In the last blog, we discussed the Redefinition of Stress, today part 2:
How the body and brain respond to stress depends on many factors, not the least of which is your genetic background and personal experience. Today there is an ever-widening gap between the evolution of our biology and our society.
We don’t have to run from lions, but we’re stuck with the instinct, and the fight-or-flight response doesn’t exactly fly in the boardroom.
Would you slap your boss if you get stressed at work, as Will Smith did on the Oscar nomination this year? Or turn and run?
The trick is how you respond. The way you choose to cope with stress can change how you feel and how it transforms the brain. Stress can become damaging if you react passively or if there is simply no way out.
Chronic stress results from the brain getting locked into the same pattern (See Grand Canyon blog), typically marked by pessimism, fear, and retreat. Active coping moves you out of this territory.
Instincts aside, you do have some control over how stress affects you.
Control is key.
Exercise controls the emotional and physical feelings of stress, and it also works at the cellular level. But how can that be if exercise itself is a form of stress?
The brain activity caused by exercise generates molecular by-products that can damage cells, but under normal circumstances, the repair mechanism leaves cells hardier for future challenges.
Neurons get broken down and built up just like muscles -stressing them makes them more resilient. This is how exercise forces the body-mind system to adapt.
Stress and recovery.
It’s a fundamental paradigm of biology that has powerful and sometimes surprising results.
In the 1980s, the US Department of Energy (DOE) commissioned a study on the health impacts of sustained radiation exposure. They compared two groups of nuclear shipyards workers from Baltimore who had similar jobs except for a single key difference: one group was exposed to deficient radiation levels from material they handled, and the other was not. The DOE tracked the workers between 1980 and 1988, and what they found shocked everyone involved.
Radiation made healthier.
The twenty-eight thousand workers exposed to radiation had a 24 percent lower mortality rate than their thirty-two thousand counterparts who were not exposed to radiation. Somehow, the toxins that everyone assumed and feared were ruining the worker’s health were doing just the opposite. Radiation is stress in that it damages cells, and at high levels, it kills them and can lead to the development of diseases such as cancer. In this case, the radiation dose was apparently low enough that instead of killing the cells of the exposed workers, it made them stronger.
From what we’ve learned about the biology of stress and recovery, stress seems to affect the brain like vaccines on the immune system. It causes brain cells to overcompensate in limited doses and thus gird themselves against future demand. Neuroscientists call this phenomenon stress inoculation.
What’s gotten lost amid all the advice about reducing the stress of modern life is that challenges allow us to strive and grow and learn.
The parallel on the cellular level is that stress sparks brain growth. Assuming that the stress is not too severe and that the neurons are given time to recover, the connections become more robust, and our mental machinery works better.
Stress is not a matter of good or bad – it’s a matter of necessity.
See more next blog