Stress has many definitions, so it is neither a scientific nor an exact term. Although we tend to automatically think stress is bad, a moment’s thought shows that’s not true. For example, to stay in shape physically, we have to stress our muscles, lungs and heart through exercise. Anything complex – buildings, bridges and our bodies – actually relies on stress to create and maintain structure and strength.
Emotional stress is often harder for us to see positively. Popular culture advises us that stress is “toxic,” therefore we should avoid anything stressful. Imagine if everybody truly had that attitude. No one would be willing to serve in public safety or the military. Venture capitalists would have no startups to invest in. People would stop having children. Exploration would come to a halt. Mountains would remain unclimbed.
Here’s the good news – stress doesn’t have to be bad for you. Your attitude toward it makes all the difference. The healthiest people in the United States report that they have high stress, but they don’t regard it as toxic. They look at it as their brains and bodies rising to a challenge, learning and growing. On the other hand, stress is indeed toxic if you think it is, resulting in more then 20,000 premature deaths per year in the United States. For more on this research, see Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality.
Any kind of change produces some level of stress. Life events that we categorize as losses, such as the death of a loved one, clearly take a toll on us. We don’t tend to view positive events, such as graduating from college or getting a great new job, as stressors, but they certainly are. They include losses – you can’t take all of your old friends and goals with you through a big life change.
Rather than avoiding stress – which often isn’t a choice – we can balance stress through habits and actions that avoid isolation and build connections. Three kinds of connections seem to make a difference: our relationships with others, the natural world and the divine.