Deconstructing the Myth
By Andrea Watson March 12, 2021
Before we begin, I have one thing to say to you. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Remember that.
So, what is stress? Most of us think of it as one category of horrible, bad stuff that can ruin your health and wellness. But that’s not accurate. In fact most stress experienced by humans is called Eustress, which is actually positive. So when we think of stress as the horrible, bad stuff that can ruin our health and wellness, what we’re really thinking of is distress. This is the stuff that gives us ulcers and has cortisol running rampant through our bodies all the time, causing us to become depressed and gain weight and all that other lovely stuff. But eustress is an entirely different thing. A few things that can help you experience eustress are things that you may already enjoy, such as watching a horror movie, riding a roller coaster, going scuba diving, or any other thing that raises your adrenaline and cortisol levels briefly.
What we need to know is that stress is more than a feeling. It actually involves a series of physiological changes when we have adrenaline pumping through our body. These changes are increasing heart rate, bursts of increased cortisol, maybe a little nausea, a feeling of jitteriness, and maybe a couple of other things. These physiological changes are present in both anxiety and enjoyment. It is the perception that we have of these physiological changes that really determines whether we are experiencing distress or eustress.
You see, cortisol is called “the stress hormone”. When it is released into our bodies, then the fight or flight response kicks in. So we assume automatically that it’s a big, bad thing. And that is not entirely inaccurate. The correction that needs to be made is that cortisol does not just correspond to chronic stress. It is true that when we experience chronic elevated levels of cortisol it’s a bad thing. But cortisol in short bursts as when it happens in eustress, is actually beneficial. For example, in small doses, cortisol is a signal to the brain to increase dopamine, which helps with perception and attention among other things.
A little bit of stress helps us to learn, boost memory, and can actually bring us together as people and communities. For example, people are more cooperative, open, and giving while responding to a natural disaster. Eustress most often does not cause long-term changes in cortisol or adrenaline levels, and will not affect our overall health. Moreover, people who use stress for beneficial reasons are less likely to be impacted negatively by adverse life events. In fact, learning the symptoms of stress can lead to a better stress response in the future.
So now we get to the fun part. Darmark and Jalad at Tanagra. Unless you are a fan of Star Trek the Next Generation, I’m just going to guess that you’re asking yourself, “What the hell is this gibberish??” I shall now explain. This is an expression from an alien race called the Tamarians. They speak a language made up entirely of allegory. Their language includes a tale of two Tamarians, one named Darmok and one named Jalad. These individuals one day found themselves together on an island called Tanagra where they had a common foe. Although they didn’t like each other in the beginning, it was through battling that common foe and working together that they developed cooperation, understanding, and eventually when they were on the sea, a lasting friendship.
It’s easy to see how this allegorical story relates to our relationship with stress. At first we don’t like it, but when we come to understand it, and hopefully cooperate with it, then it can actually bring us benefit. Do not shy away from stress. Remember that the most common form of stress is actually positive and can help us if we use it properly. It can improve our mood, our learning ability, our memory, and can make us stronger at the end of the day. As short as this post has been, I hope it was helpful to you. Until next time,