Stress: Friend or Foe?

Stress: Friend or Foe?

By Susan Finley, Ed.D., NCC

 “Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.” – Paracelsus

Imagine yourself staring down a hungry saber-tooth tiger. Your natural reaction would be: (a) try to escape or (b) defend yourself. In dangerous situations, we instinctively react by positioning our mind and body for fast action. Heightened stress experienced in the face of a harmful event, attack, or threat to survival is not only healthy, it is necessary for our basic survival. When there is a threat to survival, a discharge of the sympathetic nervous system prepares the person with a burst of energy to either stay and fight or flee to safety.

Walter Bradford Cannon’s theory of “fight or flight,” (also referred to as acute stress response) states that the way the body reacts to a threat is physiologically similar to how it handles stress. When under stress, the adrenal medulla produces a flow of hormones resulting in the secretion of catecholamine, especially norepinephrine and epinephrine. Whether your stress is a reaction to actual danger or “perceived danger” determines the extent to which it is healthy stress.


Having the ability to recognize a real threat is a healthy survival tool; if there were no internal warning signs of danger, the person would surely get eaten by the tiger. When there is a misperceived threat, however, our body puts us in the exact same state of hyper-vigilance. This hypervigilance keeps the mind and body in constant awareness of one’s surroundings, using all 5 senses to excess.

Unhealthy stress levels occur when fear is so high, an individual is walking around experiencing life in “fight or flight” even though the situation causing them distress is not life-threatening. For some people, especially those who have a history of trauma, their stress response is working in overtime. Individuals who experience life in a continuous state of hyperarousal reacting to unrealistic perceived stress as described above will benefit from seeking outside help to learn grounding techniques, coping skills, as well as the use of mindfulness as a part of their daily health routine. Under realistically perceived levels of stress, a healthy surge of adrenaline helps us to perform at our best.


Adrenaline is a hormone secreted by the adrenal gland that gets the body going and gives the rush of confidence in one’s ability to tackle life’s stressful situations. Adrenaline also increases rates of blood circulation, breathing, and carbohydrate metabolism preparing muscles for exertion. An athlete performs at their peak under the optimal level of stress.

Having no stress may sound like an ideal existence; but lack of stress leads to complacency, boredom, or no effort altogether. There is no high in that! Think of the advanced chemist who fails an introductory chemistry class simply because she is “dying of boredom.”


So what is an “ideal” level of stress? Greek philosophy argues the benefit of experiencing “all things in moderation.” Stress can be your best friend or worst enemy. The word moderation literally means the process of eliminating or lessening extremes. Embracing healthy stress levels will assist in having the confidence to ask your boss for that promotion, score the winning goal, or give a beautiful speech at your best friend’s wedding.


Stress is actually the catalyst for forward momentum. When we find ourselves in a place of discomfort, or our old solution to stress no longer works, we either continue down the same dark path or make a change. Getting help for addiction is no different. It takes courage to make a change, and stress gives us the boost we need to face our fears of the unknown. Looking at stress as your friend will change your whole outlook when taking on something new and unfamiliar.


Susan Finley, Ed.D., NCC is an educator, published researcher, and social media consultant for therapists. She is a National Certified Counselor (NCC), Board Certified-TeleMental Health Provider (BC-TMH), and Suicide Prevention Instructor (QPR) under the National Board for Certified Counselors.


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Call Passages Addiction Treatment Centers today if you or a loved one is battling an addiction to drugs and alcohol. Our admissions department is available 24/7 and can be reached directly by calling our toll-free number at (888) 397-0112. We look forward to speaking with you soon.

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