Is stress really harmful?

It is Sunday night. You’re sitting at home on your couch after a relaxing weekend with your friends and family. For some reason, you’re dreading the next day. In general, you enjoy your work and your weekday life. But for some reason, you can’t shake this angst about what the week is going to bring, and it’s really made your mood a lot worse. What you’re feeling is stress, and you’re probably wondering, is stress really harmful? Should I be concerned about this feeling?

Stress: What is it, and is stress really harmful?

Before diving into the question of is stress really harmful, let’s begin with an understanding of what stress is. According to the Cleveland Clinic, stress is simply your body’s response to a change or adjustment in your environment. Your body has to deal with the changes happening, and it releases cortisol as you adjust to the new reality. This is also your
“fight or flight” response.

does it hurt me?

Technically, cortisol release and stress do not cause detrimental affects on your health – at least, not right away.

The issue really comes when you are constantly under stress, without any relief. Looking at this from a fitness perspective, imagine the following two scenarios. In the first scenario, you are the classic, over-worked mom. You rush around in the morning to get an early workout in. Then you run back home, get your kids packed and ready for school, get them on the bus, then rush to your own job. By the time you get to your work, you’re already feeling the stress from buzzing around. Then you get a new (and way too fast) deadline dropped on you. This pattern continues week after week. Eventually, you simply wear out. You get sick, and are forced to rest for a few days.

Here’s another scenario. You’re a recent college graduate in a new city starting your first job. You want to have a successful career, and tell yourself you don’t have time to focus on your fitness. However, you’re really just in training at work right now, so you have plenty of time to explore your new home. You head out to the new restaurants and bars most nights, and definitely drink a few too many. After a couple of months you notice the fit body you kept in college has definitely started to go away. You’re looking a little like melted ice cream. You’re not full of energy like you were in the past, and at your yearly check in with the doctor, he warned about your rising blood pressure.

How does stress impact these stories?

When we ask is stress really harmful, we have to have some context for understanding how stress can impact us. Looking at the scenarios above, the working mom is obviously over-stressed. She never gets a rest between the outside stimulus. Conversely, the recent college graduate has become so stress-averse it has negatively impacted their health. The stress reducing drinks may feel good mentally – but they’re doing no favors to this college grad’s health.

So, what’s the answer? Is stress really harmful? Turns out, it depends.

is stress really harmful

healthy and unhealthy responses to stress

Like most things, stress is a classic case of too much of a good thing becomes bad. In order to grow and improve, we have to put ourselves into stressful situations. We improve our fitness when we workout, exert our muscles, and then grow. In our careers, we have to look for the newest ways to grow our skills, take on new projects, and maybe attend continuing education courses in order to continually improve.

However, if all our working out is done without any rest days, de-load weeks, or recovery activities, we’ll overtrain and at worst injure ourselves, at best quit because we’re simply exhausted. Similarly, imagine if you didn’t have a couple days per week off from work. You’d burn out on your job, become frustrated with your co-workers, and most likely begin looking for another place to work.

You have to take into consideration how much stress you’re putting into your life. Finding a balance between over-stressed and under-stimulated is important. As is developing a set of activities to help you manage your stress is a healthy way. Things such as journaling, meditation, and epsom salt baths are all ways to stimulate recovery, and give your mind a break. Interestingly, sitting in front of the TV is not. It is about giving your mind a second to relax. To unwind and be bored for a moment. In our on-demand world, that’s a rare thing, and something we should seek.

So…what’s the answer?

There is recent research which indicates how you perceive stress plays a big role in whether or not it is harmful to your body. If you’re seeing the stressors in your life as just that, stressors, you’re potentially creating a harmful stress response which can be linked to things such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and even cancer. However, if you see stressors as a chance to grow, a challenge to be conquered and learned from, then stress is actually aiding you. Turns out your mindset indicates the answer to the question of if stress is really harmful or not. So, what’s your stress response? Are you making it your enemy, or your ally?