Can Stress Be Good?

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CHICAGO (MainStreet) -- There are plenty of things to get stressed out about: the sluggish economy; the fall in your home's value; the electricity bill that includes a month's worth of air-conditioning.

Contemplating all that, it's easy to get stressed out about how stressed out you are.

We all know stress is bad for you. Medical research has shown that the hormones released by stress weaken the body over time, leaving it ill-equipped to fight off illness and infections. Scientific studies have linked long-term stress to a wide range of medical conditions, including high blood pressure, migraines, depression and obesity.

If you run a small business, a certain amount of stress is unavoidable. The good news is that stress, in reasonable amounts, may actually be good for you. Stress can be the catalyst that propels us into getting things done, providing an adrenaline rush that fuels us forward.

Researchers have found that short-term boosts of stress may strengthen the immune system and protect against Alzheimer's, since challenging situations give the brain cells a workout. A similar phenomenon was seen in another study of stress among expectant mothers: Women who had higher levels of stress hormones while they were pregnant were more likely to give birth to children who later tested as developmentally advanced.

Hans Selye, the doctor who first identified the term "stress" in 1936, defined it as "the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change." The fact that responses are "nonspecific" is important: People react to stress in many different ways. Some people embrace change and thrive under pressure; others fear change and find stressful situations exhausting.

Dr. Paul J. Rosch, president of The American Institute of Stress and clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College, uses the image of a roller coaster to illustrate differing responses to stress. The people sitting in the front of a roller coaster are clearly under a lot of stress: Their hearts race, their stomachs lurch and they scream with each drop. Yet they emerge from the ride invigorated.

Now consider someone in the back who has been dragged along by friends. He or she clutches to the safety rail, muscles clenched, and endures the ride in terrified silence. That person's body had been subjected to the same stressful experience as everyone else, but with very different results.

This example also shows the enormous impact a person's sense of control has on stress levels. Stress is exacerbated -- and becomes more dangerous -- when it's accompanied by powerlessness. A stressful situation that you choose can be a source of inspiration, as is the case for many entrepreneurs. A stressful situation that you have no control over is much more likely to have negative physical consequences.

Given that stress is a reaction to change, the nature of the change matters as well. Moving to a new house is stressful, but it can still be a positive step forward. An international financial meltdown, on the other hand, seems insurmountable and can bring on a paralyzing inaction.

So how do you find the balance between being stressed in a good way and stressed so much that you're risking your health? Duration is one guide: If you're feeling stressed more than 24 hours in a row, you're at risk of weakening your body. Signs that you're pushing yourself too hard include disrupted sleep, grogginess, backaches or headaches. These are all messages your body sends to tell you to slow down.

Business owners should also be alert to signs of stress in their employees. While the economy might dictate that workers put in longer hours or take on more responsibilities, supervisors and managers can mitigate the stress by giving workers some control over how they do their jobs. That might mean allowing them to decide in what order they complete tasks or encouraging them to take on duties that align with their long-term career plans.

The goal, for both owners and employees? To end up stressed in good way.

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