What If as You Jumped from The Plane You Realized What You Had Was A Knapsack – Not A Parachute?
March 21, 2023 ~ Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner
Approx. read time: 9 Minutes
“Stress is when you wake up screaming and you realize you haven’t fallen asleep yet.” – Anonymous
Starting with the scenario in our headline – admittedly this would be a situation that is genuinely stressful and one that is not likely to impart many benefits – particularly not for very long.
However, is it possible there is a silver lining on the cloud of stress that has taken various forms (not to mention personal pressures) ranging from COVID to the economy – to geopolitical risk – climate catastrophes, etc., etc.? In short, what could be more topical given the gravity of matters and the related insidious stress?
Could adversity be a blessing in disguise?
“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye
Clearly, if one were confronted with the situation referenced in our title it would seem appropriate (dare I say justified) to experience a full-blown anxiety/stress reaction, but related issues come to mind:
- Are there somewhat “lesser” situations where stress could be “beneficial”?
- Are there ways to prepare the body for stressful situations?
Keeping perspective seems all the more challenging in light of overviews such as the following: The science and security board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said – the closest to widespread calamity humanity has ever been judged to be – was “largely, though not exclusively” due to the war in Ukraine. Obviously, this is just one of many factors potentially leading to “widespread calamity”.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened.” – Mark Twain
Perhaps the best starting point for this overview: Is stress really what we (initially) interpret it to be?
Judy Lief (#5) cites examples to illustrate the importance of context and the assessment of stress:
- “For instance, I was told that if you see a butterfly struggling to break out of its cocoon, and you try to ease its struggle by prying open the cocoon for it, that butterfly will emerge in a weakened state and may even die. The butterfly needs the stress of working its way out of the cocoon to build up strength and to dry its wings.”
- “Likewise, a master gardener told me that when you plant a sapling, it is better not to stake it if possible. She said that if the sapling has to secure itself in the wind and weather, it will put down stronger roots and be healthier for it.”
In this context, I also think of the process of neoteny. Neoteny, also called juvenilization, is the delaying or slowing of the physiological, or somatic, development of an organism, typically an animal. Often associated with a lack of stress.
George Everly (#2) provides 3 literary references that provide interesting context (quotes are my add-on):
- “Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt who wrote The Coddling of the American Mind” “Reality is the leading cause of stress for those in touch with it.” – Jane Wagner
- “Hara Estroff Marano who penned A Nation of Wimps—overprotection is the greatest failure a society can commit.” “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James
- “In his last book, Behold the Man, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that a person who has “turned out well” could be recognized by the ability to take advantage and prosper from adversity.” “Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there’.” – Eckart Tolle
Not surprisingly the Buddhists have a perspective that adds additional context to the idea of stress (#4):
- “The Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna describes hope and fear in terms of what are called the eight worldly preoccupations: hope for happiness and fear of suffering; hope for fame and fear of insignificance; hope for praise and fear of blame; and hope for gain and fear of loss.”
- “If our experiences are just what they are, nothing more and nothing less, we can see that they are not out to get us nor are they a confirmation. They are simply the impersonal play of causes and conditions.”
You are better prepared than you think
“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.” – Sydney J. Harris
So often we enter into stressful situations assuming we are as ill-prepared as the scenario in our headline. In fact, there is considerable evidence that we have many more arrows in our quiver (sorry a carryover from the metaphor section) than we anticipate.
In this context, I again draw on a recent article by George Everly (#2). Some of the salient points he raises that seem especially poignant:
- “While it’s wise to protect ourselves and others from the greatest of adversity, overprotection can be harmful.”
- “Stress and adversity can serve as catalysts for the emergence of new opportunities and growth previously unimagined.”
- “To use a sports metaphor, seldom do those who play the game of life not to lose ever really win.”
- “As a muscle grows stronger with stress, so can people, teams, organizations, even communities.”
- “Rahm Emanuel, once noted, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
- “Louis Pasteur observed, “Chance favors the prepared.”
- “Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun (1995) coined the term “posttraumatic growth.”
- “It is manifested in a variety of ways, including an increased appreciation for life in general, more meaningful interpersonal relationships, an increased sense of personal strength, changed priorities, and a richer existential and spiritual life.”
Is it possible there is a silver lining?
“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” – Hans Selye
Looking to the opposite extreme – is it possible that stress is beneficial?
The biological/medical benefits are highlighted in an article by Oshri, et al (#6):
- “Emerging reports suggest that stress may also confer positive neurocognitive effects.”
- “Evidence of a process by which mild stress induces neurocognitive benefits, and the psychosocial context under which benefits are most likely to manifest.”
- “The study found that low to moderate levels of stress improve working memory, the short-term information people use to complete everyday tasks like remembering someone’s phone number or recalling directions on how to get to a specific location.”
- “There is, however, a caveat, the researchers said. The findings are specific for low to moderate stress. Once your stress levels go above moderate levels and become constant, that stress becomes toxic.”
- “Constant high levels of stress can actually change the structure of the brain. It leads to increases in white matter at the expense of gray matter, which is involved in muscle control, decision-making, self-control, emotional regulation, and more.”
- “But there’s less information about the effects of more limited stress,” Oshri said. “Our findings show that low to moderate levels of perceived stress were associated with elevated working memory neural activation, resulting in better mental performance.”
- “Low to moderate stress levels could help individuals build resilience and reduce their risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression and antisocial behaviors. That study also showed that limited bouts of stress can help people learn how to cope in future stressful situations.”
- “It’s possible that you can sustain more stress if you have a supportive community or family.”
Enhancing the likelihood of a positive experience
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” – Mahatma Gandhi
As a mechanism to still further stack the deck in your favor – there are numerous initiatives that can help develop resilience. Among the more popular and given they are well documented I will just reference them:
While this literature is replete, I find the article by Kevin Soong (#7) well done. Some of his salient points confirm:
- “Intentionally stressing our bodies through exercise can make us more resilient to a variety of stressors”
- “Resilience is essentially an emotional muscle, but a growing body of research shows that stressing our physical muscles by exercise is one way to increase our capacity to cope with daily stress.”
- “After three weeks, the scientists checked for markers of a brain chemical called galanin, which is known to increase with exercise and is associated with mental health. (People with variants in galanin-related genes are at higher risk for depression and anxiety disorders.)”
- “As expected, the running mice showed higher levels of galanin. In fact, the more a mouse had run, the more of the brain chemical it had.”
- “Part of his research deals with the neurobiological mechanisms responsible for stress resilience and the neurobiological effects of exercise. The most significant impact that exercise has on brain function is to promote neuroplasticity, Holmes said.”
- “That really just means changeability, literally a building of connections in the brain,” he said. “And one thing that we found that exercise does is it promotes these connections in the prefrontal cortex, which is a critical area for emotion regulation.”
- “Epel calls the short, concentrated bursts of acute stress to our bodies, such as the stress we experience during exercise, “hermetic stress.”
- “Hermetic stress works almost like a vaccine,” Epel writes. “You receive a micro-dose of the ‘virus’ (stress), and then, later, when you face a large, intense similar stressor, you’re essentially inoculated against it.”
In this regard, I reference previous posts:
- What Can Paying Attention to Your Breath Do for You? Mindfulness Impact on Mind-Body-Soul
- TPN vs. DMN – Brain Structure and Mindfulness
- TPN vs. DMN – Neural Mechanisms and Mindfulness
I call your attention to the following research illustrating both exercise and meditation (mindfulness) are more successful “treatments” than medication (#1, #8):
- Study shows meditation can reduce anxiety just as well as medication: What you need to know
- Exercise More Effective Than Medicines to Manage Mental Health
“I’ve tried yoga, but I find stress less boring.” – Anonymous
- Dr. Michael Daignault – Study shows meditation can reduce anxiety just as well as medication: What you need to know
- George S. Everly, Jr. Ph.D., ABPP, FACLP – You Are Psychologically Stronger Than You Think
- George S. Everly, Jr Ph.D., ABPP, FACLP, Amy B. Athey – Leading Beyond Crisis: The Five Virtues of Transformative Resilient Leadership
- David Fletcher, Mustafa Sarkar – A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions
- Judy Lief – The Middle Way of Stress
- Assaf Oshri, Zehua Cui, Max M. Owens, Cory A. Carvalho, Lawrence Sweet – Low-to-moderate level of perceived stress strengthens working memory: Testing the hormesis hypothesis through neural activation
- Kelyn Soong – How exercise can help you build resilience at any age
- University of South Australia – Exercise More Effective Than Medicines to Manage Mental Health
- Ashley Zlatopolsky – 7 Effective Ways to Relieve Stress Quickly, According to Experts