Can stress actually be good for us?

A different view of stress....

"What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger".

"It is only in passing through the furnace, that iron becomes steel."

The New Way of Thinking that will get us to the New World requires that we revisit and reframe our understanding of everything that touches our lives. In my last post I gave the old/new way of looking at stress, as a biochemical event that is modifiable by one's own actions. Now I'd like to propose the radical idea that stress might actually be good for us in an epigenetic sort of way.

Epigenetics? The latest buzz word in medicine is this one, indicating that your genetic material is accessed by environmental influences. It's similar to the way a library full of books is called upon by the public. The library staff in this analogy represent the inner workings of the cell that turns information (books/DNA) into proteins. It is the selection of which proteins to build that commits an embryonic stem cell to become a bone cell or a brain cell and makes them function in a particular way. For instance, the internal messenger system of the body, the hormones and neurotransmitters (adrenaline, serotonin, etc.- the "emotion molecules") turn on and off segments of the DNA code, sending construction teams into the cell cytoplasm, or sometimes flipping a switch to demolish the cell (a process called apoptosis). Production of these messengers is greatly influenced by the emotional response to life of the person - his beliefs and his personality - as much as by the food he habitually eats.

So what does this all have to do with stress? Think of a platoon of recruits. They arrive at boot camp, fresh from school and Mama's cooking. Within weeks, through a carefully orchestrated ballet of unrelenting stress they become trained human Hummers, Army Rangers. Different than they were before, their courage and endurance are legendary. What shuts down is the soft emotional side, buried - if not apoptosed - to history.

Another group of dewey-eyed kids goes instead to college, where the experiences they gain make them verbal, confident and enthusiastic to experience all life has to offer. Stress - exams, relationships, homesickness and failures - assists in this process.

Enough punishing life experience and some people become immune to stress. The attitude arises of detachment, of a "wait and see" approach that causes little internal suffering, despite external circumstances. Here's a favorite story of a Chinese farmer who owned one little horse:

One bright morning the farmer awoke to find his horse had run away. The neighbors clucked sympathetically, "Oh, what bad news!" "Good news, bad news, - time will tell" said the farmer.

The next morning his pretty mare showed up with a magnificent stallion in tow. The neighbors crowed. "What good luck!" "Good luck, bad luck, - time will tell," said the farmer.

He put his son to train the new horse, to make him suitable for plowing. In the process, the son fell off and broke his leg. "Oh, how sad!" said the nosy neighbors. "Good news, bad news - time will tell!" said the patient farmer.

The very next day the Emperor's army swept through the village, conscripting all able bodied young men for the war. The farmer's son, of course, was spared. "Oh how lucky you are" said the neighbors. "Good luck, bad luck - time will tell!" And so on.

Perhaps the stresses our psyches and our bodies suffer are simply the tempering of the steel we are meant to become. Taking all in stride, accepting life's lessons as the natural workings of this Earth School we have volunteered for, is the healthiest way to deal with stress. Stop adding drama to the inevitable ups and downs you experience, and instead just enjoy the ride. Your body will thank you and you'll live a longer, happier life. Maybe that's the purpose of life on Earth School.

Dr. Carol Roberts is the Medical Director of Wellness Works, a holistic medical practice. She co-hosts a radio show on alternative medicine with Rob Lorei every other Monday from 1-2PM on WMNF 88.5FM, Tampa.

Her book, Good Medicine: A Return to Common Sense will be available on Amazon by summer, 2009.