One of the questions I ask people on the first visit is “Why do you think this is happening?” and most commonly the answer to why they think their body is showing signs and symptoms is Stress. Through magazines, news and everyday conversation, we have been told stress is negative, it causes our body to break down. But is that always true?
Is some stress beneficial? Stress is used in physical training to build strength, when a muscle is stressed with exercise it will rebuild stronger than before to meet increased demands. Another measureable benefit is improved immune response after a temporary stress, like exercising or test taking.
In this article, you will find a wonderful chart describing the biological differences between short term and long term stress.
In the past I have avoided events because I thought they would be stressful, but if the event was only short term I may have missed an opportunity to build my ability to handle future stress.
Another aspect of mitigating stress is social support. In a recent TED talk, Sebastian Junger talks about the protective benefits of community in veterans returning from war, noting PTSD rates in countries that have mandatory military service is drastically lower than in countries where service is volunteered. When it is mandatory you have shared experiences of those who have done it before you.
“And maybe what determines the rate of long-term PTSD isn’t what happened out there, but the kind of society you come back to. And maybe if you come back to a close, cohesive, tribal society, you can get over trauma pretty quickly. And if you come back to an alienating, modern society, you might remain traumatized your entire life.”
What are the main points to take away? We don’t need to avoid events that cause temporary stress, those are the ones that make us stronger. If we find ourselves “trapped” in long term stress, find support, having another person who has had similar experience makes one feel less isolated and more supported emotionally which provides measurable improvements in short and long term immune system function.