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Bad Stress Good Stress

Wouldn't it be great if life was free from difficulties? Or would it?

In his early sci-fi novel 'The Time Machine', HG Wells imagines a future race - the Eloi - that appear to have exceptionally pleasant, easy lives. The time traveler, however, also finds that the Eloi lack intellectual or physical strength and display an absence of curiosity. Wells is making the point that without the experience of challenge, our human character and skills may not have the opportunity to fully develop. As the story unfolds, it turns out that life is not as ideal for the vulnerable Eloi as it had first appeared to be.

Stress gets a bad press most of the time, but it's worth remembering that we all need a degree of challenge to keep us engaged with life. How we view potential stress factors makes a difference. Approaching a demanding situation as a positive challenge can be satisfying and even enjoyable. Indeed, we can observe for ourselves that the body-sensations arising when something is 'scary' - or 'exciting' - are very similar: the difference is how we frame the experience in our own mind.

Daniela Kaufer, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, distinguishes 'distress' - harmful stress - from 'eustress' ('eu' comes from Ancient Greek, meaning 'good' or 'well').* Eustress keeps us alive and interested, helping us overcome fresh challenges and in the process, develop new understanding and qualities. Moving a few steps out of our comfort zone stops us from becoming bored and increases confidence. Without some stress, it is impossible to develop resilience or equip ourselves for whatever further challenges await us.

Seeking support from others is another key factor in handling difficult situations positively. According to Kaufer, rats in a situation of eustress are seen to snuggle together and share resources, producing extra oxytocin, the 'happiness hormone'. Conventional wisdom reminds us that 'a problem shared is a problem halved'. Meeting challenges alongside others can be a wonderfully bonding experience. Reacting to difficulties by withdrawing from others, in contrast, is associated with 'distress'.

Challenges in the external world are not the only difficulties that we can learn to approach with a different attitude. Becoming aware of unwanted emotions such as anxiety or resentment, without trying to get rid of them, is a skill we learn on mindfulness courses. Accepting the presence of our negative emotions might seem counter-intuitive, but in practice can be the most effective response. Have you ever tried to get rid of a feeling of worry, anger or despair, only to find that it just got stronger? Accepting the presence of difficult emotions with curiosity may not be easy to do, but in my experience unpleasant feelings often dissipate more rapidly when they are 'allowed' than when they are pushed away. It's important to do this in a spirit of kindness towards ourselves.

The image of a pristine lotus growing out of the mud and slime at the bottom of the pool is a classic symbol for compassion in Eastern traditions. No mud; no beautiful flower. No struggles; no compassion. Could our difficulties sometimes be ‘friends’ in disguise?

*Guardian article: 'Under pressure: how stress can change our lives for the better' Amy Fleming Mon 18 Nov 2019

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