Micro-stress and Macro-stress: Use your environment to your advantage!
What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of stress?
The defining characteristic of the first thought that enters into the minds of most is likely negative. Let’s face it: Society harps on the impact of negative stress in our lives.
But there is another side to the stress coin!
There is a such thing as positive stress, also known as eustress. Eustress is any stress that provides an immediate, positive state. For example, exercise releases all types of endorphins and hormones that give us great physical and mental pleasure. Some consider exercise to be "euphoric", which is a term that originates from the term eustress. By contrast, standing in front of a 10,000-person audience to give a speech for the first time, or stressing over what’s going to happen the next day at work brings about a different feeling. This is a feeling of negative stress - also known as distress. In summary, this is the basic, overall concept that most people have of positive and negative stress.
I want to challenge you to think of stress in a slightly different, more realsitic way.
Our first term is micro-stress. Micro-stress is the smaller, sometimes unnoticed stress that occurs over time (in most cases, you don’t even take notice that it's a stress). There are positive micro-stresses and negative microstresses. An example of negative micro-stress would be an ant bite or say, being stuck in 5 o'clock traffic with a 5:30 meeting that's (according to siri) situated 40 minutes away. A positive example of micro-stress is experiencing a 2-month old baby finally falling asleep at 2 o'clock in the morning.
Our second term, macro-stress, is the larger, more noticeable stresses that occur in our lives. Needless to say, these stress are quite obvious. A positive example of macro-stress would be a 1-hour bout of exercise and the feelings one gets afterwards ("I can conquer the world!"). A negative example of macro-stress would be, say, fracturing a leg, or having a heated argument with someone in a bar that lasts for quite some time.
Now, in both micro-stress and macrostress, there are positive and negative scenarios. However, the type of stress that negatively impacts most people in today’s society isn’t the stress from the argument with the guy in the bar. It's not the macrostress. It’s the micro-stress. It’s the rages of fit (those that spike your blood pressure) during 5 o'clock traffic. It's the constant sedentary behavior on the couch after a long day of work. Why are the microstresses so bad?
Unfortunately, microstress accumulates over time, and becomes something that starts to parasitically deteriorate the body on a micro level, most of which goes unnoticed until the later stages in life. Don’t believe me? Just google the number one cause of death in the United States among middle-aged and older adults. It's heart disease! But it's not like the heart simply decided it wanted to stop pumping blood in the most efficient way possible. Instead, silently, the heart’s efficiency is reduced from the years and years of constant micro-stress. In the research world, we call this allostatic load - the chronic wear and tear suffered by your body as a result of chronic, negative micro-stress. Fortunately, we have a choice as to whether most of the micro and macro-stress we incur is positive or negative. But in those cases where we do not have choice, we still have the privilege of deciding how we respond to the micro and macro-stress - or how we respond to the guy in the bar, or the woman who just cut you off in traffic.
Most people know about some of the side-effects of negative stress, but here are a few that you may not have heard of:
The receptors in your arteries (specifically, in the vessels that supply your body with nutrients and oxygen) become less responsive over time, meaning that the next time your blood pressure increases, it remains elevated longer.
The immune system is less efficient in fighting off infections.
The stress hormon cortisol, remains in the blood stream for longer periods of time. Trust me, that's not a good thing...
On the other hand, consider some of the positive benefits of the right kinds of macro and micro-stress:
1. Your brain develops more of the elements and chemicals needed to grow and enhance itself (example: brain-derived neutrophic factor, aka BDNF)
2. It becomes easier to lose fat mass and/or gain muscle mass.
As a matter of fact, how you decide to manage your micro-stress has a LOT to do with how your body manages your total body mass, how your body reacts to certain types of foods when you consume them, and ultimately, how beneficial a bout of exercise is for you!
Nature is Good At Managing Stress
The physiological makeup of a plant is amazing. Plants are a lot like humans. The need nutrients to survive. But they thrive using the energy in the environment. They also thrive *best* around other plants. But, the amazing thing about plants is their ability to use environmental stress (environment, herbivors, etc) to their advantage. This is known as hormesis. In other words, a little dose of negative stress has the potential to go a long way in helping the plant maintain survival in harsh environments. But notice, in the midst of negaitve stress, a plant doesn't change it's environment. Instead, the plant changes its internal structure, and develops something called phytochemicals (or compounds that help it fight). As humans, we actually consume phystochemicals, which defend us from the negative effects of free radicals (compounds produced during human metabolism that can cause cancer and other life-threatening conditions). In terms of the plant, this is what we as humans must do. We must use stress to our advantage. We can change our external environment as much as we want. But if we do not change our internal makeup, all the people, coaches, fitness books, videos, and exercise equipment in the world won't help us lose weight, eat right, and/or get fit.
Think about your microstresses and macrostresses. Think about how you react and respond to them. I challenge you to make most of them all work in your favor the next time they come around. For those of you who deal with traffic daily: smile and be thankful that the woman who cut you off in traffic didn’t make you flip your car over in a ditch!