We all know what it feels like to be stressed. For most of us, it is a hallmark of our daily lives. While the word has very negative connotations, stress can actually drive us forward. That surge of adrenaline we get when tackling something out of our comfort zone helps us to achieve our goals. The challenge is managing stress so that it helps rather than hinders us.
In our lives we move between brief periods of ‘fight or flight’ and longer periods of ‘rest and digest’. These are governed by the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in our system, and all sorts of things can trigger them. Obviously, these days we are very rarely in mortal peril, so more often than not stress is triggered by simpler things in our lives; our job, our relationships, and our ability to achieve our goals.
What is good stress?
Known as eustress by psychologists, good stress gets us off the couch and helps us get things done. It is a driving force in our life: that feeling of getting excited by a new challenge, a scary ride, or the burgeoning phase of a new relationship. By definition eustress comes in waves, meaning you will have brief periods of it followed by a sense of accomplishment and relaxation. These brief periods of stress have been found to be beneficial to our health in that they can improve cognitive function and protect us from some effects of aging. (i)
It is when stress moves from being acute and short term to chronic and longer term that it becomes harmful to our health and well-being.
When good stress turns bad
Bad stress develops when we have no breaks from the stress in our lives. Rather than motivating you, this type of chronic stress can leave you depressive and unable to cope with the problems in your life. If we do not have adequate lengths of ‘rest and digest’, the resulting excess of cortisol in our system and depleted adrenals can leave us at risk of longer term health problems such as high blood pressure, insomnia, cardiac arrest, diabetes and depression.
Is there such thing as too little stress?
Indeed there is. People without a heathy level of stress in their lives can end up feeling unmotivated, directionless and passive. We all need a bit of excitement in our lives to feel like life has meaning, and a dearth of healthy stress can lead us into a rut.
So how do we maintain a healthy level?
Given that our adrenal systems that respond to stress are built to handle a sprint not a marathon, it’s important that we relax and recharge in between stressful events.
A common cause of long term stress is a perceived disconnect between a situation and our resources to deal with it. Often if we are in periods of distress it might mean some of our circumstances need to change. If you’re under the pump at work, you may need time off or a distraction in the form of a hobby.
Changing the way we perceive the obstacles in our lives is also an important step towards maintaining a healthy amount of stress. Instead of seeing obstacles as insurmountable, reframe them as short term challenges to be overcome, and equip yourself with the tools to do this.
Another tool that has been proven to combat stress is mindfulness, as when we are faced with only our immediate concerns we are able to function in a rational and calm manner. When we live in dread of future outcomes or regretting past mistakes eustress becomes distress.
We shouldn’t be afraid of stress. In short bursts it helps us to get things done and realise our dreams. We need to find ways to manage and get respite from constant, unrelenting stress. These tools are harder to put in place once you are already in a place of extreme anxiety, so why not start thinking about it today? It might just make a huge difference to your long term wellbeing.