Stress is the immune system for our mental health

We mostly understand stress as something negative, something that we should avoid at all cost, something that is often time used in the same sentence with burnout. And in our small talk with friends and colleagues it is on of our favorite topics we enjoy dishing about. By now, stress-bashing has not only become accepted, but maybe even socially desirable. I think it’s time to strike a blow for stress for a change:

The stress response is a marvelous achievement of our evolution!

I would even go so far as to say that the evolution of a stress reponse is the best thing that could have happened to our mental health. And with this I am walking on thin ice, because stress-bashing is also the order of the day in scientific circles – with the argument that our “fight-or-flight” reaction which once was evolutionary adaptive in times of saber-tooth tigers, but no is longer appropriate in today’s hot desk jungles with dangerous paper tigers.

Stress and stress response

However, if we no longer had such an effective stress response, not only would there be exponentially more traffic accidents in the street jungle, we would also no longer be able to perform many of our everyday tasks in work, private life or leisure. Because this is what stress is there for: To provide the focus and energy needed to master challenges – at short notice and in a highly efficient and effective manner. The problem only arises when we call up our stress response too often without allowing sufficient regeneration in between.

Immune system

What is the difference to the immune system for our physical health? When a pathogen has to be warded off, our immune system also demands rest, and we tend to grant that wish. And we are grateful if our immune system manages to save us from or overcome the impending cold. Do we then complain about our immune system for responding to pathogens?!
Our stress response is the perfect equivalent: The biological reaction (mainly of the HPA axis) to stressors in our environment – the ‘psychological’ pathogens of our environment, so to speak. The response of this stress immune system gives our body the strength to work harder, and our brain the necessary focus, attention, energy and speed to cope with the stressor.

The better system?

Now here’s something interesting: Stress is not an objective or standardized response, but only arises from the subjective assessment of stressors in our environment. The Lazarus stress model assumes two levels of assessment, of which the second and more important one can be fundamentally changed. (The first stage actually has to do with saber-tooth tigers, but can also be partially influenced.)

By re-evaluating stressors, we can train our stress immune system to react less – e.g. if we know that we can cope with a signal interpreted as stressor well, also without a full stress response. Try that with your (physical) immune system! You can get vaccinated or try desensitization against certain diseases, but not as efficiently as with your stress response. In addition, the required regeneration phase after a normal stress response (estimated around 4 hours) is significantly quicker than the time it takes your immune system to cope with pathogens and get fit again.

Mental health

And here’s one aspect that is highlighted far too seldom: What would be the impact on our mental health if we could no longer master many of the challenges of our everyday lives due to a lack of a proper stress response? What fatal effects would it have on our identity to realize that in some situations we can no longer help ourselves? Learned helplessness can quickly lead to depression; worrying about unmanageable stressors would additionally fuel our fears.

Depression and anxiety disorders are already the two most common mental illnesses today. I am convinced that – if e.g. any virus would suddenly make our stress response less effective – we would see a massive increase in mental illness.

Seen that way, our stress response is an immune system for our mental health and provides the very basis for a fulfilling life.

Malfunctions

Of course, our immune system for mental health can also fail. Just as we can overwhelm our ’normal’ immune system through not enough regeneration or too many risk factors, we can also overwhelm our stress response. For both immune systems, the golden rules apply: sufficient rest & sleep, exercise (preferably in nature), and healthy nutrition. Plus the good advice to minimize risk factors…

And similar to an autoimmune disease, our stress system can also become unhinged and start to turn on itself e.g. through chronically excessive cortisol levels. There’s even a term for it: Burnout.

The good stress

But stress isn’t bad by itself. Quite the contrary, too little stress can actually be just as harmful as too much stress; too little stress makes us lethargic, less resilient and vulnerable.

An ideal level of stress activates us and makes us efficient; to develop, learn and grow (mentally and physically) – the basis for any human development and social progress.

Hans Seyle even differentiated between a ‘good’ stress or Eustress and a ‘bad’ stress or Distress. The relationship between the two is U-shaped. An optimal stress level does not activate us too much and not too little.

Relationship between stress level and activation
Our stress response is solid – we just have to learn to deal with it

I think we should stop demonizing stress, and instead be thankful that there are stressors in our environment that activate us and enable us to master challenges and grow through our stress response, which today is as evolutionary adaptive as ever.

However, if we begin to slide into a vicious circle with repeatedly too little regeneration after a stress response before the next stressor reaches us, we should take countermeasures: Through active stress management, through training our stress assessment and through active regeneration. 

If you’d like to know how to manage stress based on latest insights from research, proven techniques and many practical tips, we’ve launched and online class (currently in German only – but stay tuned for translations). If you’re interested, you can have a look at the course here:

If on the other hand your stress level is currently at an already optimally activated level, I would like to invite you to a small experiment: Start the next small talk with your colleagues or friends with the sentence: “I have really good stress”. You will see that this can lead to quite interesting conversations …

If you have questions or thoughts on this, we look forward to comments below this article or a message through our contact form.

Sources and further literature:

  • Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology87(1), 49.
  • Foley, P., & Kirschbaum, C. (2010). Human hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis responses to acute psychosocial stress in laboratory settings. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35, 91–96.
  • Lazarus, R. (1991).  Emotion and Adaptation. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
  • Selye, H. (1976). Stress without Distress. In G. Serban (Ed.), Psychopathology of Human Adaptation (pp. 137–146). Boston, MA: Springer US.