By Niku Sedarat
Stress is a mechanism that nearly every individual has encountered at some point in their life. In fact, stress is commonly described as "a common component of our everyday emotional experience" (Gazzaniga and Heatherton, 2003). Given that stress is a shared experience, it's essential to understand its origins and its potential as a beneficial emotion.
Many psychologists argue that stress is not a recent development tied to cultural evolution but, rather, a direct outcome of natural selection, rooted in the concept of survival of the fittest. This perspective is widely embraced because it underlines the notion that stress is a universal mechanism, transcending the constraints of time and culture.
Fascinatingly, when examined through an evolutionary lens, stress emerges as a mechanism that has been advantageous to human beings. For instance, our hunter-gatherer ancestors frequently faced acute, short-term stressors in their natural environment. Whether this stress stemmed from the need to defend oneself against a wild animal or adapt to a sudden environmental change, our ancestors' stress response—the "fight-or-flight" reaction—played a tremendous role in their ability to survive.
As a result, this psychological and physiological attribute encoded in our genes has been passed down to us by our ancestors. If this trait had been inherently harmful, it would have led to the downfall of our ancestors and, consequently, would not have been inherited. Thus, stress remains an integral part of our lives, and it is evident that this stress mechanism was beneficial to our ancestors.
In the modern world, stress is often perceived negatively. However, stress continues to provide benefits that are often unacknowledged. Take, for instance, "eustress," often referred to as "good stress," which challenges the notion that stress is confined to negative experiences. Eustress is the kind of stress triggered when individuals face mild challenges in a healthy and positive way. It is a crucial component of our overall well-being. Eustress is inherently motivating, driving us to work towards our goals and aspirations, ultimately enhancing our life satisfaction. It fosters feelings of fulfillment, achievement, and contentment, all contributing to an elevated sense of emotional well-being. Eustress also bolsters our psychological well-being, enabling us to remain determined and resilient in the face of challenges.
Notably, since mental health and physical health are closely intertwined, eustress also has a positive impact on our physical well-being. For instance, eustress can be experienced after a strenuous workout, motivating us to complete the exercise and ultimately leaving us feeling gratified and content, which positively affects both our mental and physical health.
Undoubtedly, stress is an integral part of everyday life, and often, we have no control over the experiences that induce stress. However, we do possess the ability to manage and reduce the negative kinds of stress, aiming to incorporate more positive stress into our daily lives. Stress need not always be negative, and in the case of eustress, it can be immensely helpful. By pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones, acquiring new skills, engaging in physical activity, or pursuing our goals, we can increase the amount of positive stress we experience.
Gazzaniga, M. S., and Heatherton, T. F. (2003). Psychological Science. Mind, Brain, and Behavior. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.