We are far too afraid of stress

She walked the dog, as she did every morning, and the word “sentence” kept running through her mind. It was just a tour of the Montreal neighborhood, where she lives and works, as a stress researcher at the university. She had just received word from a scientific journal that her latest research had been approved for publication. Great, great, it would soon be read by many colleagues – on to the next research.

But what was the point of it? How meaningful what it all was what she did? How could her parents, her children, her neighbors benefit from all this knowledge about stress she’d accumulated in her career? “That morning I knew I wanted to reach a bigger audience,” Sonia Lupien says on the phone—the power went out in Montreal, her laptop isn’t charged, and she only has this one hour for an interview. ‘In recent years, the general public has always been given the message: stress is bad, stress is harmful, stress can cause depression or burnout. But that’s only part of the truth; I knew as a scientist that stress is about the best thing that has happened to us as humanity. So I had a message. And I wanted to go on the farm with that.’

That was the beginning of the Center for Studies on Human Stress that Lupien founded, a knowledge center within the university to which she is affiliated. Goal: to make scientific knowledge about stress accessible to a wide audience. With the same intent, she wrote the popular science Well Stressed, Manage Stress Before it Gets Toxic (originally titled For the Love of Stress, as if to emphasize: just embrace it). And she will also announce her message on the stage of the Concertgebouw next month when she is in Amsterdam for De Anatomische Les, the annual lecture that de Volkskrant together with the Amsterdam UMC. Stress drags us through the day, through life, she will argue – without stress we would not have been here for a long time.

‘Just think: cortisol, with adrenaline our main stress hormone, has its peak in the morning, when you wake up. That is not so for nothing. You wouldn’t even start the day without it.’

Fight or flight, the general public knows that by now: that is what a stress response is for.

‘Exactly, the brain is designed to detect danger. If a mammoth is in front of you, the hypothalamus in the brain sends a signal to the adrenal glands. These will produce extra stress hormones, especially cortisol and adrenaline, giving you the energy to fight or run away. The heart rate goes up, digestion slows down – it’s a stunning system, necessary for survival.

‘Stress hormones also influence memory and emotion regulation in our brain. That makes sense in itself; fear and anger are useful in order to be able to respond adequately to danger, but memory is also vital. That place where you met that mammoth, you’ll stay away from that place from now on. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing on February 4, 2016?’

‘See! And that was five years ago. A violent event is imprinted in your memory, which is also part of that wonderful system. However, that system is ancient and aimed at acute stress. Once the mammoth was defeated, the entire tribe had to eat for weeks and a period of rest followed. If that is not the case and the stress becomes chronic, as is the case with many people in our current time, yes, then it becomes harmful.’

What consequences does that have for body and mind?

‘There is now plenty of evidence that chronic stress is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and a less well-functioning immune system. But we don’t know exactly how and with whom. The risks are greatest for people who already had an increased risk of these complaints, so it is a kind of domino effect.

‘In the brain, memory is affected by prolonged overstimulation. That is why people with a burnout, for example, are less able to remember things and concentrate less well. Furthermore, anxiety, panic, gloom and depression are long-term consequences. For people with chronic stress, the glass is always half empty at some point. And that also has an effect on the memory, it is a vicious circle. If you ask people with chronic stress to memorize a word list, they can remember words like ‘cemetery’ and ‘death’ and not the neutral words like ‘house’, ‘dog’ and ‘clothes’.’

Why do some people suffer from stress more than others

I am always asked that question. For a long time I thought: apparently there are no universal stressors, one freaks out in a situation in which the other remains completely calm. But there is certainly something to be said about stress factors, because I have concluded that there are four characteristics that always and for everyone are at the root of stress.’ She sums up: ‘The situation is new. The situation is unexpected or unpredictable. The situation threatens your ego and you feel a sense of loss of control. Take a moment to think about what stresses you out. Invariably at least one of these four characteristics plays a role.’

don’t go NUTS is the onliner she uses for it in English, from Novelity, Unpredictability, Threat to Ego and Sense of Control. And it’s not for nothing that she came up with that mnemonic: that sticks with the general public and it immediately provides tools for learning to deal with stress.

‘Suppose you have an argument with your partner and the steam comes out of your ears. Then it helps to deconstruct the situation in such a way that you understand what causes the most stress for you. Was it new, that quarrel? No, because the same conflict keeps coming back. Unpredictable? No, neither. Threatening your ego, did you feel attacked, cornered? Yes very much. And you had no control over the situation? Also that. Once you have that sorted out, your stress level will already decrease and you can start thinking about a plan B, to regain control of the matter. For example, you decide to write your partner a letter as long as talking always ends in an argument. The interesting thing is, 85 percent of people never do plan B, but it does help a lot to come up with it. If you are working on solutions in your head, namely, you will not be dragged along by the situation. You get the feeling that you are in control yourself. And that is crucial to be able to deal with stress.’

Does this work for everyone? Because my question remains: aren’t there big differences in stress sensitivity?

‘That’s right, and these appear to be largely related to how a person thinks about stress. The more afraid you are of it, the more it bothers you. I call it the stress mindset: your beliefs about stress influence the way you deal with it. This mechanism is very powerful, as shown by a study among two groups of students who took an exam. One group was told: this may be stressful, but you need that stress, it helps you perform better. The other group was not told. The first group scored better on the exam, while also producing more stress hormones. But that turned out not to be a negative at all. In fact, the researchers conclude that the stress hormone level cannot be too high for optimal performance.’

‘That mindset is currently the main theme in stress research: there are more and more studies showing how it influences your sensitivity to stress. That’s why I think it’s so important to convince people that stress isn’t necessarily bad. Ask top athletes; each of them will tell you that they need stress to perform optimally. The stress story has been nothing but negative in recent years. There are even journalists who won’t interview me if I’m not willing to insist on how damaging stress is; depression, burnout, that story. But that has done a lot of harm, because it has made our mindset collectively one of fear of stress.

‘While we desperately need our stress hormones to function properly. This allows us to kill the mammoth – or take an exam, give a speech, organize a good party, intervene when someone needs help, perform a difficult operation, you name it. None of this will come to fruition without a healthy dose of stress.’

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