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Research Suggests Some Life Stress Necessary for Survival; Psychiatrist Recommends Finding Right Level of 'Challenge'

Aired April 11, 2000 - 2:32 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, if you own stocks, it's a fairly safe bet you felt plenty of stress in recent weeks. Well, what if you could snap your finger and make that stress go away? You can't, of course, but doctors can in mice. But would you believe you may need some stress in your life in order to have a life?

If you're confused, listen up to CNN's Ann Kellan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANN KELLAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Could we survive in this world without stress? Scientists at San Diego's Salk Institute are studying that, and why, as this popular image from a Web site illustrates, some people cope with stress better then others.

(on camera): This one's another one?

(voice-over): Researcher Kuofen Aoee isolated a stress gene in mice and removed that gene from some.

(on camera): Are they mellow?

KUOFEN AOEE, SALK INSTITUTE: They are mellow.

KELLAN: Real mellow?

AOEE: Real mellow.

KELLAN (voice-over): The mellow mouse without the stress gene is more bold, ventures out and explores the edges of this plank without hesitation, while the normal mouse hunkers down, more stressed and cautious about its new environment.

Less stress sounds good. Turns out the mellow mice have shorter life spans, according to Lee; 20 percent didn't even reach adulthood.

(on camera): They just dropped dead?

AOEE: Dropped dead, yes.

KELLAN: Is that saying that we do need stress in our lives?

AOEE: That's right -- a little bit. KELLAN (voice-over): Without the stress gene, the mellow mice didn't flee from danger and had trouble coping with stressful situations, more reasons for their early demise.

So some stress is necessary, but too much of the rat race is unhealthy as well.

AOEE: When you have stress, you have a lot of stress hormone released. And although stress hormone, while protecting you, but when you have too much stress hormone, it will do harm, you know, to you.

KELLAN: By weakening your immune system, making you more prone to illness.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think stress -- you need the stress for that energy level no matter what.

KELLAN: Aoee hopes by studying mice, scientists will better understand why some people handle stress better than others, how drugs could better help those who don't handle stress well, and how much stress can be too much.

Ann Kellan, CNN, San Diego, California.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: Going to talk more about that. Most of us regard stress as a bad thing to be eliminated from our lives as much as possible. But perhaps we're just thinking about it wrongly and need to find the proper level of stress to be happy and productive.

Well, with us from Washington with his expertise on this is psychiatrist Brian Doyle of Georgetown University.

Dr. Doyle, thank you for being with us.

DR. BRIAN DOYLE, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Thank you.

ALLEN: For those people out there who may not be believers, convince us that good stress is good for us.

DOYLE: Well, I definitely do not want to be a mellow mouse. But the point is, there's another phrase -- there's another word for good stress and that's challenge, and I think that all of us need the right amount of the right kind of challenge in our lives to live our best.

ALLEN: Well, if you've always been somebody that you think has been too challenged, perhaps, too stressed, how do you know if you're living a balanced life if this is the way you've always lived, really stressed out.

DOYLE: Well, then you take the two-part Dr. Doyle stress test. Part one is the question, am I having fun? And if the answer to that is, no, than that's -- you've failed the first part. And the second part is, you ask yourself, how long has it been since I did have fun? And if you generally can't remember, then you've flunked the test entirely.

ALLEN: Well, that's a pretty easy test to take as well.

DOYLE: Right.

ALLEN: You also have made the point that some people just handle stress better than others.

DOYLE: Absolutely -- some people that I call high-voltage, high- stimulus people. In fact, many of them are found in television and the entertainment industry. These are people who thrive on stress. They love the challenge, they get exhilarated by it, they ride it. But too much of it can be a bad thing and too much of it leads to exhaustion, depression and burnout.

ALLEN: And if you get to that point, what should you do?

DOYLE: If you get to that point, first of all, you need to run a reality check with yourself. Secondly, you need to talk to somebody who you care about and who cares about you. Now, if there's nobody who fits that bill, then you're really in big trouble. But if you've talked with somebody you care about, then go to the next level, which is to talk to a counselor. A counselor or a clergy person or your primary care physician are often good first-line people to check with. And if none of those people are particularly helpful or helpful enough, then consult an expert such as a psychiatrist.

ALLEN: What if you're someone that can't handle very much stress -- you have a low tolerance for stress. How should you learn to be able to deal with a little more so you can, perhaps, face more challenges in your life that would be good for you?

DOYLE: Well, I think that there are people who aren't good at handling stress and they need to tailor their lives with that in mind, insofar as possible, to seek situations that are less challenging, less turbulent, less changing all the time. The other thing is that they can build in sort of stress inoculation. They can build in rest, they can build in exercise, they can build in attention to their spiritual and religious lives. All of those things have been shown to help people deal more effectively with stress.

ALLEN: Dr. Doyle, some common-sense help. We thank you so much for joining us today.

DOYLE: You're welcome.

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