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When we talk about stress, we usually mean it negatively. When we are “stressed”, we mostly ask ourselves whether this is the trigger for feelings of illness. However, there are also positive stress, which is called eustress and can promote attention and make the body perform at its best.
Eustress and distress
In psychology, medicine and evolutionary biology, a distinction is made between distress and eustress. "Eu" comes from the Greek and means "good". It is positive and supports the body and the psyche. Disstress, on the other hand, exhausts resilience, weakens us and is negative. However, the two forms cannot be strictly separated because they are based on the same survival mechanism.
Fight or flee
Stress is a state of arousal with which living beings react to unusual situations that require increased attention and require special performance. In such a situation, the brain assumes that our existence is at stake. In the days of hunters and gatherers, we had to hunt down fast, skillful and defensive animals that would have disappeared in the thicket without the greatest of care. At the same time, we sometimes had to protect ourselves from predators by avoiding them or by fighting them. This “hit or run” situation triggers stress in us, since we have to decide within seconds whether we want to fight or flee. Ancestors who could not activate such a state of emergency were selected by evolution, so that they were eaten by lions, for example, or overrun by a herd of bison.
In particular, conflicts between human individuals and human groups set the body's stress chemistry in motion. Again, it was (and still is) a "hit or run" decision - to put it casually, to decide at lightning speed when the point between verbal mobbing and a physical argument was (and is) passed. In the same breath, it was also necessary to decide whether you were up to your opponent or whether it would have been better to run away. Regardless of whether a mother wanted to protect her child from hyenas or a boy tried to assess whether a shadow in the bush came from a saber-toothed tiger or not - the stress mode expired in both situations.
However, the eustress also occurs when a 14-year-old gets nervous while his crush is on the school bus, a mother sees her newborn for the first time, a couple feverishly looks forward to their wedding night, or an author opens the mailbox and the first copy of his novel expected.
What happens when there is stress?
Stress is the mode by which the brain responds to extreme situations so that the body can act faster than usual. It releases neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine within milliseconds. The blood flows into the muscles more, a higher release of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline provide more energy. As a result, digestion is slowed down, blood pressure rises, the heart beats faster, shortness of breath sets in and the pupils dilate.
Positive stress passes
The eustress does not last long, but has a long-term effect. If we temporarily expose ourselves to extreme situations that activate the stress mode, we sleep better, become more psychologically balanced and more active in old age. In other words, it is good for us to suggest danger to our brain, but also to overcome this “danger” so that the hormones that have been brought back to normal levels. As a result, positive stress comes from starting up energy and then discharging it.
Running away and stress relieved
Our ancestors, who lived in the middle of nature, had no problem with this - on the contrary, the stressful state forced you to act physically. In a situation that was perceived as threatening to throw the spear, to run away with full force or to roll away from a stone avalanche, survival was ensured and the stress situation ended immediately. Once the antelope had been shot, the leopard had been chased away, or the baby was safe, the hormones shut down as quickly as they had previously risen. So our brain is waiting for the signal that the danger is averted - the moment when we can take a deep breath. The typical “pooh”, which we should all be familiar with, signals that the stress mode of shortness of breath has ended and our circulation is normalizing again.
Roller coaster and horror films
Even without knowing the biochemical processes, we keep exposing ourselves to such short-term stress reactions again and again: some watch a thriller, others read a horror novel, while third roller coasters ride and fourth run a marathon.
According to Stephen King, horror literature is based on a very simple pattern: there is a monster that threatens people and ultimately kills them. The tension in the story is about whether the monster or the hunted people win. When the monster is dead at the end of the story, we breathe easy and feel good. Children e.g. have a more peaceful sleep when the evil witch dies in the bedtime story, causing the previously increased hormones to return to normal mode.
If we did not find the state of increased tension (of stress) temporarily pleasant, we did not seek it out. The limits differ depending on the individual. While some people cannot stand the suspense of a Saturday night crime thriller, others get bored if a psychological thriller does not skillfully stage feelings of oppression. Some people get weak knees when they only see rides like a “looping track” in the amusement park, whereas others are always looking for the next adrenaline kick - whether it's snowboard somersault, bungee jumping or parachuting.
Both horror films and marathons are positive stress because they are controlled. The threat is fictitious and not real. If the person gets too much, they can simply switch off the television and the marathon can be stopped at any time. The negative stress, on the other hand, is beyond our control as there is nothing we can do about it.
Distress is permanent stress
The stressful situations in the natural environment were mostly short-term, with bullying by fellow species being an exception, since it has similar effects to negative stress. The problem in industrial and post-industrial societies is that the stressors are permanent and never end. We are under stress because we have to do too many tasks in a short time. We have to multitask, instead of thinking through one thought at the same time, at several “weddings” so that we can stay in conversation and get career opportunities.
In contrast to the past, it is not the predator that we fear and that puts us in stress mode. It's the fear of finishing the job so that we can no longer pay our rent. Such situations stress us, our energy consumption increases without us being able to charge it. If a lot of people are now looking for simple "hair-raising solutions", this can be explained with our stress budget. Sometimes we also develop fantasies that calm us down for a moment.
Stress in the imagination
Our hit or run mode in the brain is ancient and the stress arises in layers of the brain that we share with reptiles. One of the abilities of humans, however, is to imagine situations and to go through emotions similar to those in reality just like in reality - in the positive as well as in the negative. We can suffer trauma by hearing about traumatic events alone, we can suffer from memories of experiences that never happened.
We are able to put ourselves in a stress mode through observations and ideas, which can be both positive and negative. Football fans who watch a game on TV or in the stadium are a good example. They experience the entire spectrum of stress without being on the pitch themselves. If a player has a chance to score, the spectator's stress level increases. However, it drops immediately as soon as the player has shot. At the end of the game, the level of everyone, both the players and the spectators, drops - regardless of whether the "own team" has won or lost.
Computer games, especially first-person shooters, are another example of positive stress. They are geared towards the "hit and run" or "hit and hide" situation. With a click of the mouse, the player decides in a split second whether he shoots at opponents who appear in a flash (strikes etc.) or starts the flight. Leaving the player too long for these decisions can mean the end of the player's character.
Shamans, artists, writers and “normal people” know the state of the flow - they merge with their activity, time and space lose their meaning and actions that have previously been difficult to solve are suddenly easy for them. This state is called "Flowing" because actions seem to blend seamlessly.
But what does all this have to do with positive stress? More than you think, because creatives achieve this state especially when they devote themselves to a job that exceeds their abilities or what they can do a little. Routine does not trigger a “flow” any more than an activity that completely overwhelms those affected. Flowing that slightly exceeds the assumed abilities is the same state of stress mode.
If stress means an organism's sensations and responses to stimuli that overwhelm and threaten it in its current state, then the state of flowing, described as happiness, would be the state in which an easy mode of stress is successfully managed. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
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