Doesn’t it seem like the word “stress” comes up much too often in your everyday life?
The last year and a half have been particularly stressful, and National Stress Awareness Day is coming up on November 3 to remind us that it can be harmful if not properly managed.
But first, let’s dive into what stress is. Surprisingly, there is good stress in our lives and bad stress!
Let’s start with good stress:
Good stress is called eustress. The dictionary defines it as “moderate or normal psychological stress interpreted as beneficial for the experiencer.” Hard to believe, but think of it this way: eustress can be getting married, the excitement of a roller-coaster, starting a new job - a lot of “firsts” involve eustress. It is actually the stress that keeps us happy and healthy - and keeps life exciting!
The interesting thing about eustress is that something that may be seen as a threat to one person can be seen as a challenge to someone else. One person’s stress is another person’s eustress! Isn’t it incredible how the mind and perspective can have such a huge impact on our stress levels? A job interview is almost always stressful, but if you look at it as a challenge, it may give you greater life experience, regardless of the outcome. This can ultimately help you better manage your stress.
After eustress comes acute stress.
Acute stress can be a psychological response to a terrifying, traumatic, or surprising experience. But, it can also be stress that is momentary or short-term like the stress of meeting a deadline or having to slam on the brakes suddenly when driving. It causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle, with the stress hormone adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Acute stress is something we all experience - and kind of often. I mean, let’s face it, stress is part of life. This kind of stress can be good because sometimes stress is our body’s way of protecting itself from harm.
A recent study from UC Berkeley explains how acute stress – short-lived, not chronic – primes the brain for improved performance. According to Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, “You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it’s not. Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.”
The flip side of that is prolonged stress, when the elevated levels of stress hormones can have an incredibly negative effect on the body, such as increasing the risk of chronic obesity, heart disease, and depression.
What causes it? Prolonged stress can certainly be brought on by a traumatic event in life or dealing with a protracted traumatic event like the illness of a loved one. However, often prolonged stress is the reaction to dealing with the everyday stresses of family, work, bills, challenging relationships, and many other things that life throws at us! This is the stress that is important to recognize and get under control.
Chronic stress affects nearly every system in your body.
It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process.
How do you know if you are dealing with prolonged stress, other than physical ones?
Prolonged stress can bring on depression, anxiety, insomnia, anger, and irritability. It can leave you feeling unmotivated and overwhelmed, and even cause memory and concentration problems.
Physically, stress can manifest itself in many different ways - maybe through chest pain, or a racing heart. It often leads to exhaustion, trouble sleeping, headaches, dizziness or shaking, jaw clenching, stomach and digestive issues, and more.
So, we know that stress is a part of life. The question is, what can we do about it?
The good news is we all have the power to manage our stress levels. Start with these steps, and you are on your way to better stress management!
1. Develop coping skills for stress and anxiety.
Many people find great relief in finding a yoga or meditation practice. Not only do they promote mental relaxation but they physically relieve tension and can help to alleviate stress-induced pain. If you struggle with committing to a yoga or meditation practice, the benefit of an endorphin inducing walk or run outside does wonders to clear the mind and lower stress levels, and anyone can do it!
2. Identify and let go of the things you cannot change.
This is a much larger task than it seems, but really examining what is causing you stress and asking yourself whether or not something needs to cause stress or can be accepted as part of life is a powerful tool. There are many ways to retrain the mind through things such as cognitive restructuring toreshape thought patterns to deal better with stress and anxiety. Don’t isolate yourself, and check in with good friends that you can share your problems with. Often turning to a professional for help is the best option.
3. Adopt healthy habits to combat the effects of stress in our bodies.
Healthy habits go a long way when dealing with stress.
Exercising regularly is one of the best ways to relax your body and mind. If aches and pains are keeping you from doing this, try a wrist or back brace, compression sleeves, or ankle and wrist wraps to help.
Deep breathing is powerful for stress reduction. It’s as simple as this: Breathe in through your nose. Let your belly fill with air. Breathe out through your mouth. A straightforward way to tell your nervous system to calm down.
Getting at least 7 hours of sleep is really imperative to restore the body. A lack of sleep can raise stressful cortisol levels. Create a calm and soothing sleep environment, and make it a priority in your life.
Eating healthy is a great mood regulator, and we all know it makes us feel better. Getting the right amount of minerals, fiber, and nutrients keeps our bodies in balance. Up the fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein for more energy.
Take some time this National Stress Day to check in with your body. Think about the little - and big - things you can do to change the stress levels in your life and the impact they have on your body. Every little change matters!