The Neuroscience of HappYness - Part 6 Good Stress, or EUSTRESS! (Part B):
(Saturday, 18th May 2019)
Reading time: Approximately 5 minutes (1054 words)
The word “eustress” is the combination of two words – “eu” meaning good, and “stress” – so eustress simply means “Good stress.” And here it would be very useful to remember what Shakespeare mentions in Hamlet: 'tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it's all what a person thinks about it." Nothing is inherently good nor bad and any such classification is entirely subjective and depends on multiple factors. So, anything that happens in one’s life, can be considered something that is useful, is the surmise. That one might not know “how to” change their perspective is absolutely true. And so, it is the responsibility of those who know, to share the “how to” and help these processes constantly evolve for the greatest good. This article is one such attempt at sharing some knowledge that MIGHT be useful. And this is by no means the last word on the subject.
Back to the subject of “eustress,” when the heart pumps blood, it NEEDS to experience stress - of the muscle expanding and contracting. Any muscle that expands and contracts, experiences stress. Does that, therefore, mean that the heart ought to stop beating and pumping blood? Not at all - that would be counter-productive to living life, will it not? Similarly, when we exercise to ensure good health, the muscles need to contract and expand rhythmically – leading to “growth” of the muscle. The muscle grows because when exercised for the first time, the muscle expands and gets torn apart. And in the periods of rest between exercising, the body heals the torn portion by growing new cells and filling up the places where the muscles are torn. Without this constant stress of tearing and mending, muscle growth, fitness and health might not be possible at all. So, the process of exercising is actually creating eustress. And therefore it is not surprising that exercising leads to the secretion of biochemical substances within the body that enhance and ensure that the person “feels good” – physically, mentally and emotionally.
The stress that the heart (which is also a muscle) experiences is definitely “eustress.” It is also true that the greatest majority, if not all, of humans are not consciously aware of the functioning of the internal organs that sustain “life.” Nature and evolution have contributed much in making our bodies what they are, and all of the learning has been to ensure the continued existence of the species. Experiencing distress and considering it as eustress has made human beings, arguably, the predominant species on the planet. And how is that so?
“Necessity is the mother of invention” is the oft mentioned phrase. When necessities are not fulfilled, it causes stress – and sparks off the basic primal survival instinct. Humans from 100,000 years ago would have lived in a very different environment than today. And the “stresses” they experienced and grew beyond makes us what and who we are today. When such stress is experienced initially, it creates an internal condition that is not very comfortable. However this uncomfortable feeling is the very impetus for one to grow and become better. And over time, with constant focus and practice, this stress gets handled and the species makes progress. Every time there is stress, it also means that there is a “challenge.”
Challenges are very useful to everyone. There are challenges and challenges – and how one approaches the challenges in their life makes all the difference as to whether the stress caused by the challenge is distress or eustress. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the very popular book “Flow,” explains that the beautiful state of “flow” lies between anxiety and boredom. Very simply stated the flow state mostly occurs for everyone dependent on their level of skill and the challenge they have to face up to.
Let’s take a very simple example from cricket (If that is not your game, substitute appropriately, from any game or activity that makes you feel involved in it.) If we were playing cricket with 5 year olds, chances are that there is really no challenge – and one would be in the box titled “Relaxation” in the diagram. One’s skills would be far higher than the challenge. However, if one were asked to play with the current champion bowler in the world, say Jasprit Bumrah or Dale Steyn, chances are that one would be in a state that they are really “distressed” – and in the box titled “Anxiety.” In this situation, one’s skills are woefully under-equipped to handle the level of challenge posed. However, if one were to play a game with those who are slightly better than themselves, chances are that they would be engaged and hopeful of winning even. This is likely to be when they are in the box titled “Flow” – where level of skill and challenge intercept. The more one focuses on and develops skills, they keep expanding their level of expertise and moving up the learning curve. Any such challenge creates the appropriate balance in the internal biochemical environment that keeps people engaged and growing. The key therefore is to learn to develop the skills needed to handle the challenges in life. Of course, in life, one might not be able to develop all the skills needed themselves in many cases, and in those circumstances to have the maturity to ask for and take help from those who have the skills and expertise.
In summary, when one feels distressed, it is most useful to practice the SILSA (referred in the article of 11th May 2019) and set oneself up to be in the most appropriate frame of mind to handle the conditions that caused one to be distressed. And then to adopt a clear thinking approach that helps put things in perspective and convert the situation into a challenge, and go about developing the skills needed to grow. This way, almost all stress can be converted into eustress. PS. Some of the articles following might touch upon some of the ways in which this could be done.
For Cheenu’s version of Mihaly Csikszentmihayli’s “Flow” diagram, you could find it here: https://www.happynesscoaching.com/gallery?lightbox=dataItem-jvsvqq1a