How stress can be a good thing

Our bodies become more alert and responsive in stressful times

Nick Knight
Thursday 16 October 2014 16:58

She’s five minutes late. I re-adjust my position awkwardly as I try, and fail, to master the art of casually leaning against the railings outside the pub.

Alarm bells ring, there she is, walking towards me about 20m away – oh s***! we’ve locked eyes too early – do I keep looking at here the WHOLE 20 metre walk or is that a bit, well, creepy? My heart thuds to an ever increasing beat and I find myself taking some nervous deeper breaths.

Question is - like many of us who experience stress - is it going to help me, or hinder me, on this first date? What follows is a very brief look at the process of stress which engulfs all of our bodies from time to time, and why actually, it’s present to work for you and not against you. Let me see if I can sell you the idea of good stress.

Stress can be classically defined as the perceived or actual physical, psychological or social sensation you feel when you are unable to bridge the gap between expectation and ability. It might be acute, episodic or chronic in nature and triggered by a variable host of intrinsic (e.g. self doubt, apprehensions) and extrinsic (e.g. work, trauma, other people) factors.

So, in this case, my acute stress is that I perceive that I will make a terrible impression on my first date. The process of giving me that faster heart beat and deeper breathing is what is really interesting. You see what’s happening within me is an explosion of neuro-endocrine (that’s a combination of my nervous and hormonal systems) activity with the sole purpose of priming my body and mind for the forthcoming stressful event. This stress response, also referred to as the General Adaptation Syndrome, occurs over three main stages: (1) alarm (2) resistance and (3) exhaustive.

After what felt like a very long 20m walk, the greeting takes place, and I land an appropriate, well-weighted kiss on her cheek (admittedly once I un-snag my jeans from the railing). At this point my body has already triggered the alarm stage of my stress response. This stage consists of a complex series of electrical signals sent out by the part of my brain called the hypothalamus. It stimulates my sympathetic (‘energising’) autonomic nervous system, and adrenal glands which sit atop my kidneys.

The end result is increased blood flow to my heart, lungs, brain and skeletal muscles (while conversely reducing blood flow to the unnecessary organs like my digestive and urinary systems); increased dilatation of my airway so that I can increase my oxygen delivery from the air; and increased availability of carbohydrates for my muscles. All of this is my body’s way of predicting an increase in physical and mental demand.

Of course, as clever as the human body is, it doesn’t distinguish between the source and degree of stress; instead it just primes this stress response in the same manner every time. A little odd when you consider it was probably very useful for our ancestors chasing their ‘meals’ across some Palaeolithic land and perhaps less (but not irrelevant) useful when I am on my first date. I remain thankful for modern day antiperspirant.

Right, I’ve now navigated the first hurdle of the greeting and strategically selected a romantic table by the open fire, so I go to the bar to get the drinks. At this point with the alarm stage of my stress response working its physiological magic, my body seamlessly should move into the second stage of the stress response – the resistance stage (of course the actual stages occur at such speed that I am just using my date as a slowed down, teased apart example).

In this second stage, my body secretes complex hormones that boost and support the neurological impulses generated in stage one. Again it is my hypothalamus that initiates this by releasing a series of key stimulatory hormones: corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH), growth hormone releasing hormone (GHRH), and thyrotrophic releasing hormone (TRH). So, as I return to sit down and make a terribly awkward joke about how she hasn’t run off yet while my back was turned, I can’t but hope that these three hormones have now triggered this cascade of events designed to support my ongoing stress response.

Now, clearly the example here is pretty low down on a spectrum of graded stress. All the same, these hormones do trigger a number of powerful benefits for the body; water and salts are retained by the body (in case you were to have a drop in blood pressure via blood loss). There is increased production of new carbohydrates via gluconeogenesis and protein catabolism, and increased release of stored carbohydrates via glycogenolysis, all simply designed to provide more energy for the physical and mental activity. Now since I am sitting in a pub, next to a (ok, yes, unlit) fireplace, with good and not yet unimpressed company, the last thing on my mind is getting up and sprinting off. That said, admittedly, I cannot vouch for her and she may well be thankful her own second stage stress response is in full swing and readying her to make a run for it.

The third and final stage of the stress response is the exhaustive stage. This is not something that many of us will experience thankfully. It is reserved for people who sadly have to endure extreme, prolonged and continuous stress. One example would be soldiers in a combat zone where the stress is unremitting. During this stage the body can become energy depleted as stages one and two are over-used accompanied by prolonged cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) production. Severe muscle atrophy, immunosuppression, and death can result. People here need support and relief from such stresses in order to protect their physical and mental wellbeing.

Thankfully my date is not that stressful. In fact, it’s going quite well and she may even like me. The stress that my body experienced from the moment I was trying to coolly lean against the railings outside the pub when she arrived seems to have provided me with a degree of stimulation that has helpfully prepared me for this first date – essentially, I was far more alert and receptive. You see there are in fact many theories that link stress arousal with performance. The classic example is the Yerkes-Dobson curve, developed back in 1908. The law, represented by a bell-curve, suggested that your performance increases with increased mental and physiological arousal – but only up to a point. When the arousal becomes too high (or too low), the performance decreases.

Since 1908 there have been many other theories, some of which challenge the Yerkes-Dobson curve as being too simple to describe stress (for which there are, admittedly, very different types – simple- versus complex-task stressors, being one example) and performance. However, for me, it is a good and digestible summary of a complex subject. Thankfully, I think I have a good level of stress arousal on my date, and so remain alert and responsive to, rather than comatose in the corner of the pub, or having a complete meltdown. Mind you, when I start to consider whether I should go for that first kiss my stress response seems to step up another level. Now my heart was really thumping.

Modern living is filled with stress from our environment, ourselves and others. Sometimes it is perceived and sometimes it is actual stress. Irrespective, our body’s response is the same – a set of physiological reactive stages that rapidly and progressively prime our body and mind for action. While stress is often linked with negativity, I think we need to welcome that feeling of a fast heart rate, increased breathing rate and alertness, for it helps us to recognise that our body is preparing us for action - and as such, bring us confidence.

Excess stress is of course a different matter and one that we haven’t discussed here. If you feel you, or someone around you, is suffering from excessive stress, then seeing your GP is a positive, safe first step to exploring the cause and managing it better.

And in case you are wondering, no, I won’t be telling you if I went for that first kiss…

Dr Nick Knight is a junior doctor based in London with a PhD background in human performance. His blog on life as a doctor can be read at:

Or follow him via Twitter: @Dr_NickKnight

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