The rep is that stress is to be avoided. The reality is otherwise. Stress is avidly watched, read, and heard because, contrary to what we think we believe about it, stress is entertaining. Why?
The truth is, stress sells—in movies, books, quiz shows, talent shows, and crime scene dramas. Not always and not for everyone, to be sure, but in vast numbers of book plots, screenplays, TV storylines, in radio plays, and theater plays, stress reigns supreme.
The surface reason is that stressful situations, when they are happening to someone else as in most forms of entertainment, hold our attention. Peaceful, restful, and relaxing situations, when we watch them happening to someone else, generally do not. There is not much fun in reading about someone having a really quiet day when nothing much is happening, but isn’t it great to watch a-thrill-every-second action on the big screen? Indeed, there is a deeper, genetically programmed reason why stress can be fun.
What’s the Fun in Stress?
To understand what’s happening, we must step back and consider the mechanics of stress. When we perceive a threat (a risk, a danger, a challenge), our mind is instantly alerted by the stress reaction that we experience in the body. Most often, this consists of increased heart beat, elevated blood pressure, muscle tension, and a release of excitatory hormones into the blood stream (cortisol, epinephrine, adrenaline), plus a host of other biological changes that very quickly get us ready for action. Now, what is interesting here is that, in addition to mobilizing the body, the excitatory hormones also generate a certain amount of pleasurable sensations. Is this nature’s little joke, or what?
Far from being contradictory, these pleasurable sensations (often referred to as the adrenaline rush) have a very important function: that of ensuring that we become fully engaged in the process by making the stress reaction if not exactly fun, at least bearable enough that we can concentrate on the threat itself. If the stress reaction caused us nothing but distress, this would further jeopardize our chances of mounting an adequate defense against the stressor.
When we read about, hear about or watch a stressful situation, instead of directly experiencing it as principal actors, there is an element of safety, a back-of-the-mind awareness that we are actually in no danger at all—which heightens the pleasure of the adrenaline rush and makes Avatar, American Idol, V, C.S.I., the World Cup soccer matches and even Finding Nemo so much fun. For many of us, this is as far as we are willing to go on the road to being stressed on purpose.
What About Bungee Jumping?
But there is another form of stress that highlights the inherent entertainment and pleasurable aspects of it. For many people, roller-coaster rides, jumping off airplanes, diamond-slope skiing, bungee jumping, and other such adventures are nothing but pure fun. The element of danger in these activities—people do get hurt and worse every now and then, gravity is dangerously defied, and narrow escapes are frequent—simply heightens the pleasurable rush. Against logic, what is commonly thought as to be avoided at all cost, mortal danger, is defied and actively sought. People are willing to and do pay sometimes significant money to be put in dangerous situations. The majority survive the danger and come back for more.
In either case, the limbic system activation that fires up the amygdala and the other centers of emotion of our brain is something we do not look forward to when caused by an unwanted event or situation that threatens our well-being. The key word is unwanted. When we seek to be stressed just for the fun of it, Spielberg, Cameron, Stephen King, Dan Brown, and J. K. Rowling have got the ticket.