We all experience stressors on a daily basis. Big or small they are impossible to evade. We are conditioned to see stress as something to fear, avoid and eliminate, which in turn only amplifies its effect. Guess what? Not all stress is bad! In fact, all stress serves a purpose, and some types of stress are actually healthy and quite beneficial, despite how they might feel.
It's time to reframe stress. Discover the positive side of stress and learn how to make stress your friend rather than the enemy.
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WE ALL KNOW WHAT STRESS FEELS LIKE, BUT WHAT IS IT?
Simply put, stress is our body's physiological reaction to perceived harmful threats, or "stressors," such as fear, worry, the unknown, anticipation, uncertainty, trauma or feeling overwhelmed. This causes a "flight or fight" response, which triggers changes in the body's nervous and endocrine systems to prepare it to react. These changes result in increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. In some cases the stress response can also cause dizziness, muscle tension, tightness/pressure in the chest and gastrointestinal issues.
Another way to define stress is a simple calculation. Stress occurs when the demands of a situation outweigh the resources. We can't always change the demands, however we can build up our resources. Resources include things such as past experiences, knowledge, courage, resiliency, time, money, emotional support, and use of stress management techniques.
Everyone has a unique set of resources, meaning that what triggers one's stress response and how they react is also unique. Something that triggers an overwhelming stress response in one individual may not trigger anything in another. Some individuals thrive under stress while others crumble and are physiologically more sensitive to stress than others.
THE TWO TYPES OF STRESS
1. ACUTE STRESS
Acute stress is the most common type of stress and a normal part of everyday normal living. For example, you might be in a heightened state of arousal when driving in a blizzard, right before a big exam or presentation, during a bear encounter, or in anticipation of trying something new. These are short term, and are often beneficial to our health rather than detrimental. Acute stress helps give us focus, energy and/or motivation. It can help us to be more efficient, and move forward towards our goals. This type of stress also allows us to act quickly in situations that may be dangerous, or if there is a perceived threat. We need it to function. However, if the residual effect of an acute stressor lingers for days or weeks after the threat is gone, or is out of proportion to the event, it is not a healthy stress response and likely something more, such as anxiety (to be covered in another post).
Regardless of the source of the acute stress, or if it is perceived as good or bad, it is important to have a handful of go-to stress management techniques to calm yourself enough to effectively navigate the situation during these acute flight or fight responses.
2. CHRONIC STRESS
Chronic stress, on the other hand, is bad for our health if not managed adquately. The same physiological reaction in the body occurs, however the body stays in a heightened state of arousal indefinitely. The source of chronic stress is commonly related to work, finances, break-up/divorce, health issues or the demands of caring for someone else, however it could be anything. If not managed properly, chronic stress can lead to a number of health implications, including chronic headaches, heart disease, high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, weight gain, memory issues, gastrointestinal disorders, weakened immune system, infertility, skin conditions, depression and anxiety. We can't always change our stressors, however we can change how we respond to and manage them.
IS YOUR CHRONIC STRESS IMPACTING YOUR HEALTH?
Some of the symptoms of chronic stress include depressed mood, anxiety, irritability, anger, general unhappiness, loneliness, withdrawal from others, increased heart rate, chest pain/pressure, gastrointestinal issues, nausea, dizziness, weakened immune system, constant worry, concentration and memory issues, racing thoughts, issues with sleep and reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, alcohol, drugs or binge eating. It may be obvious that you are dealing with chronic stress and it is taking a toll on your health, however, if you have been dealing with chronic stress for a while you may have adapted to living with some of these symptoms. The good news? It doesn't have to be that way!
LEARN TO EFFECTIVELY REDUCE AND/OR MANAGE YOUR CHRONIC STRESS
Pinpoint what is causing your stress. Common causes of chronic stress include financial strain, work, divorce/break-up and health, however it could be anything.
Determine if you can REDUCE the stress in any way. Sometimes a simple shift in mindset or small change can take a big dent out of your stress. This could include any of the following.
Putting less pressure on yourself
Taking a step back to analyze, process and/or problem solve the situation/stressor
Viewing the stressor as a challenge to overcome versus a threat
Asking for help
Developing, modifying and/or optimizing routines
Getting and staying organized
Lowering your expectations
Setting realistic goals
Making your health and happiness a priority
Stress related to financial strain: Make a budget, curb spending, use a financial planner, find a credit counsellor, learn to be happy with what you have.
Work related stress: Be clear on what your expectations are, develop routines to improve efficiency, get or stay organized (at home and work), take your breaks, do something that benefits your health during your breaks (such as walk outside, gym etc.), lower your expectations (realize your expectations may be much higher than what is actually expected of you), communicate with your employer, prioritize tasks, set realistic goals, seek alternate employment if it will make you happier and healthier.
Caregiver burnout: Ask for help, look into options for respite, take breaks, make time for yourself, develop routines, stay organized, join a support group.
Stress related to a divorce or break-up: Stay connected socially, join a support group, focus on the future vs. dwelling on the past, declutter, focus on an existing interest or develop new ones, don't neglect your self-care.
Learn to MANAGE your stress. Not all stress can be reduced or eliminated, and that's okay. Stress itself is not a bad thing. It is how we respond to it, and an inability to effectively manage it that can turn it into something deadly. There are hundreds of effective ways to mange stress. Everyone is different. Read the post STRESS MANAGEMENT 101- A SIMPLE GUIDE TO MANAGING STRESS to develop a toolkit of stress management strategies that work for you.
Make it happen! Wanting to make changes can be a lot different than actually making changes. Once you know what needs to change, commit to it. For help making your goals a reality, check out the Goal Setting Page, and/or subscribe for 2 free goal setting worksheets.
A LIFE WITHOUT STRESS
This sounds great...in theory. But as you now know, stress is a beneficial physiological response and can be a catalyst for positive change. Without stress we would get eaten by the bear, drive without caution or care, work at McDonalds our entire life, miss work deadlines, constantly be late, never try new things, and quite possibly lack a life purpose. Not to say we need ALL the stress, but without some stress we wouldn't be motivated to solve the problems that trigger the stress in the first place, putting us in further debt, deeper depression, dangerous situations or getting us fired.
Stress will get the better of you if you FEAR IT, DREAD IT, LET IT BUILD and DO NOTHING ABOUT IT. Stress that is embraced and managed adequately is not harmful to our health, and is often times helpful.