Stress and “Metastress”

stress

What exactly is stress? Stress is the body’s response to external stimuli – “stressors”. When we are stressed, our heart begins to beat faster, our hair stands on end and we feel a gnawing in the pit of our stomachs. All this is part of a typical fight or flight response mediated by the stress hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine.

We typically think of stress as something bad, but this is not necessarily the case as stress hormones are secreted in response to stimuli (stressors) that are extremely pleasurable as well as those that are painful or frightening. Indeed, as states of extreme excitement and states of extreme fear are physiologically almost indistinguishable, whether we interpret stress as good or bad maybe a largely psychological phenomenon.

Enter the concept of “metastress” – stress about stress. A study published in Health Psychology in 2012 (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3374921/) suggests that the belief that stress is harming one’s health increases the risk of premature death relative to that posed by chronic stress alone. Indeed, those who reported high levels of stress but did not believe that stress impacted their health had an even lower chance of premature death than those who reported no significant stress.

There are plenty of studies linking stress with depression of the immune system and increased risk of diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and a number of other things none of us wish to suffer from. However, it may be that metastress is really to blame in all of these cases. This indicates that our psychological hangup regarding stress may be having a severe physiological impact on our body. This is an intriguing example of psychology influencing physiology; or is it physiology (stress) influencing psychology (metastress) and stimulating it to influence physiology? Physiology and psychology are remarkably hard to tease apart and the two seem to form an ouroboros in their influence on health.

So what’s the answer to this problem? Perhaps it is to accept that stress is a normal part of life and stop stressing about our stress.

Here’s a link to an article discussing the ways in which stress may in fact be beneficial to our health: http://ideas.ted.com/2014/07/16/7-ways-stress-does-your-mind-and-body-good/?utm_campaign=viralheat&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter

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