By Richard P. Holm MD
During the summer after my freshman year of high school, my dad found me a job working on a farm, hoping it would teach me the work ethic. I remember hard physical work, long hours of hauling and stacking bales, and profound loneliness while painting farm buildings.
At the time, it was the most stressful experience of my young life, bringing me out of my lackadaisical youth and a tad closer to the world of a responsible adult. I have often referred to that time as the period in my life when I realized the value of hard work. It was a tough summer brought upon me by my dad and a kindly farmer, and I became the better for it. Of course, this was nothing compared to what some farm-kids experience, but I learned that summer stress and hard work could be a good thing.
There are many things that can cause stress: tension, trauma, aging, money pressure, worry, fear, and anxiety from big or only perceived problems. It is a pull-push force exerted on the body resulting in strain, with or without movement. One famous expert, Hans Selye, defined stress in two ways: there is distress, or bad stress; and eustress, or good stress. He found that bad stress results from being forced to face trouble without tools to cope or solve the problem. It is like being broken-down in the field, and you can't get the part to fix it.
A famous Harvard Study starting in 1938, which followed one class of sophomore men for the duration of their lives, discovered cholesterol, IQ, and childhood temperament had nothing to do with healthy aging; while smoking, alcohol abuse, and depression all had major negative effects. Healthy aging was best accomplished and measured, not by money, but by how these men coped with tough times while finding ways to connect with others.
Good stress is facing adversity and finding ways to either solve problems or accept them as unresolvable. Like exercise, it involves movement, and is something we can learn to accept and even enjoy. As Selye put it, good stress makes you stronger, and the opposite is also true: without stress, our muscles, bones, and hearts become weak. Indeed, the trials of life can become good stress if we can learn to deal with adversity. Stress can give us strength, direction, and even purpose.
Whether it is learning to work hard on a farm, dealing with broken down machinery, facing the inconsistencies of Mother Nature, experiencing long lonely hours in isolation, or tolerating cantankerous humans. Stress is part of this life, and coping with it is a skill we can and need to develop.