By Heather L. Dyson
Your alarm didn’t go off. There’s an accident on the road and traffic is back up for hours. Your mother has to have surgery. The dog destroyed your brand-new running shoes. That project at work seems never ending and the deadline is too soon, all at the same time. Dinner got burned (again). And here comes another existential crisis, right on schedule.
Sound familiar? Your blood pressure may have even gone up a tick or two just reading about these potential stressors. There are many facets of life that are prone to potential stress, and these factors often cause a very strong, emotional reaction that we struggle to control or may not be aware of at all. For most people, they have become accustomed to the stress in their life and continue to allow this burden to grow heavier and heavier. While it may sound resilient to carry this weight every day, chronic stress can wreak havoc on both our short-term and long-term health and happiness. Getting in touch with stress and how we deal with it is critical for finding inner peace and preventing the onset of many chronic health conditions. So what is stress and how can we manage it? Let's take a look.
It is important to first understand that there are two types of stress: eustress and distress. Eustress is associated more with good stress, and challenges our body in a positive way and encourages us to adapt to stressors, which actually makes us stronger both physically and mentally (1). With eustress, the nervous system alerts the body of potential danger and initiates the fight-or-flight response that allows us to quickly react and stay safe. Eustress is inherently designed as a self-defense mechanism, and in small doses it does not cause physical or mental harm. On the contrary, it actually promotes us to adapt and perform better, with our body adapting through vigorous exercise, stimulating intellectual tasks, or even thrills like roller coasters.
Distress is associated more with bad stress, and causes emotional suffering brought on by stressors that are challenging to cope with, whether big or small (1). It is actually the same physiological response as eustress, but is prolonged over a period of time where this chemical reaction can become quite harmful to the body and mind. Being exposed to acute stress for too long aggravates and wears down the body, leading to many potential negative side effects. For many, distress manifests in the form of fatigue, anxiety, or depression and can develop into a range of physical health issues.
With stress, there is a critical point where eustress shifts to distress and the beneficial effects are lost. This is called the Yerkes-Dodson law, which states that stress can actually improve mental and physical performance up to a point before becoming detrimental (2). This is the difference between acute or short-term stress and chronic or long-term stress. When someone experiences bouts of stress that are ongoing, their body simply cannot adapt and the uncontrolled stress will begin to put strain on many physiological systems, including digestion, heart health, and immunity. As much as 70-90% of illnesses and diseases are linked to stress, whether directly or indirectly, which means high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, GI problems, and even cancer can be tied in some way to chronic stress.
Life certainly isn’t going to have less stressors, so how can we have less stress and minimize these potential health risks? Implementing a stress management plan is an important and often overlooked element of many people’s lives that can make a huge difference in coping with and reducing chronic stress. The most important step is to identify your stressors and use the Four A’s to decide how you will need to approach them (3).
Avoid: You take control of your surroundings and avoid situations or things that cause you stress.
Alter: You change situations that you find stressful by openly communicating, managing time, and changing behaviors.
Accept: You understand the things that cannot be changed or avoided and use positive self-talk and relaxation techniques to cope.
Adapt: You change your expectations and thinking about a situation or stressful occurrence and consider the positives in the big picture.
By understanding your stressors, you can determine how much control you have over them and begin to change how you interact with them. Many things in life are not within our control, but we always have a choice of how we want to deal with these stressors to live our best, most peaceful lives. With these unavoidable stressors, mindfulness and breathing techniques prove the most effective in minimizing the amount of stress you experience and often allows you to detach from it emotionally, even just for a little while. Mindfulness involves connecting with yourself and the present moment so you can quiet the mental chatter. To practice mindfulness, find a quiet place to comfortably sit and begin focusing on your breath. Pesky thoughts are sure to intrude during this time, but in this practice, you simply allow them to come and go without judgment and return your attention to your breath.
Stress is going to be an ever-present obstacle throughout life, but if you take the time to develop strategies to cope with it, you will be able to achieve greater peace, happiness, and health. If you feel you are struggling with mental health issues or chronic health conditions caused by stress, always take the time to speak with a medical professional such as a psychologist or physician so you can get the help you need to properly care for yourself. Check back soon for health coaching with STAC!
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