Posted by: B Gourley | February 1, 2012

Is Stress Poisoning You?: Good Stress / Bad Stress

Stress kills! It’s such a pithy adage that it drips with profundity, but is it true? Like many succinct mottos, it oversimplifies a truth. There is a kind of stress that kills, or, more accurately, a kind of response to stress that does. However, there is also a kind of stress that is as essential to life as is exercise. Stress is, after all, just a physiological state and our response to it.

The difference between the stress that leads to disease and depression and the one that makes one stronger and more vital has to do with whether the stress has control over one or one exercises dominion over it. Controlled stress builds confidence, but controlling stress darkens one’s outlook.

The practice of martial arts is full of a form of stress. People are punching, kicking, and swinging sticks at one’s head, after all. However, as one learns to operate within this environment of controlled stress, one builds, for lack of a better term, stress-antibodies just like vaccines result in the production of antibodies through the injection of weakened antigens into the body. Over time, one learns not only how much control one has over the outcome of an event in which someone is attacking one (which is never absolute but always significant), but, at least equally importantly, how much control one has over how one reacts to the situation – whether it goes well or foul.

The greatest source of stress for people tends to be uncertainty. Uncertainty may not get in your face, but rather linger in the background as a quiet but malicious toxin. It is a toxin poisoning one’s outlook, one’s interactions, and one’s health. The problem is that we live in a world of uncertainty. Uncertainty is an inescapable, inexorable, and ubiquitous force. One can either learn to embrace it, or be run over by it like a freight train. I’ve written before about the oft-misunderstood samurai adage on “the way of death.”  Properly understood, the way of death is the ultimate inoculation against stress. If one can learn to accept that one’s death may come at any instant, all other uncertainty is made cheap.

I read once that, besides opposable thumbs and written langauge, one of the factors thought to separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is the fact that a human is the only critter that can achieve the same physiological response from remembering an event as he or she did from the real world experience of said event. That is, remembering hearing the news of the death of someone close may make one as sad as when one actually got that word, or remembering a car crash can make one’s heart beat as fast it did when one was skidding out of control. To have such a detailed memory may be our blessing, but to potentially carry around stress in perpetuity is our corresponding curse. You can bet that the gazelle, having narrowly escaped a cheetah, doesn’t spaz out about it 20 minutes – or 20 years – later.

The secret of defeating stress is recognizing the sneaky little bastard and its effect on one, and also finding some manner of inoculation against it.

The other half of the process is learning to see the effect of stress on others so that one can respond (or not respond) objectively. One might be surprised at how this may result in sympathetic feelings in the face of angry or even arrogant behaviour rather than taking it as an affront. This may sound hippy-dippy, but ultimately it’s about your quality of life (and, besides, if you want to really get an arrogant jack-wagon’s goat, try pitying them – getting angry not only stresses one unnecessarily but may play right into their hands as well).

In essence, one should follow Plato’s advice and, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”



  1. I can totally attest to this; martial arts has helped me deal with these kinds of situations. It will only help me – in the long run – if these situations might arise. Great post and I look forward to reading more from you:)

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