by Heidi Hanna, PhD, FAIS

Try to define stress and you might find yourself quickly in its grasp. Even the concept of stress has had a stressful ride; when it was first coined by Hans Selye as the “non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”, Selye himself had no idea the rapid rise and fall his newborn term would experience, later suggesting that had he been more clear in his description he might be known as the godfather of “strain” instead. (Read more about AIS Chairman Paul Rosch’s experience with Hans Selye here).

Selye’s theories attracted considerable attention and stress soon became a popular buzzword that completely ignored Selye’s original definition. Some people used stress to refer to an overbearing or bad boss or some other unpleasant situation they were subjected to. For many, stress was their reaction to life circumstances in the form of chest pain, heartburn, headache or palpitations. Others used stress to refer to what they perceived as the end result of these repeated responses, such as an ulcer or heart attack. Many scientists complained about this confusion and one physician concluded in a 1951 issue of the British Medical Journal that, “Stress in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.”

Which inspired me to write in my upcoming book, What’s So Funny About Stress with neurohumorist, Karyn Buxman:

“A classic narcissistic, stress really is fully of itself. After all, what else in addition to being itself is also the cause of itself and the result of itself. And the more it sucks you in, the more you think about it, talk about it, obsess about it. It’s more contagious than the flu, transmitting through a look, a sense, and all types technology. It can make you sick, tired, and fat and yet like other recreational drugs you crave it when it’s gone. We are hooked by our brains’ hardwired preferences for more; longing for more information, more connection, more validation. And when we feel pain, it becomes the perfect distraction to quiet the voices in our heads that tell us we’re not enough.

We know we need to take a break, but find relaxing as painful as detox and create stories to justify its overuse. It can ruin your relationships, causing loneliness than only powers it still. And yet you can’t live without it. For it also stimulates growth and change; an internal GPS if we’re willing to be aware, adjust, and adapt. Stress shows us where our heart is and where our passion lies. After all, if you didn’t feel discomfort when out of alignment that would mean you didn’t care. Stress is stimulating, invigorating and connecting, as long as it’s not overpowering, overwhelming or exhausting. The key is oscillation that mimics that of the human system in all other ways. Just like heart beats, brain waves and blood sugar, this energetic rhythm facilitates the symphony of stimulation, adaptation, and recovery required to evolve.”

In time, Selye realize the need to distinguish the nuances of stress and described two distinct types which the ability to lead to dramatically different experiences and outcomes. Eustress, caused by positive circumstances like winning the lottery or having a baby and distress, caused by negative circumstances such as a debilitating injury or a difficult boss. Ironically, even separating what might be seen as good stressors from bad, research has since concluded that the perception of the individual experiencing stress ultimately determines the response. It turns out that lottery winners end up less happy after their fortune than before, and amputees often find themselves with more meaning in life and gratitude after their traumatic experience. (Read more about the research behind Rethinking Stress here).

One thing remains certain: stress can be considered the stimulus, experience or response that occurs when we need to adapt or change. Positive stimulation can cause negative results when we’re not able to effectively adapt, and negative stimulation can cause positive results when we are. Therefore, stress might be best characterized as an energetic exchange – one that has the potential to lead to either growth or breakdown depending on the internal and external environment in which it resides.

Perhaps the most exciting discovering in the new science of stress is the awareness that stress is a powerful indicator of what matters to us. Research has shown that people who rate their stress as being high also rate their perceived meaning in life as being high as compared to those who experience low stress. For without stress or the stimulus for change there is no demand to adapt, grow, learn or evolve. When we become aware of our signs and symptoms of stress, we can more quickly evaluate the situation and determine what needs to be done in order for us to move towards positive growth. As Kelly McGonigal shares in her brilliant TED talk, stress is what occurs when something we care about is at stake. It’s in these moments where we have the ability to purposefully and intentionally invest in making the best choices to secure a positive outcome, or we can dismiss the sensations, allow ourselves to get pulled back into the daily grind, and allow the wear and tear of misalignment to break us down over time.

We’re all aware of the negative impacts of unmanaged stress (and if you’re not, check this out). It’s been estimated that chronic stress costs nearly $600,000 billion in the US alone, and the numbers continue to rise. What’s more, as we continue to rely on technology and develop addictions to work and non-stop stimulation (multitasking, constant texting, sitting for long periods of time, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and so on), our energy becomes hijacked and we numb out to the experience of stress allowing it to trigger inflammation and other metabolic adjustments proven to speed up the development of anything that’s wrong in our system.

Cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, dementia all flourish in an internal environment of chronic stress, which I say not to stress you out but rather to remind you that your stress experience is under your control. Choose to have awareness, adjust your perceptive and build in adequate self-care and recharge time, and you train your brain and body to effectively adapt to stress in a healthy way. With an energized system, stress once again becomes a stimulus for growth and over time builds wisdom and a deeper experience of life at its fullest.

And bless your stress, it means you’re alive!