NB: This post is from last year, I just never got round to sharing it. Thankfully I wasn't in a car wreck this morning!
I was involved in a car wreck this morning. I was sitting in the turning lane heading onto Westlake Drive from highway 360 when I felt a bump from the back and then watched a Prius go skidding past on its side to the right of my car. Luckily everyone involved was unharmed and we were able to pull the driver out of her car unscathed.
The moment is still fresh in my memory and the stress response is echoing throughout my body as I sit down to write this. As soon as my car was hit my sympathetic nervous system dumped a plethora of stress hormones into my blood. My heart rate shot up and starting pumping blood to my extremities. My pupils dilated and my senses became more acute. These are all normal responses to an acute stressor. It’s exactly what you want to have happen in a situation like this.
For most of us, dealing with that kind of stress is very rare. According to Steven Pinker we’re living in the safest time that has ever existed on the planet. There are no marauding hordes of bad guys and most of us don’t have to worry about predators threatening our lives. Yet we have an epidemic of stress induced illness in our culture. Heart disease, obesity, autoimmune diseases and even early death all show close correlation with ‘stress’.
The answer seems easy, just remove stress. Right? Not quite.
When we dig a little deeper we uncover more than one type of stress. The two primary categories of stress are distress and eustress. And they can essentially be seen as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ stressors.
Distress is the stress we’re all too familiar with. It’s the type of stress that is typically characterized by overwork, burnout and fatigue. But distress can also manifest at the other end of the spectrum in understimulation, boredom and depression.
The dictionary defines distress as: ‘great pain, anxiety, or sorrow; acute physical or mental suffering; affliction; trouble’.
Some distress is intense and acute such as experiencing an act of violence. We’re biologically wired to handle this type of stress relatively well by dealing with the stressor in one form or another before returning to baseline. Most modern distress, however, is not acute - it is chronic, meaning it’s experienced over long periods of time. We experience this type of stress over long periods of time. Constant, slow drip distress.
Examples of chronic distress include experiencing financial worries, a dislike of one’s job or primary activity and the relentless ping of our smartphones. This is the type of stress that is a primary cause in our health epidemic.
Eustress tends not to be discussed quite so much but is equally important. Eustress is the stress sweetspot. It is stress which enables us to grow. For example, there’s no doubt that a physically demanding training session is stressful, but it is the catalyst for improvement. Physical training is an example of eustress. It makes you better.
The dictionary definition of eustress is: ‘stress that is deemed healthful or giving one the feeling of fulfillment’.
Eustress is the type of stress we want in our lives. It’s the stress we feel when we’re in flow states and it’s the state we’re most productive and creative in. Many of the peak experiences we will have in our lives will be because of this type of stress.
If we want fulfilling lives, we need eustress. Lots of it. We need to be engaged in the active pursuit of things that take us outside our comfort zones and force some positive adaptation.
THE EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE
It is often fruitful for us to view modern health issues through an evolutionary lens. If we can paint a picture of what is normal for our species we can then map our modern way of life onto that picture for comparison. When there are differences between what is normal for our species and the way we act nowadays, we tend to see disease.
If we eat foods that are not appropriate for our biology we get disease. If our activity levels do not match our ancestors, we get disease. No community or tribe around you. Disease. If our sleep cycles and patterns are disordered, you guessed it - disease.
So how does stress look through this lens? Well, our ancestors would’ve experienced relatively little chronic distress. Most problems could be resolved in short periods of time. Rarely would a stressor drag on for months or years, so most issues were acute and could be resolved in fairly short timeframes. Running from a tiger or fighting a rival tribe was about as bad as things got - and these were rare instances. Most of the time was spent hunting or gathering, napping and forming social bonds.
50,000 years ago there was no sitting in your work cubicle pounding coffee and doing spreadsheets. There was no waiting to hear back from the lawyer about that case. No threat of unpaid bills and no pizza and ice cream messing up your innards. We don’t really have the hardware to deal with this kind of stress, we’re not biologically designed for it. Modern homo sapiens have almost the exact same genetic setup as our ancestors did 200,000 years ago. Same brain. Same body. Same emotions. Sam needs.
I’m not saying we should become luddites and reject modernity but I am saying we should be smart enough to understand why we feel stressed and to consider what we might be able to do about it.
Another defining characteristic of the type of stress is whether we feel we have control over a situation. If we feel like we’re able to handle the challenges that arise for us we are most likely experiencing eustress. If things feel as though they are outside of our ability to manage then we’ll typically experience them as distress.
Understanding this distinction is important because it offers us an opportunity to reconfigure the way we interpret a stressor and potentially even turn stressful scenarios into challenges that can be overcome.
I’m not advocating for rose colored glasses here but I am saying that our perception of a thing literally affects how our nervous system responds to it. Our beliefs profoundly affect our biology.
Of course there are factors which sit outside of our control and we have to contend with our own inherited and conditioned survival instincts, but there are many instances where reframing how we’re interpreting an issue can be helpful to turn something from a distressor into a eustressor. From something that causes despair and anxiety into something that calls for growth and tenacity. This type of mental judo was a core principle of Stoicism - turning obstacles into objectives (check out Ryan Holiday’s great book for more on that subject).
To conclude, we must understand that stress is neutral, it is not good or bad. Distress is the painful kind of stress we don’t want in our lives. Eustress is the beneficial type of stress we experience, we need it if we are going to grow and improve. We can understand why chronic distress causes many of our health issues by comparing our modern lifestyles to those of our ancestors. And lastly, our beliefs about what a stressor means are vitally important to how we respond physiologically. When possible we should attempt to reframe distress as eustress.