Is Stress Good or Will My Brain Explode?

What if I told you that stress is not a bad thing?

What if I even told you that stress is good?

Okay, you have to understand what I'm talkin' about. Modern lives are so driven by stress that we're all walking around like ticking time bombs. Except for those meditators out there. (But are they even for real?)


It turns out that a little bit of stress is just the ticket to feel good and accomplish a lot of good things.

I'm talking about challenge. I'm talking about excitement. Yes, I'm even talking about...


Consider the deadline. Sure, if you are drowning in too much work and struggling to get it all done when it is expected, that's going to be a problem. More on that later.

But have you ever noticed how much easier it is to get something done when you have a deadline?

I never had a problem writing a sermon every week. Really! Sometimes it was hard. Often, usually, it felt stressful. But every single week, after the reading of the gospel and before the collection plate was passed, I had something to say.

And that felt good. It felt great! It gave me an enormous hit of dopamine, the hormone the brain dishes out to reward us for whatever reward-worthy activity we have just done. To be specific for the brain nerds like me, that would be the substantia nigra (SN) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA) parts of the midbrain.

Blogposts, on the other hand, that's a mixed bag. Used to be, I got one written almost every single week. Check the blog archive at the bottom of the right column. The numbers in parentheses tell you how many posts were published each year.

But weekly was a self-imposed deadline. When something else in my life became more pressing - finishing my book - I gave myself a break from that deadline. And it became harder and harder to get a post written, until the blog was nearly closed down.

In the run up to publication, I felt more urgency, more stress about my online presence. And I got back to the blog.

Post-publication, the stress was gone. And I had time, lots of leisure to do whatever I chose. There was this thing called a pandemic that kept me in the house, after all. But no stress meant no productivity meant no dopamine hit.

I miss that weekly hit that came when I hit the button that says: 

Now, it was hard to publish weekly. It was stressful. But it felt good. So what's going on here?

What is stress, anyway?

Quite simply, stress is the body's response to any demand for change. The demand for change is perceived as a threat. Because - 

Change is bad, right? It activates the hypothalamus and starts a sequence that produces cortisol.

Cortisol is another one of those words, like stress and change, that get a bad rap. Cortisol increases glucose levels, increases heart rate, increases blood flow to the arms and legs. It sharpens your thinking and memory consolidation. It's just the thing to get you out of bed in the morning. It moves you to get your work done and your blogpost written.

Next in line in this cascade of events is the activation of the aforementioned dopaminergic reward system. That's where the shot of feel good comes from when I finish my sermon or publish my blogpost or accomplish whatever activity the stress-induced cortisol got me to do. On a more subtle level, it's also the shot of feel good that we get when we know we are out the door in the morning in time to get to work on time.

What about all those articles that say stress is bad?

So here's the thing. A little bit of stress is good. The hypothalamus leaps into action to help us deal with whatever is coming at us.

But give it a break! When the hypothalamus and its downstream partners never get a chance to stand down, cortisol will bite you in the butt. All those good things that cortisol does will simply flip, dysregulating metabolism, causing weight gain, messing up blood pressure, increasing inflammation from infection-prevention levels to heart-and-brain-damage levels, and zapping memory retrieval.

And that feel good that you get from meeting your deadline? When the deadlines pile on top of each other, when stress becomes unmanageable, then you get the opposite -- depression. 

It's all about balance. It's always about balance. That's the job of the hypothalamus. Not rigid immobility, but balance. Enough stress to make life exciting, productive, and fun. Not so much that we all fall down.


Last week, Julia Mitchell's post presented a number of ideas both for preventing and relieving out of control stress. Because, yeah, that's a thing. And that's not good.

Next week I will continue with a look at anxiety. Not really the same as stress. More mental stuff. See ya then. Because now I have a deadline!

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