What is the Purpose of Stress?

In a medical or biological context stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Note the word tension here used in the ‘medicinenet.com’ definition, we’ll see this again shortly.

To us as humans stress is all around us. Simply being awake and breathing is stressful because it requires the body to do work, which requires effort and exerting effort is stressful.

In this simple case, breathing and being awake is not causing us ‘too much’ stress, so we don’t consider it as a typical stressor. Our bodies and brains have large capabilities to deal with stress easily, execute actions while under stress and survive and flourish.

So when does a “stressor” become something we need to think about and monitor? We all know by now stress is bad for us, we know that it leads to a whole host of medical problems, poor sleep, poor recovery, social problems and relationship problems.

But how come some people are stressed and some people feel great when circumstances are similar?

Science bit: Stress lives in a part of nervous system that is called the autonomic nervous system. The bit of our brain and body that we are not always aware of that instructs things like our heart to beat fast or slow, our gut to digest our food and glands to release certain hormones at certain times. 

This autonomic nervous system is also split up into two states, one we’ll call the ‘tense stressed state’ (note the word tension again) and the other we’ll call the ‘relaxed happy state’.

Now what might cause us to be in the tense stressed state as opposed to the relaxed happy state? Well anything that causes us stress, begins to shift us along a sliding spectrum between the two states, towards the 'tense stressed state'. Anything that relieves the stress shifts us back towards the 'happy relaxed state'.

Let’s create an arbitrary sliding scale from 0 -> 100 with zero being the happiest and most relaxed any human could possibly be, and 100 is the level of stressed where a human's fight or flight response is activated and they go berserk, (imagine 101 is where the Incredible Hulk appears in the movies). So 100 is pretty stressed.

But what is the use of this stress system? Why does our physiology react in such a way we end up “so unrelaxed” so much for lack of a more simplistic term? 

We seem to all know about stress but do we know how it serves us? What’s it there for?

Well this stress mechanism is our survival mechanism because it acts like a threat sensor. It is our subconscious way of analysing the environment around us and communicating to our conscious brain that we are perceiving a potential threat and we may have to take action in order to survive. We hear a loud noise or a window breaking, we turn instinctively to look and gather more information with our vision to see if there’s a credible threat approaching. We see a monster, we immediately know there is a threat so our fight or flight hormone adrenaline is realised and we run or fight for our lives.

As we mentioned before we never really enjoy anything close to zero out of 100 on this arbitrary scale, because we are always stressed to some degree. Being alive, our cells working, our hearts beating and our brains taking in information from the world around us every moment of the day and to some degree during the night when we are asleep all keep us in a constant state of working and recovery.

Assuming we wake up in the morning at around a 50 on the arbitrary nervous system scale because; our alarm goes off, we’re thinking about the day ahead, our deadlines, our meetings, our responsibilities, our duties or our kids etc. You name it, we have things to do, this causes us stress, most of which is contained the vast expansive zone of tolerance that our experienced competent body and brain can deal with without boiling to the surface.

Imagine that your zone of tolerance stretches up to 69 out of 100 and when you tip over to 70/100 you begin to consciously feel the weight of these stressors and slight anxiety and apprehension about certain things. Perhaps it’s a quiet day until an email comes through with news of a big problem that is going to cause a ton of disruption until it’s solved. That adds to your stress levels so your score bumps up over the arbitrary 70 to maybe 75 or 80, maybe more, but now you can consciously FEEL the stress.

Why then do some people feel more stressed than others with the same problems? It might be that either one person’s nervous system is more sensitive to the outside world than another’s, or it could be as a result of previous life experience, the level of threat that the problem is perceived to create is vastly different in each person.

To somebody who has suffered through adversity in their own life and overcome a multitude of challenges analyses the problem as “not threatening” in their mental catalogue of what is potentially disruptive in this world, or their zone of tolerance to potential threats is much greater than their counterpart. To somebody who has never experienced a large amount of adversity, this problem may be potentially catastrophic.

Once our brains build up experience and confidence over-coming challenges we begin to feel stress differently. Our perspective shifts, our zone of tolerance increases, we have confidence in our own problem solving ability, we know in our subconscious this threat won’t overwhelm us. This enables us take it in our stride and over come it and because we are now much more robust.

So how do we get ourselves to this promised land of happy and not stressed? There are two ways;

1) Hide in the shadows and hope that the stress of the world never finds us and we go on living an easy life with no problems and no stress.

2) Take on new challenges head on, even if we think they will destroy us. When we look back on it, we will know we had it in us all along. Build up a toolbox of problem solving strategies so when larger chaotic problems enter our lives we know we have the ability to overcome them. Then when the big problems arrive on our door step that we never foresaw, we don't get wobbled, we don't get stressed because we know we have solved a thousand problems even bigger than this in our lives. We have no a doubt in our mind that while the challenge is new and our mountain looks steep to climb, we know we have the strength and ability to survive and flourish, we know we can do it because we're oh-so-much-more powerful now!

That is the purpose of stress, to make us invincible!

May 13, 2020

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