How much stress is too much?

16 January 2018

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Question

How much stress is too much? I heard some stress is good for you, but how do you know how much is too much?

Answer

Chris Smith put this question to Cambridge University psychiatrist Tom Mole…

Tom - Great question! I like it because stress is kind of talked about in a way where it’s always a bad thing or evil. But, if you’re going to be really scientific about it, and you took away all stress from your life you’d soon realise that you were understimulated, bored, and restless.

So then the question goes well what happens if you’re overstressed? And we’re probably all familiar with that feeling that we’ve got too much on and that we’re perhaps beginning to shutdown and feel a bit too stressed. My answer to that would probably be to find your personal sweet spot. It actually follows this Yerkes Dodson law where a little bit of stress or arousal in scientific terms is helpful, but too much and our performance rapidly goes down and our ability to enjoy life.

In terms of practical solutions I might say that you could probably look out for some of the red flags that you’re getting irritable, or you’re feeling like you can’t cope. But also to ask people around you because it’s often the person themselves can’t always tell if you’re swamped. So maybe find someone you trust: a friend, family, or colleague to report back to you: yes, you’re looking a bit too stressed and to check in with yourself. Obviously there’s health professionals and your GP if you are concerned.

Chris - So a little bit of stress is good. Too much stress and you begin to feel you have not sense of control and that tends to be deleterious to your life. Is that reflected in biochemical measurements we can make make of people? If we measure hormones and so one do we see that played out?

Tom - Exactly. The stress we feel every day has this corresponding hormonal Story that’s happening in the body in the background; cortisol being the main stress hormone. And we know that things like cortisol can prevent certain brain areas from growing and adapting with memory. For example, the prefrontal cortex, that big blob at the front of your brain that helps us with the more complex tasks, and the hippocampus which is involved in memory. It’s not just the stress you feel but it’ll be having an impact on your mind, your brain, your ability to remember things and get on with life.  So yes, it’s really important to get that personal balance.

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