Although we repeatedly hear about the negative health effects of stress, today we’re here to tell you that stress isn’t necessarily all bad. Like food, sex, and shoes, it’s quality, not quantity, that determines whether stress helps or hurts!
Beneficial stress comes in the form of an acute, stimulating surge, like when your raft starts to overturn in some seriously churning rapids. The resulting single adrenaline (epinephrine) burst that comes and goes very quickly is a good thing because it gives you energy and gets you ready to mobilize for immediate action.
Physiologically, the adrenaline created by an abrupt blast of stress sends a flood of oxygen-rich red blood cells through your body, boosts your immune system, and signals your brain to start releasing painkilling endorphins.
Bad stress, on the other hand, is intense and drags on and on. This constant grind causes your adrenal glands to leak a slow, steady stream of another stress hormone: cortisol. And unlike adrenaline, which tends to hit your system in a flash and then dissipate, cortisol often wears out its welcome by hanging around in your bloodstream, driving up blood pressure, suppressing your immune system, and making you more susceptible to a slew of stress-related ailments, including colds, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, and even heart disease and stroke.
So how do good stressors battle the bad ones? It all comes back to the positive power of adrenaline. In addition to all of its performance-enhancing effects, it triggers the release of dopamine and endorphins, two neurotransmitters that make you feel good – really, really good.
It also makes me feel good – really, really good, given the activities I have planned this weekend. But more of that later…
For now, let’s return to our favorite stress hormone – epinephrine. If you’ve ever tried skydiving, bungee jumping or heli-skiing, you’ll probably remember literally flipping out during your first attempt. But once you landed safely you probably experienced a euphoric, fist-pumping high thanks to dopamine flooding your brain’s pleasure center, giving you. During the next jump, you may still have felt all the same physiological stress responses such as a pounding heart and sweaty palms but instead of being terrifying, it’s exhilarating, because your mind’s already anticipating the thrill of that dopamine reward.
And the more times you do it, the less anxiety you’re likely to feel and the more fun you’ll have. That’s because your brain’s tagging the experience as a positive one.
And the benefits persist. Before long, your body can start to develop an almost Pavlovian response to stressful situations. If your nerves are tingling, your stomach is clenching, and you can barely breathe, then it’s tricked into thinking something really awesome is about to happen!
That’s what researchers at Texas A&M University found when they put a small sample of men and women through a series of purposely stressful outdoor adventure tasks. Some subjects – the fittest ones who were already comfortable with physical challenges fared better than others. The researchers discovered that those participants had a reduced stress response (including lower blood levels of cortisol) when facing demanding activities like whitewater canoeing or rock climbing. Essentially, they were more confident and less stressed out, even though the tasks were potentially hazardous. This may be because their past experience blazing through strenuous situations made them less likely to perceive new challenges as stressful or difficult. And according to the researchers, it’s possible to transfer that oh-so-cool-and-collected response to life’s other nerve-racking events.
Better still, you don’t have to scuba dive with great whites or BASE jump off the Empire State Building to reap the stress-busting perks of adrenaline. Whether you hit the bunny slope or the double-black-diamond mogul fields, as long as you’re taking a giant step outside your comfort zone, you’ll give your body that adrenaline kick and when you do it regularly and keep testing your edge, you’ll change your relationship with stress for the better.
So next time that little voice inside your head starts clamoring, no freaking way, just go for it and be prepared to reap the rewards.
Which brings me back to my weekend. Keen to test the above theory for myself and readers of SRxA’s Word on Health, I will be spending tomorrow riding some of the longest, highest, fastest most insane rollercoasters in the country…and the following day I will be running with the bulls. If being pursued by twenty-four 1,000-pound bulls doesn’t set my adrenaline firing on all cylinders, then I guess nothing will.
I”ll let you know (hopefully) on Monday!