Most people generally think of stress as bad. In fact, just the mention of this infamous six letter word can actually create a negative physical reaction in the body. When people think of stress, abdomens tighten slightly, shoulders feel a bit heavier, breathing becomes more shallow, and the fight or flight reflex kicks in. Since most of us aren’t often at risk of being hunted by large animals of prey, the stress we feel in our day-to-day life must be bad, right?
Stress is often viewed in a negative context and its harmful effects are cited everywhere from clinical research studies to BuzzFeed clickbait. So it isn’t surprising that many people often gravitate toward leisure activities to avoid the discomfort of stress. However, there’s an “upside” to stress too.
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, research indicates that stress is not always harmful. In fact, in moderate doses, it can actually be the fuel that is needed to create more positive outcomes. Consider these scenario: you need to meet a work deadline (like yesterday); you want to improve the relationship; your fifth grader needs help finishing the school project that is due tomorrow; the important business proposal must be written, etc. Each of these stressors has an obvious course of action that relieve the anxiety they cause. And it turns out that the stress itself is what generates the momentum to move to the next step. In other words, many people will often take swift action to alleviate the stress at its source.
Nbcnews.com cites psychiatrist Dr. Lynne Tan of Montefiore Medical Center in New York City as saying, “Stress is a burst of energy. It’s our body telling us what we need to do.” Stress is the derivative of our preprogrammed biological “Fight-or-Flight” response. To the brain, stress is equivalent to danger and when stress is experienced, the body begins to increase the production of the chemicals that the body needs to fight or to run. As the body begins to receive an influx of cortisol, adrenaline (epinephrine), and norepinephrine, the heart beats faster, blood glucose levels rise, senses become more alert, and your body is prepared for action. Therefore, a moderate amount of stress, experienced periodically, contributes to a sudden burst of energy that helps with more efficient performance.
Although moderate short term stress is beneficial, it is important to understand that chronic or long term stress is harmful. Researchers at Berkeley University noted that the downside of stress is that when experienced chronically there is a higher rate of memory impairment, obesity, heart disease, and depression. Researchers have also found that intense stress, even on a short term basis, can have harmful effects and may result in the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Given the known negative attributes of too much stress, it is very important to make leisure activities and rest a part of your regular lifestyle. Vacations, “lazy days” on the couch, and prescheduled “do nothing” days are essential for optimal functioning. However, you should be cognizant in making sure that your leisure activities don’t get in the way of accomplishing your goals. When you feel that burst of adrenaline, take that as your body’s cue that now is time to get things done. Another round of procrastination at that point is likely to result in unmet goals, incomplete school projects, missed deadlines, failed business transactions, and other miss opportunities to get where you’d like to in life.
Moderate stress that lasts less than 24 hours is optimal for task completion. If you find that you’re experiencing stress too frequently or the intensity is overwhelming, then it’s probably time to schedule in a break. Yes, stress helps you meet deadlines, but leisure helps to refuel the body back to a healthy state. What it all comes down to is balance. A little bit of stress and a little bit of fun is the key to create a healthy, meaningful life for you and your family.