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Rethinking Stress

There are two essential differences between stress and the bubonic plague. The first is that stress generally won’t culminate in a fatal outbreak of festering sores. The second is that stress does not have a known cure.

The plague, in fact, was only one of countless deadly diseases conquered by pre-industrial pathologists. The great medical revolution of the 19th century saw the development of vaccines for cholera, tetanus, diphtheria, and typhoid fever, among a variety of other unpleasant affixations. Man was able to wage modern war against microorganisms long before it he could wage modern war against other men.

Many experts would argue that the scientific community has proven equally successful in the campaign against stress. After all, medications such as Xanax and Valium have been clinically proven to reduce the symptoms of individuals suffering from anxiety disorders.

Look on the back of the little orange vile of pills, however, and you may have second thoughts. Drugs designed to alter the activity of the human brain generally feature some frightening side effects, ranging anywhere from dizziness to aggressive seizures.

Mankind doesn’t want a pill to mask the effects of stress – we want a vaccine to eliminate stress from our lives altogether. We want to be pricked once with a needle and never have to worry about worrying again.

It seems a reasonable expectation that science be able to protect us from ourselves.

That, however, is exactly why stress exists in the top tier of incurable ailments. Anxiety isn’t floating in the air around us. You can’t catch it from a door handle or a sneeze. It can’t be seen under a microscope or on the screen of a computer. It is an inherent component of the human body and mind. Stress is as natural of an emotional reaction as fear, anger, or surprise. And you certainly don’t see anyone trying to cure those.

Modern media has given stress a life of its own. It is the topic of television shows, scientific journals, and blogs. There are stacks of publications at GW’s Himmelfarb Library dedicated solely to the topic. This publicity serves to present the rather standardized conception that stress is the enemy.

I’m not convinced.

If human physiology is capable of producing a certain reaction, it is most likely the case that the reaction exists for a good reason. In times of danger or difficulty, the sensation of stress forces us to reconsider our priorities. It forces us to get to work and accomplish what needs to be done. It serves as a natural blindfold to everything else in our environment that could pose a distraction.

Reviewing my chaotic schedule for the upcoming weekend, I am grateful for my capacity to feel anxious. It reminds me that my homework is more important than partying. It won’t let me get to sleep until I have finished studying for my midterm exams. It gives me the chance to be a good student.

We oftentimes claim not to be able to survive with so much so much stress in our lives. The real question, however, is whether we can survive without it.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 22, 2011 at 2:19 am

    I agree with you that stress can most definitely get a person motivated to focus and do work. I find sometimes when I am really overwhelmed and stressed I will just cry for five minutes and then I will be fine and able to do work. At the same time though, I get really bad headaches when I am stressed and I never sleep as good when I am stressed either because I am so worried about what I am stressed about. I looked up stress on WedMd and found that there are many issues caused or worsened by stress. This includes obesity, asthma, heart disease, headaches, accelerated aging, and other things. I think this is proof that stress is more than just a reaction that can cause people to be more productive. I believe that there needs to be a balance between the good stress and the bad stress. Good stress being the type that gets you motivated to write the paper at 1 a.m. and bad stress being the type that is causing medical issues. Managing stress can be hard but once you find the method that works for you, I definitely agree stress can help a person.

    Here is the link to the WedMd article:

  2. October 22, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    Wow. That is a very good point: we can use stress for our academic purposes. I hadn’t really seen it that way. But I find compelling that such an uneasy feeling can trully help us. I see stress as just a bother, a pain that triggers inside us without us even noticing, something that we do not have control over and something that usually appears in “high-tension” situations or when we have a time pressure or commitment. Therefore, I would say that it is important that we learn how to keep stress aside, but it’s important that we learn how to use it for our own benefits too. It should be a very helpful tool when we consider our academic aspect of life.

  3. October 22, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    As corny as this may sound, music is the best way to get rid of stress, or having a beer… thus “Keep Calm and Have a Beer”.

    Personally, I can’t work on anything that I don’t like to work on unless stress forces me to do it. When I complete a task, for example Essay 2, I feel the stress leave my body.

    I find that I work best when I’m stressed. It might not be good for my health, but definitely good for productivity.

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