Is stress always harmful to our health?

A certain degree of stress is essential for daily functioning and helps us to achieve our goals

Stress can generate psychophysiological and emotional reactions of anxiety, but it is also necessary to achieve goals
Stress can generate psychophysiological and emotional reactions of anxiety, but it is also necessary to achieve goalsMaskot (Getty Images/Maskot)

These days, stress is frequently invoked to explain a slew of psychological and medical problems. It serves as a socially acceptable catchall. Unlike the stigma associated with mental disorders, stress does not affect a person’s reputation, nor does it force people to think of themselves as sick or to acknowledge some kind of failure. Someone who is experiencing stress can be seen as an active, struggling person, who energetically faces the fatigues of modern life. Stress gets good press because it is linked to work, while anxiety and depression – the other side of the same coin – do not, because they are perceived as an inability to cope with day-to-day problems.

But what does stress really mean? It’s a phenomenon that arises when a person feels their psychological resources are overwhelmed in their efforts to cope with the demands of everyday life and perceives them as threatening to their personal well-being. The sources of stress vary and may include excessive professional or academic responsibilities, painful personal experiences, deep dissatisfaction with life, or role compatibility issues in working women. Stress may also emerge as a function of society’s technological advances. For example, technostress – which in the most extreme cases becomes technophobia – is a negative psychological condition associated with a person’s inability to use necessary technology – especially computers – for solving day-to-day problems; it affects older people especially and includes feelings of anxiety and weariness and a belief of personal uselessness.

Feeling overwhelmed is extremely paralyzing. Stress can generate psychophysiological and emotional reactions such as anxiety, depression, irritability, and health problems, including sleep disturbances, alcohol and tobacco use, cardiovascular problems, fatigue, inadequate nutrition, and exacerbation of chronic diseases. Similarly, because of the effects of cortisol, prolonged stress has an immunosuppressive effect, weakening the immune system and making the body more vulnerable to infections.

Rather than a specific event, stress is caused by the chronic tension to which a person is subjected, leading to a lifestyle characterized by time pressure, excessive responsibility, lack of family or work support, and excessive expectations of oneself and others. Chronic stress can also be influenced by so-called deprivation stress, e.g., the under-stimulation of a person’s mental or emotional processes (for example, performing routine tasks or inaction in retirement). A chronic state of emotional deprivation leads to boredom, loneliness and, ultimately, the loss of self-esteem.

But stress isn’t always harmful to people’s health. A certain amount of stress is necessary for daily functioning and motivation. Stress cannot be avoided entirely, and people could not achieve their goals without it. The relationship between stress and performance is reflected in an inverted U-shaped curve. Positive stress boosts motivation, increases energy, reduces fatigue and optimizes a person’s psychological concentration abilities to cope with a given situation (sports, academic, work, or social situations) successfully. In such cases, stress is not experienced as an overload but rather as a challenge. However, if the stress load continues to increase, performance may begin to decline, and a person’s health may suffer as a result.

People have different levels of resistance to stress, so the characteristics of the curve are unique to each person. Competitive, perfectionistic and insecure people, as well as those with poor coping skills or insufficient family and social support, are more vulnerable to stress. But even highly resilient people have a line that, when crossed, transforms stress from an adaptive resource into an impediment to a person’s health and performance. Distress – negative stress – occurs when there’s an imbalance between the demands of a situation and a person’s psychological resources to deal with it, especially if stress is very high or prolonged, or it affects a person’s social status. In such cases, people may not know how to behave in situations of uncertainty, and their physical or mental health may suffer as a result.

Unhealthy stress can be managed by eliminating or reducing the source of emotional distress or, if that isn’t possible, by lessening the overstimulation caused by the stressful situation. In the first case, people may try to remove themselves from the source of stress, for example, by looking for another job or distancing themselves from toxic people or situations. In the second case, when it’s impossible to entirely remove the source of distress, one can re-evaluate the situation and develop coping strategies to handle one’s emotional responses to the stressful situation.

Learning techniques for relaxation and meditation (such as yoga and mindfulness) as well as emotional management, engaging in rewarding and distracting activities, connecting with nature, participating in solidarity movements and seeking family and social support, among other activities, can help alleviate the discomfort of unavoidable external situations. In short, managing stress requires eliminating unnecessary sources of it and/or raising the threshold of tolerance to it. Fortunately, people are highly adaptable to difficult situations and have some room to maneuver in stressful situations.

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