Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

Eustress, I stress, We All Stress- And We Adapt To It

Last Tuesday, I delved into psychological stress and mechanical stress- two very different words that actually come up in my life a lot, but mean somewhat different things.  Today, let's look at adaptation, and how we respond to stress over time.

We all know that there are good stresses that might result in great joys (getting married, buying a home, job project deadlines, collegiate projects, etc) and there are negative stresses (divorce, death, impossible deadlines, health issues, unemployment, etc.).  Hans Selye coined the term, "Eustress" to refer to constructive stress, and used the word "Distress" to refer to negative stress.  (Side note: I think Eustress would be an excellent name for a cat, much like my preferrred Renaissance composer cat names Machaut, Claudio, Josquin, and of course my favorite, Gesualdo)

With these concepts of positive and destructive stress, there are a few variants of a graph tracking peak performance and stress, in which a certain amount of stress is essential for optimal performance, but too much causes breakdown.  This makes sense as musicians, because we've experienced auditions or performances where we've played optimally with a certain amount of stress and most of us have also played poorly under extremely stressful conditions. 

Hans Selye also came up with a theory on how the body responds to stress, known as the General Adaptation Syndrome, which works in three steps (sometimes 4, depending on who is writing about it).

1. Alarm Stage: This is the body's immediate reaction to the stressor, whether it's environmental, internal, external, etc.  This would mean an activation of the nervous system and the fight or flight response, HPA axis for hormonal secretion, and the resultant changes in the body that occur as part of the fight or flight response (pupils dilate, digestion stops/slows, immune response decreased, blood pressure increases, etc.)

2. Resistance: After the initial bodily response to stress, in most cases, the stress will be eradicated and the body will return to homeostasis and activating the parasympathetic nervous system.  In other cases, the stressor will continue and the body begins to adapt to the perpetual stress.  Immune function will begin to weaken and the body will begin to have reduced energy sources for managing the stressor.

3.  Exhaustion: If stress has perpetuated, burnout will occur, putting the body at high risk for many stress related illnesses.  This is an example of chronic stress, and how the body gives outover time.  Symptoms could include high blood pressure issues, digestive issues, IBS, low energy, decreased metabolism, diminished sleep, low athletic performance, etc.  

What does this all mean?  It means that we can be aware of the stressors in our life, how they affects us, and how we respond to them.  Not all stress is negative, but chronic and perpetual stress can be detrimental to the body.  What are the stresses in your life, and how do you respond to them?