We usually think of stress as a bad thing.
Every week, family doctors see patients-anxious, angry, exhausted, burnt out or depressed-asking for a "stress leave" from work.
When we tell people at home or at work that they're causing you a lot of stress, it's not a compliment and we're not asking them to lay on some more.
And we usually think stress as coming from the outside-as if stress is a negative force that attacks your personal peace and prevents you from experiencing lasting happiness.
But stress is a key spice of human life. Like salt, it is essential to our physiology. Just the right sodium concentration in our circulation supports health. Too much can harm our tissues and organs, including our brains.
The incremental stress of additional weight in resistance training improves the tone and strength of our muscles. Challenging our hearts with appropriate cardiovascular exercise conditions our hearts to pump more efficiently.
So stress itself is not the enemy.
The right types of stress in the right doses are essential to your wellbeing. Too much may be harmful.
It is not something to be avoided at all costs. We cannot lock ourselves in and keep it outside.
Sometimes the greatest harm comes from within-the ways in which we manage stress.
Though we each live uniquely different lives, similar circumstances and events in life can affect individuals in different ways.
Our individual response to stress is influenced by infinite factors, including our cultural background and personal history. Those who have met with disappointment and injustice throughout life may feel powerless and overwhelmed by an economic downturn that to another may be just a minor downer in a long series of ups and downs that have been accepted as the nature of life.
In health care, we recognize that people may have a predisposition towards certain conditions when confronted with excessive stress. If you have an addictive personality, you may deal with stress by drinking, gambling, using street drugs or abusing prescription medications.
If you are prone to anxiety, stress may provoke an increase in panic attacks, obsessive thinking, compulsive activity or avoidant behaviour. If you have a tendency towards a mood disorder, stress may trigger an episode of depression or mania.
Workaholics-doctors included-tend to work more when they are under more stress. This creates the unhealthy vicious cycle of increasing stress from excessive work and the neglect of the other important areas of life. Work is good, but too much work is not.
In a hostile or unpredictable world, we may find some relief by choosing our favourite comfort foods. Many of us may react to stress with compulsive eating, and those compulsions usually don't involve a lot of fresh vegetables.
Exercise is one of the healthiest ways to cope with stress. It releases natural endorphins that bring about a sense of wellbeing. No matter how tired or achy I might feel before I jump into a pool, I always feel better within 30 minutes.
However, excessive exercise can be surprisingly unhealthy. The signs include unwanted weight loss, extreme fatigue, and overuse injuries (including tendon and muscle strains). You may actually lose muscle by burning more calories than you consume and not allowing for adequate rest and recovery.
How do you cope with stress? Does it support good health and personal wellbeing? Do your coping strategies create greater stresses or imbalances in your life?
Next week: the principles of effective stress management, including practical lessons from longterm studies.
Dr. Davidicus Wong is a physician and writer. His Healthwise column appears regularly in this paper. You can find his posts at davidicuswong.wordpress.com and listen to his Positive Potential Medicine podcasts at wgrnradio.com.