Zen is not my middle name. I apply obligation and pressure the way other people apply sunscreen—until it seeps through my pores. Then, my stress alarms start swirling like the red light on a police car: You’re late. The fridge is empty. The deadline was yesterday. Even on Sunday, when I lie, sarcophagus-like, under a pile of restful newspapers, at the back of my noggin I see the glow of the red light. My brain just won’t shut off to give me a blinking break from feeling like the cartoon character with her finger in an electrical socket, frazzled up to my fractured eyeballs. For once, I’d like to know just what all the stress is about. Why do our bodies churn like angry turbines? Is stress just some antiquated throwback we don’t need? Is its internal commotion helping or hurting us? Is it something we have no control over— or can we harness it, parceling it out only when we need its motivating force? I’m on a mission to answer these questions.
Stress, THE GOOD GUY
So, what exactly is this monster called stress that keeps me up at night and driven by day? For starters, it’s not a monster—or at least it’s not trying to be. Stress, in the short term, is my defender, says Gabor Maté, M.D., a physician in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection (Wiley). “Acute stress is simply a necessary self-protective mechanism—the body’s fight or- flight response,” he says. “An emotion like fear may trigger the response, but it’s a physiological reaction that you may or may not be aware of.” This fight-or-flight response was at its best for our forebears facing hungry lions. A stress episode then was a short—albeit complicated—burst, revving up every body system to win a battle or get away. My forebear’s brain—in particular the frontal cortex, the brain’s executive center—sent a red alert to the hypothalamus, the hormonal control center, triggering a flood of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. “The cortisol elevates blood sugar levels, mobilizing energy for a quick escape,” says Maté. “The adrenaline provides more energy to fight.” At the same time, this cocktail of stress hormones prompts the heart to quadruple the amount of blood it pumps, from about 5 quarts to 20 quarts a minute, providing more energy. But the blood travels a different route, away from the skin, gut and kidneys to the muscles, so that energy can be used to fight or flee. Blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rates increase, the airways dilate, and the liver starts converting glycogen—the raw material of our body’s fuel—into glucose, or blood sugar, again for power to battle or retreat. In modern times, of course, we’re not confronting hungry animals. But our bodies react exactly the same way, say, if a car swerves into our lane or our child slips off the seesaw. Our entire body mobilizes to turn away from the feckless car or catch the falling child.
However, despite these crucial—sometimes lifesaving—benefits of stress, most of us obsess about it like we do the bad neighbor we can’t get rid of. And so do the media, either telling us constantly how stressed out we are or giving us something else to stress about. “Every ad I see is for some illness or disability in the body and spirits,” says Judith Orloff, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life (Three Rivers Press). “The media program us to be stressed out and sick.”