Stress: when is it good for you, when is it bad for you?

Stress - Frau versucht an Laptop zu arbeiten, während zwei Kinder hinter ihr wild spielen


Stress and the fight/flight response are often demonised as an annoying remnant of our primitive past, even though stress is a natural part of most of our lives. Andrew Huberman, a neurobiologist at Standford University, clears up the subject of stress in his podcast . Stress and your stress response actually help you to get through your life in a good and healthy way. But stress can also be bad for you. Find out here when stress becomes harmful and what you can do about it.

Stress according to Andrew Huberman

Andres Huberman describes stress as a mismatch between people and their environment. Whether a person's arousal level is "good" or "bad" depends on the context (the environment). If you have a high level of inner arousal and have to complete a task in a focussed manner under time pressure, this is "good" - the context fits. However, if it is bedtime, the high level of arousal is "bad", the context does not fit.

The physiological stress response

From a physiological point of view, the sympathetic nervous system is activated during stress - the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is released through a chain of neurones. In the further course of this chain reaction, this ensures that adrenaline is released to specific organs. Beta receptors at certain sites react to this by causing the vessels to dilate and thus increase blood flow (e.g. muscle groups in the legs). Other receptors in specific areas, on the other hand, contract the blood vessels so that less blood flows there, e.g. in the stomach or throat (this can cause a dry throat and digestive problems during long-term stress). There is also a tendency towards increased motor activity - which, in the worst case scenario, ends in saying or doing things that you later regret.

When the stress response is good

This can depend on both the nature of the stressor and the duration of the stress.

Stressors can be psychological or physical. If you step barefoot on a rusty nail (a physical stressor), the stress response is a wonderful thing. Viruses and bacteria are also fought with the stress response, killer cells and adrenaline are released and help to render invaders harmless. The focus of attention narrows and cognition is sharpened (thanks to the acetylcholine released). The same applies to infections. However, if you get into a verbal conflict with your partner, the stress response is often not helpful. This is because, at best, it should be about mutual understanding, whereby a narrow focus and increased motor activity are not helpful.

When it comes to the duration of stress, Andrew Huberman differentiates between short-term stress, medium-term stress and long-term stress. As a rule of thumb, you can say that short-term stress is not harmful in the long term, medium-term stress is not necessarily harmful either, but long-term stress is. But there are things you can do to deal better with the different types of stress.

Short-term stress

Short-term stress is a good thing (as described above) - in a perfect world, we should have few stress peaks during our day and be able to go to bed and sleep relaxed in the evening. A short-term stress reaction can also be induced voluntarily, for example when you feel a slight scratchy sensation in your throat but don't want to get sick. You don't have to step on a rusty nail to do this - an ice-cold shower, for example, has the same effect. In addition, breathing and heart rate are directly linked, resulting in tools that can both induce a stress response and reduce an existing stress response.

A short-term stress reaction can be induced with the help of our breathing through a certain form of hyperventilation, e.g. the currently popular Wim Hof breathing technique. There is also an exciting study on the subject. There, people were infected with an E. coli virus. Half of the test subjects then used a certain type of hyperventilation to induce a stress response. This group did not develop any symptoms of the virus. However, the group without hyperventilation did (as expected).

If you are currently having a stress reaction but are in a situation in which this is not desired (e.g. in a conflict with your partner), you can deliberately induce what is known as physiological sighing. Animals and humans do it automatically, e.g. when falling asleep or crying. Physiological sighing lowers the heart rate through physiological effects. Here you can see how it works:

For a physiological sigh, you should ideally breathe in fully through your nose once, breathe in through your nose a second time and then slowly breathe out through your mouth. You can repeat this a few times. If you are having a panic attack, you should first empty your lungs completely before using physiological sighing. This slowly lowers your heart rate again, your focus widens again and you feel less motor restlessness or anxiety during a panic attack.

Medium-term stress

According to Andrew Huberman, medium-term stress is anything that lasts between several days and several weeks. Stress becomes unhealthy when we can no longer detach ourselves from it and it repeatedly interferes with our sleep, for example. Things like exercise or a long, long hug with someone you trust or a cold shower, which you can warm up later, can help you wind down in the evening after a stressful day during a stressful time.

Another tool for dealing better with medium-term stress is to raise your stress threshold, e.g. by forcing yourself into stressful situations and then learning to remain calm. This can mean, for example, getting your heart rate up properly through movement and then consciously switching from tunnel vision to a panoramic view (i.e. focussing your visual attention on things on both sides of your external field of vision). This way, stress itself becomes less threatening and you learn to keep a "cool head", even if the context is challenging.

Long-term stress

Long-term stress is the stress that many people mean when they talk about stress as something bad. And rightly so - chronic stress leads to heart disease. And you probably already know most of the things you should be aware of if you are constantly stressed - good sleep routines, healthy eating and sufficient exercise buffer the negative effects of chronic stress.

One thing that Andrew Huberman particularly emphasises (as it tends to be underrated) is social connection. Socialising with people we look forward to, people we trust, or even animals or other things and activities we really enjoy. Laughter. All of these things cause serotonin to be released, which in turn triggers a feeling of well-being. And of course, (social) connections are not entirely within our control and require flexibility, but are also worth the investment. This is because social connections buffer the negative effects of long-term stress and are not only linked to general life satisfaction, but also positively to longevity.

What do you think about stress? Have you found a way to deal with stress in your everyday life? Is there one thing that helps you in particular? Let me know in the comments.


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