We can all agree these are stressful times. We are being rocked by political and economic turmoil. Stress is such an enemy, we do what we can to relieve it. We knit and color and take yoga. Some resort to consuming pills and alcohol. 

But what if a certain degree of stress is good for us? That’s the belief of Irish psychologist Ian Robertson. 

In a Tribune article, Robertson claims that job worries, money problems and social difficulties can make our brains work better. He says, “The brain needs to be challenged to be improved.” He tested his theory on subjects in their 70s. Those who had recently suffered stressful events had less memory loss. Moderate stress sharpens our memory, while severe stress impairs it. 

Another example involves people with back pain. Those who had been subjected to stress were better equipped to deal with the pain and become productive again. Those who hadn’t were more likely to rely on painkillers and be slower to resume normal activities. 

As parents, we attempt to protect our kids from stress. We don’t place them in demanding situations, where they may fail. However, kids who haven’t been tested by stress are more likely to become depressed. Sometimes when we’re trying to shield our kids, we’re actually holding them back. Some parents won’t allow their kids to walk to the park. They also have kids ride buses rather than walk the short distance to school. We’re not doing our kids any favor if we don’t toughen them up a bit. 

Speaking of students, I was talking to a college professor, who told me many of her students prefer to learn remotely. They got a taste of this during the pandemic. Now they prefer staying home and learning through Zoom. To me, there’s no substitute for in-person learning. It’s also very tough on teachers to have half their class in-person and the other half on a computer screen. 

As for adults, Robertson recommends relieving stress by setting modest goals. It could be something as simple as taking a walk. He encourages us to rejoice in small accomplishments. There are also some physical exercises we can do. Robertson has clients take five long deep breaths to change their brain chemistry. We can also re-boot our brain by squeezing our right hand for a minute or so.

Just the simple act of standing up straight can relieve our anxiety. Robertson said we can prepare ourselves for stressful situations, by imagining them in advance. If we have to confront a co-worker, we can imagine how uncomfortable it’s going to make us feel. Then, when we’re actually facing the situation, we can use relaxing techniques to cope. 

Can you imagine a life without any stress? Sounds boring, right? A social worker said that if we didn’t have any stress, we’d sit and eat and watch TV. I believe some of us are doing this. However, those of us who are feeling overloaded by stress should find ways to reduce it. Stress causes weight gain, for example, because it slows our metabolism. It can also weaken our immune system. It can kill us, rather than make us stronger. 

The best stress-reliever for me is taking walks. While I’m walking, part of me feels that I should be returning phone calls or listening to music. The other part thinks that walking is entertaining enough and that being alone with my thoughts is a good thing. We’re fortunate to live in a very walkable community and I have many chance encounters with people I know. 

Serendipity beats stress every time.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.