, move.
So, while stress no longer needs to save us, it can still serve us if we use it to our advantage. That means going for it, getting out of our comfort zone, and getting the heart pumping, just like our ancestors did. Only difference now, is the flight response means jumping onto a 1000+ foot zipline!