Stress: Friend or Foe?

  • Published
  • By Col. James S. Moeller
  • 55th Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander
 High operations tempo is the normal state of affairs in today's Air Force. Certainly, very few people at Offutt would disagree with this. Add to this the normal schedule of inspections, ceremonies and the almost daily changes in the way we do our business, and most of us feel stress.

Stress is defined as a force that tends to cause change upon the object to which it is applied. Is stress good or bad? It depends on whether the object upon which it is trying to exert change is improved or worsened by the stress.

In medicine, Starling's Law explains how the strength of the heart muscle contraction is related to stress. According to this law, strength of contraction initially increases with stretching of the muscle until it reaches a peak then begins to rapidly decrease.

When we start to exercise, the increased blood flow returning to the heart fills the heart chambers more fully and stretches the muscle. This stretching stress causes increased strength of contraction with the next heartbeat. As a result, more blood is pumped more forcefully and cardiac output increases.

As the heart works for further blood return and increased stretching, it pumps even harder. This continues up to the point at which the muscle becomes overstretched. With further stretching, it becomes weaker. Then heart failure occurs.

As stress is applied to us, we similarly perform better. With more stress we increase our performance. This stress may not always be comfortable. But let's face it: without the stress of a test at the end of a course, would you really study very hard and end up learning as much? The problem occurs when we become overstressed. At that point, we begin to perform poorer as the stress increases.

In medicine, we recognize that too much physical, mental or emotional stress can cause disease. How much is too much differs for each person and depends on the state of health of that person at a particular time. A certain amount of stress applied to a bone or muscle over time can cause it to become stronger. Apply too much stress and the bone may break, or the muscle may tear. How much stress will cause this harmful effect depends on the strength of the body at that specific time.

Stressful events cause us to grow and develop mentally and emotionally the same way physical exercise develops our bodies. Not all stress is bad.

So as leaders and supervisors, how do we judge whether our people are under too much stress? Quantifying stress is not easily accomplished, but we can all measure performance in some way. One of the best ways to measure stress is to observe the performance of those we lead. When performance begins to degrade with increased stress, we need to begin looking for ways to decrease the stress. The right amount of stress can keep us performing at our peak.

Stress may not always be comfortable, but trying to totally eliminate stress is not beneficial. A certain amount is necessary to grow, learn, and mature.